August 10, 1987 12:00 PM

The pale-blue 1960 T-bird skids to a stop on Malibu Canyon Road, its driver punching the wheel in exasperation. “We’ve lost them,” grumbles Frankie Avalon, 47, eyeing the empty street in his rearview mirror. “I don’t know how, but I managed to lose the camera car.” It’s a hot, breezy spring morning and Avalon, clad in a blue polyester suit, is sharing the bad news with Annette Funicello, 44, who’s sporting a pink-and-white gingham dress and a beehive wig. Sitting in the old convertible, the pair look like time travelers who’ve warped in from the wrong decade.

Suddenly the driver of a silver pickup slows to admire the T-bird and spots the two antiques inside. “Hot damn! Frankie and Annette!” he screams. “What’s goin’ on?”

Avalon asks if he’s seen the errant camera car. “You mean you’re filming a movie? Oh, rad!” says the driver. He hasn’t seen a soul, however, and moments later barrels on his way.

While Avalon scans the street in frustration, Annette begins wiping tears of laughter from her doe-brown eyes. Then, a black Ferrari passes the pair, stops, backs up. A gray-haired gent in seriously dark sunglasses sticks out his head, cracks a smile and says, “There’s a camera car waiting for you at the bottom of the hill.” “Thanks!” says Frankie with relief. “Have a nice day!” beams Annette, waving a white-gloved hand. The T-bird hangs a U-turn and the beehived passenger lets out another giggle. As always with Frankie and Annette, there’s a happy ending.

You can bet your baggies it won’t be the last. This Friday the middle-aged ex-Mousketeer and her co-star from the ’60s will ride the nostalgia wave to a big-screen reunion. Back to the Beach, their first sun-and-surf frolic in more than 20 years, is equal parts comedy, musical and self-focused spoof. It’s also a $9 million gamble for Paramount Pictures. Annette, after all, is now a twice-married mother of three who hasn’t made a feature film in 18 years, while father-of-eight Frankie last mugged on the big screen in Grease back in 1978.

Still, while other stars of the ’60s have faded like sun-baked beach towels, Frankie and Annette have kept their clean-cut images and incomes intact. Annette has peppered the home screen over the years with ads for peanut butter, baby products and breakfast cereals as well as guest-shot turns on shows suited to her “mom-next-door” image (most recently, Growing Pains). “I’ve been offered a lot of ‘the new Annette’ scripts,” she says. “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.”

Avalon, meanwhile, has hit the rock-revival circuit with old pals Fabian and Bobby Rydell, cranked out a few TV specials and kept his face familiar with appearances on everything from Fantasy Island to T.J. Hooker. “I work a lot, whether it’s touring, TV or Las Vegas,” he says. “I have eight kids to feed.”

For all their latter-day projects, however, it is thanks to a series of low-budget beach-party pictures that Frankie and Annette will be forever linked. For that they can thank producer Samuel Z. Arkoff, a man with a vision and credits that include Dragstrip Girl and Terror from the Year 5000. In the early ’60s Arkoff theorized that “a big, untapped audience of potential moviegoers” was being ignored. “Television had given the older generation reason to stay home,” he says now. “But teenagers wanted to get out of the house. We started to think about making movies starring teenagers, for teenagers.”

Arkoff, now 69, hired his brother-in-law to write a script, then went scouting for actors. “We couldn’t afford any young stars because of our low budget,” he says, “so we started searching for people we could afford.” Annette, then 20 but still playing adolescent innocents in Walt Disney films, “had great potential as a star,” figured Arkoff. “What Disney didn’t realize was that she was growing up.” For the male lead, “an agent from Philadelphia brought us this young kid, Frankie Avalon.” Avalon had some Top-10 pop hits plus a few films under his belt. Says Arkoff: “We thought he was perfect.”

On a microbudget of $500,000, Beach Party was begun on March 1, 1963, and completed filming three weeks later. Planning a midsummer release for the movie, Arkoff began cranking out an ad campaign featuring Annette in her principal movie costume. “Walt Disney saw the poster and called me and said, ‘What are you trying to do to me? You’ve got my Annette in a bikini!’ ” recalls Arkoff with a laugh. (Admits the actress: “Uncle Walt was always a little overprotective.”) He wasn’t the only one. Before long, hundreds of small-town papers were altering Beach Party’s advertisements by airbrushing Annette’s navel.

