In our time she was a superstar. In fact, her star shone so bright that she was known only by her first name like Cher, Madonna or Beyoncé. Yet when she passed away last week there was barely a mention in this newspaper.
I suspect that was the case with most media. Unless you grew up with her, you wouldn’t know what an icon she was. She’s been out of the limelight now for over 25 years. And, she passed on the same day as Margaret Thatcher. Predictably the loss of the Iron Lady would generate more news than a former Mouseketeer.
My folks started a chicken ranch in 1955. My father continued to work full time to bring home a steady income as my mother managed what would become a 10,000-laying-hen egg business. I stayed out of Mom’s hair, playing with my collie, Lassie, riding the big red tricycle handed down from my cousin Joe and living in my “Annie Oakley” fantasy world.
In those days my silver cap gun hit the bull’s eye of every target I aimed at as I rode my mighty steed “Trike.”
But in the fall of 1955, when kids my age were heading to kindergarten, Mom designed a one-room schoolhouse at home. Before I could go outside and play I had to print the alphabet, practice writing my name and phone number and do various other “assignments” my mother dreamed up.
Our console television — the one my parents bought the same year I was born — was the focal point of our living room, where I worked nearby at my child-size table and chair.
The TV and I grew up together. While Mom cooked, cleaned, fed the chickens and collected the eggs, I had breakfast with “Captain Kangaroo” and lunch with “Sheriff John.”
Friends, those were the golden days of television! There were shows like the “Cisco Kid” and “Superman.” “Kukla, Fran and Ollie,” “Howdy Doody” (did you know Howdy sported 48 freckles representing each state in the union at the time?), “I Love Lucy” and “The Roy Rogers Show.” “Annie Oakley,” of course, and darling Ricky Nelson in “Ozzie and Harriet.” And then there was the show, the one that I watched every weekday afternoon, beginning Oct, 3, 1955.
“The Mickey Mouse Club” was my favorite program and Annette was my favorite Mouseketeer. Like with the Beatles, everyone who watched “The Mickey Mouse Club” had a favorite Mouseketeer. Alone in my living room, I practiced dancing like Annette, singing like Annette, and dreamed about hanging out with Spin and Marty like she did.
Just a few months after “The Mickey Mouse Club” debuted on television, Mom took me to Disneyland to celebrate my sixth birthday. That was 57 years ago!
The “Happiest Place on Earth” had been open less than a year and was a modest foreshadowing of what it would become. No parades or fireworks back then, just an array of exhibits and classic rides, the best, of course, requiring an “E” ticket.
At a gift shop that sold only hats, in the shadow of Tomorrowland’s Rocket to the Moon, my mother bought me my first set of ears. The saleswoman embroidered “Michele” on the front in pink thread. For this birthday girl, putting on my ears was like being crowned a princess.
When I started first grade, I was home from school in time to watch “The Mickey Mouse Club.” I put on my ears and sang the opening tune, “Come along and sing the song and join the jamboree … Come along and sing our song and join our family.”
Annette Funicello, Mouseketeer, actress, wife, mother and victim of a severely debilitating strain of multiple sclerosis since 1992, passed away April 8 at the age of 70.
On Sunday afternoon I spent some time on the Internet watching YouTube clips from the original shows. I recognized all those young faces — the Mouseketeers — and remembered the lyrics to the opening march and the closing, “Alma Mater.” I joined Jimmy, Tommy, Bobby, Cubby, Karen, Darlene, Doreen and Annette again and sang along, “Through the years we’ll all be friends wherever we may be…”
If I still had my ears, I’d tip them now in tribute to Annette and the gang. Thanks for everything.