Walt Disney’s daughter said the nation lost a consummate professional and one of the loveliest people she has ever known with the death of Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.
Funicello, the longtime Disney and beach movie star, passed away Monday at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield at the age of 70. She died peacefully from complications due to multiple sclerosis, a disease she battled for a quarter-century.
"Everyone who knew Annette loved and respected her. She was one of the loveliest people I've ever known, and was always so kind to everyone. She was also the consummate professional, and had such great loyalty to my father, “ said Diane Disney Miller, daughter of Walt Disney. “Annette will always be very special to me and [my husband,] Ron.”
PHOTOS: Annette Funicello - Career in pictures
Her husband, Ron Miller, who oversaw Disney in the 1980s and once worked with Annette when he was a young assistant on "The Mickey Mouse Club," added: “She was always in good spirits and ready to help out if she needed to step in when something unexpected happened.”
In a statement, Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Co., said, "Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mousketeer, and a true Disney Legend. She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney’s brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent."
Funicello, born Oct. 22, 1942, in Utica, N.Y., grew up in the San Fernando Valley, where, at age 13, she was discovered while dancing the lead in "Swan Lake" at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank. She was invited to audition for a new TV series called "The Mickey Mouse Club" and was hired on the spot to become a Mouseketeer.
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She went on to star in numerous Disney movies before branching out in 1960s to a series of beach movies with teen idol Frankie Avalon.
In 1987, Funicello was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative neurological disease, and in 1992, she went public with her illness, establishing the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases. Funicello for a few years continued to sell her own brand of teddy bears on shopping channel QVC.
She married her second husband, rancher Glen Holt, in 1986. She was previously married to Jack Gilardi from 1965 until their divorce in 1981. She has three children from her first marriage -- Gina, Jack Jr. and Jason -- and three young grandchildren.
Summing up Funicello's life, Diane Disney Miller quoted from Byron's poem, "She Walks in Beauty." Miller said it "seemed to have been written for Annette:
"She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies / And all that's best of dark and bright / Meet in her aspect and her eyes. / Thus mellow'd to that tender light / Which Heaven to gaudy day denies."
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