Annette Funicello became a Disney star, chosen by Walt Disney himself. She was also lucky in her romantic life with Glen Holt, who became her caregiver after a horrible diagnosis.
Annette Funicello was only 13 when she rose to fame as a Disney star, having been picked out by Walt Disney himself during her Swan Lake dance recital at Starlight Bowl, Burbank. Captivated by her charisma, Disney asked the young girl to audition for the "Mickey Mouse Club" children's show.
Impressed by her talent, he personally chose her as the last Mouseketeer cast for the show's first season. When the three-year series stopped, Annette became the only Mouseketeer with a continuing contract at Disney.
(L) Annette Funicello and Glen Holt with Mickey Mouse during Disney Legends Awards at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, United States. (R) Annette Funicello on "The Mickey Mouse Club" Hollywod, California, May 1956. | Source: Getty Images
Signing with the famous company carved the way for Annette's colorful career, having starred in films such as "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini," "Muscle Beach Party," and "Beach Blanket Bingo."
Beyond her career, Annette was a doting mother and loving wife who walked down the aisle twice. In 1965, she married Jack Gilardi, and after their divorce, she wed Glen Holt.
During her later years, the child star battled a horrible disease, to which she eventually succumbed. Here's a look at her personal life and love story.
A portrait of actress-singer Annette Funicello. | Source: Getty Images
ANNETTE'S FIRST MARRIAGE AND ROMANCES
Annette wasn't allowed to date until she was 16, but her romances in the years after were quite colorful. She fell for singers Frankie Avalon and Fabian Forte, but it was Paul Anka who captured her heart and became her first true love.
“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 sincerity – people just gravitated to it.”
Annette Funicello and Jimmie Dodd on "The Mickey Mouse Club" Hollywod, California, May 1956. | Source: Getty Images
Their romance, however, did not last long. Annette eventually wed Hollywood agent Jack Gilardi, with whom she had three children, Jason, Jack Jr., and Gina. During this time, Annette laid low with on-screen roles and focused on becoming a mom.
He planned to utilize social media to reach different markets and further awareness of the illness.
After 17 years as husband and wife, Annette and Gilardi got a divorce but remained on good terms for their children.
Annette Funicello and Glen Holt during the Disney Legends Awards at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, United States. | Source: Getty Images
ANNETTE'S LOVE STORY WITH SECOND HUSBAND WAS MARRED BY HER DIAGNOSIS
A few years following her divorce, Annette reunited with an old friend, Holt. "Most people don't know that I actually met Annette when she was just 16 or 17 years old," Holt recalled. He added:
“She had a horse that she boarded at Hollywood Park Racetrack where my horses ran. I would see her there often with her parents. We'd always say hello, and I'd chat with her mom and dad.”
Holt was also a divorcee when he got to know Annette more. Eventually, they began a romantic relationship that ended with marriage in 1986. "She was so happy after we got married," Holt said. "So was I."
Annette Funicello's portrait against a green background. | Source: Youtube/FactsVerse
Unfortunately, their relationship was met with misfortune brought by Annette's life-changing condition. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disorder, after a sudden experience at the beach.
As Holt explained, his wife was filming "Back to the Beach" when Annette felt unsteady while walking through the sand. "She'd tell me that she just couldn't walk very well on the beach," he said, prompting them to see a neurologist.
The couple initially planned to keep it a secret from those outside their family and close circle. However, Holt secretly told Frankie Avalon, who would be with the performer on a national concert tour. He needed Avalon to watch over his wife while on stage to keep her safe.
Annette Funicello speaks candidly during an interview . | Source: Youtube/FactsVerse
Soon, Annette's condition became challenging to hide, and going public was the best option. As soon as she told her truth, an overwhelming amount of support came from friends, fans, and fellow celebrities.
One of the first and largest flower arrangements that came to their home was from Frank Sinatra. "If you need anything, call me," the card read alongside a phone number.
Sadly, Annette believed that the one person she knew could help her situation was no longer there. "If Mr. Disney was still here, he'd know what to do," she said at that time.
Annette Funicello and Glen Holt with Mickey Mouse during Disney Legends Awards at Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California, United States. | Source: Getty Images
HOW GLEN HOLT SAVED ANNETTE FUNICELLO'S LIFE
In 2011, Annette experienced yet another heartbreaking moment. Her home for over 40 years was caught in a blazing fire while she, her husband, and a caregiver were inside.
It was around seven in the morning when one healthcare worker smelled smoke. Upon checking their recreation room, Holt realized that there was already a fire. He immediately went to his wife to help her out. He narrated:
“I got her out of bed, put her in the wheelchair, and headed down the hall to go out the garage or the front door—but by that time, the smoke was thick and hot, and it was heading straight for us.”
Holt knew that their chance of survival decreased by the second, but he had to stay calm for his wife. "I didn't want to frighten her, and I knew if I collapsed, she would be helpless," he recalled.
Luckily, he opened their patio door and carried Annette, placing her over the fence and into their neighbor's garden. They safely survived what could have been a fatal incident, but sadly, their home was in ashes.
Annette's Disney entertainment memorabilia and personal letters from Disney himself became memories. "It was terrible to lose so much in the fire, but we've started again, and most importantly, we're together, and she's happy," Glen said.
Annette Funicello's black and white candid photo . | Source: Youtube/FactsVerse
ANNETTE FUNICELLO'S FINAL YEARS AND HER HUSBAND'S CONSTANT SUPPORT
Annette's illness worsened the following year until it left her nearly immobile. Her husband stood as her primary caregiver despite his old age. "When she got diagnosed, I told her, 'I will take care of you, and I'll do everything I can," he recalled.
During her 25 years of experimental treatments, Holt remained present and full of support, even getting to know the illness on a deeper level to understand what was happening.
In 2011, he took his wife to the interventional radiologist, Dr. Donald Ponec, to try his new therapy. Although there was no assurance that the treatment would work, Holt was always hopeful. "When they started the procedure, she looked more alive," he said. "She was brighter than she was before."
"I saw in front of my eyes things changed -- the glow of her face came in," he added. Although Annette's doctor, Jeffrey Salberg, did not see improvements in her condition, Holt could point out things that got better. Salberg said:
"You have a scarred, injured brain, how much does venous flow change the function of what is left? I don't see tremendous changes. But Glen sees little changes, and I'm hoping that's real for him and for her and gives them some sense that it was worth doing."
Months later, Salberg finally noticed the improvements in Annette's condition, specifically in being responsive during conversations.
Annette made eye contact, which meant that her cognition and vision, which had been significantly damaged, improved. "She clearly was trying to respond affirmatively to yes and no questions with appropriate facial movements. I have not seen this degree of attentiveness and responsiveness by her in years," he said.
"I see changes, and you know, to me, when you can see some changes like they always say, where there is smoke, there's fire," Holt said. "I see something very positive, and it needs to be researched further."
Proud of the improvement, Holt decided to share how the treatment changed his wife for the better. He believed that Annette's story would move people's hearts to donate to the Annette Funicello Foundation for Neurological Diseases for new CCSVI research.
He planned to utilize social media to reach different markets and further awareness of the illness. "I want to touch their hearts so they will go out there and help us raise some money," Holt said. "[I'm] going to continue to fulfill her wish that to help find a cause and a cure."
"You hear about many heroes in this world," Shelley Fabares, Annette's best friend, said, "but rarely do you come upon one in your own life. Glen is definitely the hero in mine, and I thank God for him every day."