How could I not love Annette Funicello? Funicello died Monday, 8 April 2013, at age 70 in Bakersfield, California. While you might associate her with Southern California beaches, her last years were spent on an inland ranch with her harness racing horse owner/breeder husband Glen Holt.
Funicello was not a native Californian; she was born in New York state, but Walt Disney saw her in a 1955 when she was performing the role of the Swan Queen in a recital at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank. From “Swan Lake,” she became one of the original Mickey Mouse Club Mouseketeers. You can rent “The Best of the Mickey Mouse Club” DVD from Netflix.
Having been born and raised in San Diego, I remembers days when attendance would be low in school and high at the beach. Surf was up and many of the swim team and divers would take off for the beach to hang out or hang ten. I wasn’t there, even on senior ditch day. I was too square, too grade-conscious and too much under my mother’s watchful eyes, but that’s a totally different story.
That relative good-girl innocence I had is echoed in Annette Funicello’s character in her post-Mickey Mouse Club role as Dolores, the love interest of Frankie (Frankie Avalon). But I think I got my love of fringe and dance costumes from the dance sequences featuring Candy Johnson.
Funicello was told by her mentor Walt Disney not to show her belly button. We do get to see it but considering her cleavage, her bathing suits are very modest.
“Beach Party”: This 1963 movie was the first beach party movie and introduced Frankie and Dolores. Frankie has rented a beach cottage, hoping to seduce Dolores ut Dolores has invited their whole gang. It’s a pajama party at night and a beach party by day. A cultural anthropologist (Bob Cummings) is studying the behavior and rituals of teenagers on the beach. Dolores develops a crush on the scientist who is able to use pre-Mr. Spock techniques to neutralize biker touch guy wanna-be Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck). Music by Dick Dale as well as Annette and Frankie. “Beach Party” is streaming until 1 May 2013 on Netflix. It is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
“Muscle Beach Party” (1964): “Muscle Beach” is available to stream on Amazon.com. Frankie and Dee Dee get their gang together and find that muscle builders (led by their coach who is played by Don Rickles) have taken over their favorite surfing spot (Paradise Cove in Malibu). Then Frankie gets distracted by an Italian countess (Luciana Paluzzi) who says she’ll make him a star. Isn’t that usually a Hollywood producer? The movie features Dick Dale and the Del-Tones and a 13-year-old Little Stevie Wonder. This movie is available on Amazon.com for instant streaming.
“Bikini Beach” (1964): It’s summer yet again and Frankie and Dee Dee are at the beach, but their beloved beach is threatened by a rich dude Harvey Huntington Honeywagon III (Keenan Wynn) who wants to turn the beach into a retirement home. That sounds more like the pricey La Jolla, not Malibu. Honeywagon has a chimp who surfs, drives and dances a mean watusi. This time, it’s Dee Dee decides to flirt with a British rocker and drag racer, Potato Bug (also played by Avalon). This movie is available as a double feature on Amazon Instant video (with “Beach Party”).
“Pajama Party” (1964): This movie is Funicello without Avalon (well almost), but it does have a beach. A martian (Tommy Kirk) lands on earth and is taken in by a quirky widow (Elsa Lanchester) who sends him off to the beach where her nephew (Jody McCrea) and his girlfriend Connie (Funicello) spend their days. Eric Von Zipper is plotting revenge against the beach gang while a sinister villain, J. Sinister Hulk (Jesse White) wants to steal the widow’s money. Connie falls for the alien and her boyfriend gets friendly with the sexy Helga (Bobbi Shaw) who is part of the villain’s gang. Features an appearance by Buster Keaton. “Pajama Party” is streaming on Netflix until 1 May 2013. The movie is also available on Amazon.com for instant streaming.
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965): Frankie is back and Dee Dee has to fight off a singer, Sugar Kane (Linda Evans). Sugar Kane has an agent (Paul Lynde) and a stunt double Bonnie (Deborah Walley). Bonnie wants to make her boyfriend Steve (John Ashley) jealous. Both Frankie and Dee Dee take up sky diving and Eric Von Zipper falls for Sugar Head. Then there’s that mermaid Lorelei (Marta Kristen). Featuring Don Rickles, Buster Keaton”Beach Blanket Bingo” is available on Amazon Instant video.
“Ski Party” (1965): Craig (Hickman) and Todd (Avalon) are spying on Freddie (Aron Kincaid) who has a way with women that they want to learn. Following him to a ski resort, they dress up as British women on vacation. Funicello has a cameo appearance.
How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) Frankie doesn’t appear much in this one because he’s stationed in Tahiti with the naval reserve. Dwayne Hickman is the romantic lead as the man back home, Ricky, who’s wooing Dee Dee. Frankie pays a witch doctor (Buster Keaton) to get a lovely girl in a wild bikini to lure Ricky away. “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini” is streaming on Netflix until 1 May 2013. Features a cameo by Elizabeth Montgomery and an appearance by The Kingsmen. The movie is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
“Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine” (1965): Mad scientist (Vincent Price) dispatches female robots to seduce rich men, but Craig (Avalon) and Todd (Dwayne Hickman) thwart his plans but not necessarily on purpose. Funicello has a cameo appearance.
