Monday, April 8, 2013

Annette Funicello (1942-2013): A look back at an unlikely sex symbol

Annette: The all-American girl who ushered many boys into manhood.

"Annette Funny Jello" they called her in Mad.

Puberty was kind to Annette Funicello.
The name was, naturally, a pun on the singer/actress's real surname -- Funicello -- but there was a leering double entendre in the moniker, too, one that commented on the young lady's newly curvy physique. In the few short years between her debut on TV's The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955 and the release of her first hit pop single, "Tall Paul," in 1960, Annette Funicello developed from a plucky, innocent 13-year-old kid sister into a pneumatic, enticing 18-year-old sex symbol.

As tenaciously as her handlers protected her wholesome, virtuous image, those eye-catching parabolas beneath her sweater could not be denied, and a generation of boys (and, quite possibly, dirty old men) fell in instant lust. By 1963, she was starring in the Beach Party films, clad in swimsuits that became less and less modest with each entry in the series. First, her midriff was exposed, and her formidable decolletage was soon to follow.

But always, always, always Annette Funicello remained the "good girl," moral and above temptation. Annette's dual nature -- a virgin's mind in a harlot's body -- fueled male fantasies for years. I would go so far as to say that, when one is recounting the sexual history of the Twentieth Century, Annette Funicello surpasses even Marilyn Monroe in significance. I cannot imagine how many young men first climaxed while thinking of Annette.

In 1960, the same year as "Tall Paul," satirist Stan Freberg wrote and recorded a satirical comedy sketch called "The Old Payola Roll Blues (Parts 1 and 2)" about a sleazy record producer (played by Jesse White) who tries to turn a tone-deaf, frog-voiced teenage imbecile named Clyde Ankle (played by Freberg) into a teen idol by bribing disc jockeys to play Clyde's moronic song, "High School Ooh-Ooh." Freberg's character seems dubious of the whole arrangement but still wants to get as much as he can out of this producer. They start negotiating specifics:

FREBERG: Well, maybe now I can have my adenoids taken out. 
WHITE: What, and ruin your amateur standing?! 
FREBERG: Well, could you at least get me a date with that Mouseketeer that grew up? 
WHITE: All right, we'll see. 
FREBERG: (excited) Oh boy!

Listeners of the time would have had no trouble identifying that particular Mouseketeer.

By the time I was born, Annette's career was pretty much over. The hit songs and movies had dried up years earlier, and she settled into the life of perfect domestic tranquility as a wife and mother. Her most prominent public role after that was as the celebrity spokeswoman for Skippy peanut butter. Her career ended, then, as it began: with Annette as a paragon of chastity and modesty, utterly sexless and harmless.

But this does not diminish her importance in the sexual awakening of a generation.

Incidentally, that song I mentioned earlier, "Tall Paul," played a small yet significant part in my own childhood. I have written before about how my introduction to popular music came through a stack of hand-me-down 45 rpm records I received from my mother and which I repeatedly and obsessively played on my trusty Fisher-Price record player. Naturally, Annette's hit platter was an important part of the mix. It's an odd-sounding record even today, as fast and choppy as a punk song with very prominent percussion. Give it a listen, won't you?


  1. It may interest you to know that Turner Classic Movies is planning to air both of AIP's Dr. Goldfoot movies (the first of which includes a cameo by Annette) in the early morning hours of May 21. I wonder if they're planning on preempting their regularly scheduled programming to air an evening of her other films before then, though. It seems like the sort of thing they would do.

  2. Thanks for the heads up. I've never actually watched either of the Goldfoot movies, even though they've been on my radar (as you say) since I was a kid.