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Annette Funicello Was Unable to Eat, Drink & Talk during Her Last Years — Her Husband Never Gave up Hope

Stephen Thompson
Mar 02, 2022
07:00 P.M.
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Annette Funicello was the darling of fans after her appearance on Disney's "The Mickey Mouse Club" series. Still, her life became complicated when she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis at just 50 years old. 

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Annette Funicello was just a shy 12-year-old girl who made her on-screen debut playing a musketeer on the children's variety television show "The Mickey Mouse Club."

Relatively unknown before her TV debut, the young girl quickly stole hearts with her big brown eyes and sweet smile, which made her a very popular figure on the show. 

Portrait of American actress Annette Funicello, circa 1965 [left]. Actress Annette Funicello and Glen Holt attend Disney Legends Awards Gala on October 21, 1992 at Disney Studios in Burbank, California [right] | Source: Getty Images

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Apart from attracting people from all over the world, Funicello developed into a beautiful young lady. Her acting career blossomed with appearances in multiple legendary beach movies alongside Frankie Avalon.

Sadly her life was not all butterflies and roses, as the talented actress endured a difficult life as she grew older. Let's take a look at some details about her life. 

Photo of Annette Funicello taken on October 10, 1990 at her home in Los Angeles, California | Source: Getty Images

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INSTANT STAR 

Annette Funicello embodies the whole idea of what being a child star is as she rose to worldwide fame at the tender age of 12, starring on Disney's "The Mickey Mouse Club." 

She was born in Utica, New York, and took ballet dance classes to overcome her shyness as a child. After Funicello's family moved to Southern California, she was discovered in 1955 at a dance recital by Walt Disney himself.

The little girl was chosen from about 200 kids who auditioned to be in the first season of "The Mickey Mouse Club." Funicello was uniquely different from her co-stars on the show due to her warm, energetic attitude, smile, and hair, which set her apart from the rest. 

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Studio portrait of American actor and Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, for the television show 'The Mickey Mouse Club,' circa 1955 | Source: Getty Images

Funicello was so loved that she received 8,000 fan letters a month as people tuned in to see her sing and dance, making her the most famous musketeer on the show. 

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In 1958 she was given her own 19 episode series titled "Annette," where she starred as a sweet unspoiled orphan girl from the country who goes to the big city to live with her uncle and aunt. 

Portrait of American actress Annette Funicello as she sits outdoors, circa 1965 | Source: Getty Images

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In one of the episodes, she kick-started her musical career with the song "How Will I Know My Love," the first of many hit singles by the talented youngster. 

After four years of running, "The Mickey Mouse Club" came to an end in 1959. Disney subsequently cast her in a live-action fantasy movie, "The Shaggy Dog," and then "Babes in Toyland" in 1961.

With Disney's permission, Funicello took her talents and looks to American International Pictures appearing in a series of beach movies which includes "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini," "Beach Blanket Bingo," and "Muscle Beach Party."

Headshot portrait of American actor and singer Annette Funicello, posing with her head encircled by a decorative Christmas wreath, circa 1955 | Source: Getty Images

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In these flicks, she starred alongside Actor Frankie Avalon who revealed that working with the actress made him realize she did not know just how loved she was by male and female fans. 

Away from beach movies, the pair collaborated for the film "Fireball 500" in 1966. A year later, the actress starred in "After Thunder Alley," Afterward, she retired from acting, guest appearing in only a handful of movies in later years. 

Portrait of American singer and actor Annette Funicello posing while preparing to exit a Ford Thunderbird, circa 1955 | Source: Getty Images

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ANNETTE FUNICELLO'S LOVERS AND HUSBANDS 

When Funicello was appearing on "The Mickey Mouse Club" series, she met and dated Paul Anka, who also worked with the actress to improve her singing career. 

Speaking about her, Anka revealed the actress's reputation in the media was exactly how she was, and none of her wholesome images was manufactured by movie studios or TV networks. He explained that "Not a malicious thing (was) ever said about her."

Studio portrait of actress Annette Funicello, circa 1960 | Source: Getty Images

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The actress rose to fame relatively young and made a mark when pop music was just starting to appeal to teens. According to Anka: 

"All of a sudden, you had this cute-looking, lovely person with a great soul that emerged and stepped out from everyone. Her loveable personality, and her sincerity, people just gravitated to it."

When they were dating, the couple's relationship was frowned upon by Disney, who was not happy at the idea that they were getting serious. 

Picture of American actors Annette Funicello and Paul Anka | Source: Getty Images

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Anka broke Funicello's heart when they sadly broke up, and in 1960 he wrote the hit song "Puppy Love" about their relationship. He also described his former beau as sweet and intelligent. 

Afterward, in 1965, Funicello surprisingly married Anka's agent, Jack Gilardi. The pair subsequently became parents to three children: Gina, Jack, and Jason.

Actress Annette Funicello cuddles her newborn son, Jack, Jr., at St. Joseph's Hospital., with her husband, Jack Gilardi, and their daughter, Gina, on February 13, 1970 | Source: Getty Images

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The actress disclosed that being a mother and a wife was the most important thing for her; however, after 18 years of marriage, Funicello and Gilardi, who the media calls a rat, divorced

The mother of three got hitched again when she married racehorse trainer Glen Holt, who she had known from when she was still a teenager.