“Back to the Beach” (1987): A husband (Avalon) and wife (Funicello) return to the Southern California beaches from Ohio when they learn their daughter Sandi (Lori Loughlin) is making time with a surfer (Tommy Hinkley). Frankie must show that he is still the Big Kahuna and then there’s Connie Francis. Appearances by a lot of popular stars (L.A. rock band Fishbone, Don Adams (“Get Smart”), Bob Denver (“Gilligan’s Island”), Alan Hale, Jr.(“Gilligan’s Island”), Edd Byrnes (“77 Sunset Strip”), Jerry Mathers (“Leave It to Beaver”), Tony Dow (“Leave It to Beaver”),Barbara Billingsley (“Leave It to Beaver”), surf rock guitarist Dick Dale, rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan, O.J. Simpson, and Pee-wee Herman). Siskel and Ebert gave this movie two thumbs up. Ebert wrote: “a quirky little gem filled with good music, a lot of laughs and proof that Annette still knows how to make a polka-dot dress seem ageless.” This DVD is not available on Netflix, but it is available to stream on Amazon.com.
You can buy the “Frankie & Annette MGM Movie Legends Collection on Amazon.com. The set includes: “Beach Blanket Bingo,” “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini,” “Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach,” “Fireball 500,” “Thunder Alley,” “Muscle Beach Party” and “Ski Party.”
Non-Beach Party movies
“The Shaggy Dog” (1959) In this black and white movie, a magic ring turns the wearer into an Old English Sheepdog. Unfortunately, Wilby Daniels (Tommy Kirk) has a father who is a postman and doesn’t like dogs. But as a dog, Wilby hears spies plotting to steal a government secret and has to thwart them as both a dog and a person. Funicello appears. “The Shaggy Dog” is available on Netflix as a DVD rental.The movie is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
“Babes in Toyland” (1961) The title if stolen from a popular 1903 opera, but the songs are different. Mother Goose (Mary McCarty) tells the story of Mary, Mary Quite Contrary (Funicello) who is about to be married to Tom the Piper’s Son (Tommy Sands). But a villain (Ray Bolger) who wants Mary for himself attempts to prevent the marriage. An army of toy soldiers help fight off the bad guys (and you’ll see them in Disney parades). “Babes in Toyland” is available on Netflix as a DVD rental. The movie is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
“The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” (1964): A college student (Tommy Kirk) develops a helmet that helps him read minds and that leads to what seems to be a crime. A crime is indeed committed when the student uses hypnosis on a judge (Leon Ames). Funicello plays the girlfriend. “The Misadventures of Merlin Jones” is available on Netflix as a DVD rental. The movie is also available on Amazon Instant video.
“The Monkey’s Uncle” (1965): This movie is the sequel to “Merlin Jones” and finds Merlin (Kirk) and his girlfriend Jennifer (Funicello) with a new invention–a man-powered airplane. He also develops a sleep-learning system. Merlin is the legal uncle of a chimpanzee (I know, a chimp is not a monkey, but what can I say?!) in order to use the chimp in humane experiments (PETA wasn’t knocking at Disney’s door for this one). The Beach Boys make an appearance. This DVD can be purchased on Amazon.com.
“Fireball 500 (1966) Avalon is “Fireball” Owens, a stock car racer who must run moonshine. Funicello is his loyal girlfriend Jane. Fabian appears in this movie. “Fireball 500” is streaming on Netflix until 1 May 2013. The movie is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
“Thunder Alley” (1967) Race car driver Tommy Callahan (Fabian) has an accident on the track and after retiring, he begins to train Eddie (Warren Berlinger) to drive. As Eddie begins to win, his ex-girlfriend Annie (Diane McBain) attempts to steal back Eddie from his current girl (Funicello) “Thunder Alley” is currently available on Netflix as a DVD rental with “Fireball 500.” The movie is also available on Amazon Instant Video.
“Head” (1968): Do you remember the Monkees? This psychedelic comedy is about a group (Peter Tork, David Jones, Micky Dolenz and Michael Nesmith) who finds they do not have free will. Their actions are all pre-determined by a script. Funicello has a cameo. This movie is available for purchase on Amazon.com.
“Troop Beverly Hills” (1989): A rich shopaholic (Shelley Long) attempts to prove her husband (Craig T. Nelson) wrong by following through and becoming the den mother to her daughter’s Wilderness Girls group and teach them survival skills by inventing new merit badges. Funicello and Avalon appear as themselves in a cameo appearance. What do you expect? If you’re in Beverly Hills you need to meet celebrities (like Robin Leach, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Ted McGinley, Cheech Marin and Dr. Joyce Brothers).
Rest in peace, Annette Funicello. You brought sweet charm and grace to the movies and a lot of good clean fun. If only the more recent Mouseketeers could have used you as an example.