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A STAR IS BORN
Born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., Annette Funicello moved to Southern California with her family at age 4. A natural performer, she was discovered by Walt Disney in 1955, when the movie exec, who was in the process of casting his latest kids' TV program, saw her playing the Swan Queen in Swan Lake at the Burbank Starlite Bowl.
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COOL KIDS' CLUB
Funicello starred on the original incarnation of The Mickey Mouse Club from 1955 to 1959. During her four years on the series, the wholesome teen skyrocketed to fame, becoming America's sweetheart and receiving 8,000 fan letters a month. Of her longtime mentor Disney she said, "He was the dearest, kindest person, and truly was like a second father to me. He was a kid at heart."
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After the show's conclusion, the actress appeared in several Disney-produced TV series and tried her hand at singing – albeit reluctantly. "I remember being frightened every time I went into a recording studio," Funicello recalled in 1992, though her 1959 single "Tall Paul," followed one year later by "Pineapple Princess," climbed the charts and led to an appearance on American Bandstand.
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Known for family films like 1959's The Shaggy Dog and 1961's Babes in Toyland, Funicello, now considered a pinup girl, was cast opposite Frankie Avalon in 1963's Beach Party, the first of several beach movies they'd make together. Though the comedies were slightly naughty, Funicello retained her good-girl image. "Mr. Disney said to me one day, 'Annette, I have a favor to ask of you. I know all the girls are wearing bikinis, but you have an image to uphold. I would appreciate it if you would wear a one-piece suit,'" she said in 1987. "I did, and I never regretted it."
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In 1965, the star wed her agent, Jack Gilardi, at St. Cyril's Catholic Church in Encino, Calif., with her best friend, actress Shelley Fabares, serving as maid of honor and Avalon serving as one of the ushers. Her fans' reaction to her marriage? "Well most of them seem to be very happy," she said. "I hope they are."
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MOTHER, MAY I?
After Funicello and Gilardi welcomed three children together – daughter Gina and sons Jason and Jack Jr. – the actress stepped back from her public life to focus on her family. "She was always there for carpools, Hot Dog Day and the PTA," Gina told InStyle in 1994. "She was a normal mom."
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BUTTER 'EM UP
Making a modest return to the spotlight, Funicello became a spokesperson for Skippy peanut butter in 1979, appearing in commercials alongside her children. "I've been offered a lot of 'the new Annette' scripts," she told PEOPLE in 1987 of her acting options. "Annette the Infidel, the Doper, the Prostitute. I read the first 10 pages, close it, throw up and say, 'No, thanks.' The things I've chosen to do have been good, clean, healthy, fun things, and I don't think it's ever hurt me at all."
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More than 20 years after their first beach-blanket adventures made big-screen history, the sun and surf once again beckoned Funicello and Avalon, with the two starring in 1987's Back to the Beach and launching a 35-city concert tour spin-off. "I think now that we've grown up, we're even closer," Avalon mused to PEOPLE as filming wrapped. "We discuss things that really matter – not scenes and dialogue, but children, family, how our kids are growing up."
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After experiencing the first symptoms of MS on the Back to the Beach set, Funicello revealed her struggles with the disease, which attacks the central nervous symstem, in a 1992 announcement. "We'd be shooting a scene on the sand, and when I'd try to get up, I couldn't balance," she told PEOPLE. "We'd laugh about it, and Frankie would say, 'Look at you, you look like you've had too much to drink.' And I'd say, 'Frankie, this is just the weirdest thing.' … I just take one day at a time. And I live hopefully."
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Funicello's star status was sealed on Sept. 14, 1993, with a coveted spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a nod to her enduring image as the Girl Next Door. "You knew she was very attractive, very pretty and voluptuous, but Annette never flaunted it," Avalon told PEOPLE in 1998. "She underplayed everything. She never tried to be sexy. People said to themselves, 'I could date that girl if I ever met her.' She wasn't untouchable."
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ONE FOR THE BOOKS
As she continued to cope with MS, Funicello detailed both her struggle and her determination to find a cure in her autobiography, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes, which was later adapted into a TV movie (left). "It's funny," she wrote, "but sometimes when I feel discouraged or have a problem I can't work out, I find myself thinking, 'If only Mr. Disney were here, he would know what to do.'"
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AN EVERLASTING LEGACY
Funicello's battle with MS came to a heartbreaking end on April 8 when she passed away at age 70 from complications of her illness with her family by her side. But for the generation who fell in love with the '50s sweetheart-turned-celebrity advocate, her Hollywood legacy lives on. As the Mouseketeers would sing, "Ask the stars above/Who's their favorite sweet brunette/You know each one confesses/Annette! Annette! Annette!"