How The Mouseketeer Annette Funicello Became The Face Of Teen Beach Movies
Forget Britney Spears or Justin Timberlake. The Mouseketeer who first ignited teenage imaginations on drive-in movie screens across America was the girl many of us grew up with. The most popular member of Disney’s first Mickey Mouse Club was the cute-as-a-button Annette Funicello, who became the smile at the center of almost every beach movie of the early 1960s — pure, devoted and full of joy. And she looked pretty amazing on the beach, too.
Back then nothin’ was greater than the sand, surf, salt air and the unracking of those waxed boards, when kids surfed all day and had even more fun swingin’ all night. “Vacation is here,” sang Funicello and her inseparable screen star Franklie Avalon as they drove along the sand in 1963’s catchy Beach Party.
The film was silly fare, but teenagers flocking to drive-ins loved Beach Party. Frankie (Avalon) and Dolores (Funicello) drive a surfboard-laden jalopy to a beach house in Southern California occupied by dozens of their fellow surfing sun-worshippers.
“I knew Beach Party probably was not going to win anyone an armload of Oscars, but that was OK,” shared Funicello, who passed away in 2013 at just 70. “The story was imaginative, and the cast was great. I knew it would be a lot of fun, but never in a million years did I, or anyone else associated with the film, dream it would evolve into such a timeless gem of pop-culture Americana.”
When not riding waves, the kids would dance on the beach and hang out in a beatnik club called Big Daddy’s. Cappy, played by Morey Amsterdam (who is best remembered for his role as Buddy on The Dick Van Dyke Show), presided over the club, serving up pies and beers and telling those nutty kids: “Dance, swing, live kids! Remember that tomorrow may be — the day after today.” Observing their relaxed lifestyle is anthropologist R.O. Sutwell (Robert Cummings), armed with a telescope and listening device, who takes notes for a book about the social behaviors of young people.
“Of all the beach-party movies, the first was not the most commercially successful but it remains my personal favorite,” Funicello said. “The story involved Professor Sutwell, a square, timid cultural anthropologist, who with his assistant (Dorothy Malone) comes to the beach to study teenage mating rituals. Like its successors, Beach Party revolved around Frankie and Dee Dee breaking up. He makes her jealous by going after another girl, while she falls for the professor’s soft-spoken charms.”
When Frankie flirts with a waitress (Eva Six) to make Dolores jealous, she considers a romance with the older Sutwell; but all this gets mixed up with the arrival of a motorcycle gang headed by Eric Von Zipper (Harvey Lembeck) and all heck breaks loose.
The original Beach Party script had more sex and drugs in it, but director William Asher took those things out, declaring that he wanted to show “kids not in trouble.”
And that he did. The film was fun, fun, fun. And who could ever forget the “perpetual motion machine” Candy Johnson shimmying so fast and hard in Beach Party she knocked surfers off their boards. The film’s ending credits with Candy dancing put the Energizer Bunny to shame, as that girl had more twist and spunk than anybody.
Beach Party was so popular that American International Pictures signed Funicello to a seven-film contract, and all of the films were made over the next two years. Remember the white mesh bikini Funicello sports in Muscle Beach Party (1964) that is both demure yet so alluring? Or the hot rod British pop star, the Potato Bug, who tried to steal Dee Dee (Funicello) from Frankie in Bikini Beach (1964), where Avalon played both suitors? Or Beach Blanket Bingo (1965), which is probably the most fondly remembered of the Frankie and Annette epics?
Funicello’s journey to the beach actually began when she was 4 years old and her family moved from New York to Southern California. Taking singing and dancing lessons to overcome her shyness, she was discovered in 1955 at age 12 by Walt Disney and soon cast with the original Mouseketeers. Annette (as we came to know her from her Mickey Mouse Club turtleneck sweater) was a hit with audiences, eventually receiving 6,000 fan letters a month.
Growing into her teens, Funicello appeared in a few Disney movies, including Babes in Toyland (1961) and The Horsemasters (1961). A song she performed on a spinoff show, Walt Disney Presents: Annette (1958), received so much mail that Disney signed her to a recording contract. She had several pop hits in the late ’50s and early ’60s, including “Tall Paul,” “Train of Love” and “Pineapple Princess.”
But it was that sugary glow of pop music that led to her casting in Beach Party. Still under contract to Disney, she was required to wear chaste bathing suits and not reveal her navel.
But try as they might, some things were mightier than The Mouse. Like bikinis!
All these films took advantage of that moment across America in the early ’60s when teens dreamed of heading to the beach in their jalopies to surf, enjoy the sun, shimmy to rock ’n’ roll and find romance. Asher later said that “the key to these pictures is lots of flesh but no sex. It’s all good, clean fun. No hearts are broken, and virginity prevails.” And with Funicello blushing front and center, how could you go wrong?