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Monday, April 08, 2013

THE BEACH PARTY'S OVER: R.I.P., ANNETTE FUNICELLO (1942-2013)

Annette, circa 1975.

It's sad as hell but it comes as no surprise that first-generation Mouseketeer and '60's beach movie goddess Annette Funicello has finally lost her two-decade battle with Multiple Sclerosis and perished at the age of seventy. It was truly painful to see the wholesome and once-vivacious exemplar of 1950's/1960's innocent hotness cruelly ravaged by so merciless an ailment, thus in many ways her passing can be taken as a blessing.

I wasn't even a gleam in the milkman's eye when Annette first appeared on the American pop culture landscape — 1955, when she was but twelve years old — but her adorableness struck a chord with the kids of her generation and she pulled off the minor miracle of still looking extremely cute while saddled with headgear that gave her the aspect of a particularly chipper post-apocalyptic mutant rodent.

I mean, seriously, she was the cutest bit of anthropomorphic vermin ever!

I have it on good authority that as Annette matured along with her fellow '50's adolescents, many a young lad's first "funny feelings" in his nethers were stirred by the increasingly lovely brunette whose ancestry quite obviously came from The Boot, and having first encountered her myself when reruns of the 1950's THE MICKEY MOUSE CLUB aired when I was around nine years old, I completely understand her seismic effect.

Annette's team-up with the Beach Boys.

But as she grew up into toothsome young Italian womanhood, Annette eventually left Uncle Walt's stable of young faces and enjoyed a brief career as a singer of fluffy, ultra-girly pop tunes before gaining cinematic immortality in a series of cheesy "beach party" movies in the early and mid-1960's that co-starred helmet-haired heartthrob Frankie Avalon. Chock full of innocuous pre-acid rock pop tunes, romantic misunderstandings and ludicrous-looking rear-projected surfing contests, the series required no active brainwaves to be enjoyed and its mindless feel-good style was widely imitated for the rest of the decade by cheapjack konockoffs that made them look as sophisticated as BEYOND THE FRINGE.

Frankie Avalon, you lucky son of a bitch...

Though widely dismissed today, the Frankie and Annette beach party movies were every bit as defining of their decade's pop culture as Beatlemania and the 007 craze, and are fun time-wasters for the pre-pubescent set. In fact, I recommend watching at least a couple of them as a prerequisite for sitting through BACK TO THE BEACH (1987), in which Frankie and Annette, as the very characters they played twenty-plus years earlier, return to their old sandy stomping grounds, bringing humorous marital and parental dysfunction — and no small amount of mid-life crisis on Frankie's part — with them. It's a hoot of a movie, especially for those familiar with the territory and appreciative of the former teen idols being very much in on the joke. Plus, who in hell would ever have expected a latter day beach party movie in which our favorite surfin' couple got to encounter both Fishbone and Pee-Wee Herman? To quote Kelly Bundy, "the mind wobbles!"

I shit you not: Annette in BACK TO THE BEACH, getting down with Fishbone...

...and Pee-Wee Herman (who does a rendition of The Trashmen's classic "Surfin' Bird)!

As times and tastes changed, Annette's pop wave crested and her era was relegated to history while the lady herself was seen as a doyen of the pre-hippie days and a symbol of a now long-lost pre-Vietnam innocence. A perennial on nostalgia shows and retrospectives, as well as famously being a trusted shill for Skippy peanut butter in the 1970's, Annette's dark-eyed beauty was always a welcome sight and I will personally always have a dear spot for her in my heart as being one of the early formative influences on my deep appreciation of Italian women. Surf on in eternity, Annette. You will be greatly missed.

Perhaps the quintessential Annette Funicello image.

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