Arkoff, though, had found a formula that worked. Frankie and Annette were Rock Hudson and Doris Day stripped of 20 years and all their middle-class surroundings. No matter that the movie’s plot was lamebrained, the music mediocre and the acting often worse. To hyperglandular teens at the Friday-night movies, Beach Party was safe sex ’60s-style. Though wall-to-wall with surfer boys and bikini babes, no sin—or even cigarettes—ever appeared onscreen. Annette, as one disgruntled critic observed, was simply a girl who couldn’t say yes.

It didn’t matter. The film made $2 million, and Arkoff quickly followed up with Muscle Beach Party, Bikini Beach, Beach Blanket Bingo and How To Stuff a Wild Bikini. With Frankie and Annette as the perennial boy-girl leads, all that ever seemed to change were the truly eclectic supporting casts (Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Morey Amsterdam, Linda Evans, Buster Keaton and Don Rickles all got sand on their resumes). Inevitably, the form began to exhaust itself. Arkoff tried shifting the venue to race-car tracks in a couple of films (Fireball 500), but “they were just beach movies with asphalt instead of sand,” says Annette. “Frankie and I were doing the same story over and over. There was no place left to go.”

And that, it seems, is just what the studios thought when Avalon began suggesting a beach-movie sequel eight years ago. Though he got “a couple of offers” for a TV version, “I didn’t want to do a movie of the week that would be on one night and be over,” he says. “I decided to let Annette make the final decision. We turned the network down.”

Finally, late last year Avalon was contacted by 28-year-old producer Frank Mancuso Jr. Like Arkoff two decades earlier, Mancuso had earned his stripes on low-budget fright flicks, including the five sequels to Friday the 13th. Mancuso got the backing of his father, Paramount chief Frank Mancuso Sr. The final product has some familiar beach-movie faces (including Connie Stevens, Annette’s traditional nemesis), the inevitable cameos (Pee-wee Herman, Bob Denver, Don Adams), plus 23 songs and five dance numbers. Although the two stars are cast as parents this time around, the movie “is just like déjà vu for me and Frankie,” says Annette.

And for their fans too, most likely. Even on the brink of middle age, the fair-skinned actress still wears her years as comfortably as her costume. “If my body wasn’t up to par, I wouldn’t be standing in front of three cameras in a bikini,” she laughs. “The secret isn’t peanut butter. It’s Italian olive oil. I don’t do one thing to keep in shape.”

All the same, some things have changed. “Annette and I have made a lot of pictures together,” muses Avalon. “I think now that we’ve grown up, we’re even closer. We discuss things that really matter—not scenes and dialogue but children, family, how our kids are growing up.”

There is, to be sure, much to discuss. In 1983 Annette’s 20-year marriage to agent Jack Gilardi ended in divorce, and last year she wed Glen Holt, 53, a Bakersfield, Calif., horse breeder. (For her wedding gift, Holt presented his bride with a racehorse that she promptly named Uncle Walt.) With oldest child, daughter Gina, 21, now a San Diego college student, Annette, Holt and her two younger children—Jason, 12, and Jackie, 17—split their time between a nine-room home in the Encino Hills and a 70-acre ranch 100 miles from Los Angeles. “I like being married; I’m an old-fashioned Italian girl,” says Annette. “I really have decided to semiretire, us being newlyweds and all. But there are things like this movie that I want to do.”

While Annette celebrated her first anniversary this June, Avalon toasted his 25th. He and wife Kay Deibel shuttle their brood between a six-bedroom home in Malibu Canyon and a weekend retreat in the San Bernardino Mountains. In May the couple’s oldest daughter, Dina, 21, was married, and papa Frankie admits to mixed feelings about the event. “I’m just a real traditional Italian father,” he sighs. “It’s real tough to let go of your oldest girl.”

Perhaps. But while children come and go, at least Annette, the old-fashioned Italian girl, and Frankie, the traditional Italian father, will always have each other. And we may always have them. “Any time a movie is successful, the conversation turns to sequels,” notes producer Mancuso, the master of sequels. “We have a good time watching Frankie and Annette on the beach, so we’ll have a good time watching them go somewhere else.”

And would they? Cut to a deserted California beach at sunset. Frankie and Annette are walking arm in arm after the final day of location shooting. Her big, black wig blows gently in the wind. His black-and-yellow wet suit glistens in the fading light. “I wouldn’t mind doing another,” says Frankie. “Would you, Annette?”

“Oh, why not?” she says, smiling.

“Why not?” echoes Avalon. “You mean, ‘Why,’ Annette. ‘Why?’ ”

The two look at each other, smile, then sing in unison: “Because we love you!”—the refrain from the Mickey Mouse Club theme song. Annette gives way to tears of laughter, and the couple continue on their way.

Pull back, slow dissolve…and print.

—Written by Roger Wolmuth, reported by Jeff Yarbrough

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