Afterward, she started considering movie roles but ended up turning down most of them because the writers were trying to change her image, offering her grittier adult roles. 

Actress Annette Funicello and husband Glen Holt attend Sixth Annual American Cinema Awards on January 6, 1989 at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California | Source: Getty Images

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ANNETTE FUNICELLO'S HEALTH BATTLE AND LAST YEARS 

In 1992, aged 50, Funicello heartbreakingly revealed that she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a progressive neurological disorder. The beautiful, energetic TV star had the most advanced form of the disease and, over the following years, gradually lost her ability to walk.

She relied on a cane to ease her movement at the onset of the disease, then on a wheelchair before she eventually lost her ability to talk. The singer and actress subsequently faded from public view.

Actress Annette Funicello attends Hollywood Walk of Fame Ceremony on September 14, 1993 at the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California | Source: Getty Images

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In 1995 a biographical film "A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes: The Annette Funicello Story" was made about the actress, and Funicello was played by Actress Eva LaRue who said

"She was angry, and this was not a person who was usually angry because she was trapped in this body. Her mind was working beautifully, just like it always did, but she's trapped in this body that won't speak and won't walk or do anything." 

Actress Annette Funicello attends Hollywood Walk of Fame Ceremony Gala on September 14, 1993 at the Hollywood Yacht Club in Hollywood, California | Source: Getty Images

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As fans wondered what had happened to the beautiful star, her husband Holt came out to describe how chronic progressive multiple sclerosis had affected the once energetic star. Holt, who has stayed with his wife since she was first diagnosed, declared:  

"When she got diagnosed … I told her, 'I will take care of you, and I'll do everything I can.'"

Funicello's condition had deteriorated so much that she received around-the-clock care and was fed through a tube. She was also carried from her bed to her wheelchair.

Actress Annette Funicello attends Salvation Army Youth Center Benefit Honoring Roy Rogers on April 29, 1993 at the Universal Hilton Hotel in Universal City, California | Source: Getty Images

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Despite her painful condition, her husband, Holt, retained hope that his wife would one day get better, so when he learned about a novel and highly controversial treatment by Dr. Zamboni, he was willing to know more about it. 

He had spent 25 years trying multiple treatments hoping she would get better, including Funicello undergoing surgery to implant electrodes in her brain to regulate her tremors.

She was even given an experimental drug that sent her into ICU for eight days, but nothing improved. Holt had read as much as he could and decided if Zamboni's treatments could make a difference, they would try and get it. 

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Actress Annette Funicello sighted on May 5, 1994 at the Regency Hotel in New York City | Source: Getty Images

After consulting Funicello's long-time doctor, Jeffrey Salberg, Holt took his wife to an interventional radiologist at Tri-City Hospital in Oceanside, California, named Dr. Donald Ponec. The latter had some experience with the new treatments.

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In September 2011, after testing the actress at a private hospital, Dr. Ponec discovered that her right jugular vein was blocked with only 30 percent blood flow. Her left vein was completely obstructed, and blood streamed back into her brain.

Actress Annette Funicello and Glen Holt attend Disney Legends Awards Gala on October 21, 1992 at Disney Studios in Burbank, California | Source: Getty Images

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The doctors at the hospital opened up Funicello's blockages with a balloon and used a stent for a vein. Holt soon started seeing a difference in his wife's conditions, but the doctors did not share his optimism.

Normally Holt would stay awake several hours through the night to remove saliva from his wife's mouth so she would not choke, but after the procedure, she could get through the night without his help. However, according to Funicello's doctor Salberg, he explained

"Holt perceives there are changes day to day. I mean, I cannot see them, to be honest, but remember she has had this damage for a long, long time, and it has done terrible things to her nervous system and that damage cannot be undone."

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Actress Annette Funicello attends Frankie Avalon Tour Kick-Off Concert on April 13, 1990 at Knott's Berry Farm in Buena, California | Source: Getty Images

But in October 2012, during her six-month follow-up visit with Dr. Salberg, the doctor noticed her condition had improved. Holt, who remained adamant there had been improvements, said

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"I see changes. And you know to me when you can see some changes like they always say, where there is smoke, there is fire, I see something that is very positive, and it needs to be researched further."

Afterward, Holt decided to come out publicly about her struggles with the belief that the actress's loyal fans will contribute monetarily to the "Annette Funicello Foundation for Neurological Diseases," which he set up for new research into the treatment which helped her.

Actress Annette Funicello attends the press conference for 'Back To The Beach' on July 28, 1987 at the World Trade Center in New York City | Source: Getty Images

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Speaking about Holt's decision to solicit fans for help, Dr. Ponec says funding more research is the only way to find out if CCSVI treatment by Dr. Zamboni can help Multiple Sclerosis patients. The actress' husband further disclosed

"I want to touch their hearts so they will go out there and help us raise some money. I will continue to fulfill her wish to help find a cause and a cure. It is what she would have wanted."

Funicello's final public appearances were in 1998, first at a Disney event. Then on September 13, she was seen at California's Multiple Sclerosis Society, accompanied by her famous co-star Frankie Avalon. Sadly, on April 8, 2013, the actress passed away at 70.

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