So we learned early last week that Annette Funicello had passed away. If you’re above a certain age, perhaps 50, you recognize the name Annette Funicello instantly, and with great fondness.
She was, of course, the iconic young star of the equally iconic children’s program of the 1950s, “The Mickey Mouse Club.” After life as a Mousketeer – “America’s girl next door” she was often called – the pretty, perky, modest young lady went on to some other movies and commercials, but without a doubt she’s best remembered for her starring role in the Mickey Mouse Club.
For many years Ms. Funicello dealt with the ravages of multiple sclerosis, but responded with courage and patience. Her faith was important for her. “I’m a Catholic, and I’ve always been a religious person, and having MS reminds me that there’s a Higher Power up there who knows what He’s doing,” she said in an interview. Her family was also a top priority, and while still in the spotlight she said that her real ambition was to quit show business and have nine children. In fact, at her passing she left behind three children and three grandchildren.
The recent stories about Ms. Funicello uncovered a deep generational divide in our diocesan office. Some of us remembered her and her TV program well. A couple of the young folks were perplexed – “Who’s Annette Funicello?” they asked innocently, representatives of the generation that grew up with Mariah Carey and Britney Spears.
Annette’s passing (the use of her first name is a sign of affection) launched me on a journey down memory lane. Like many other kids of my era, every time the Mickey Mouse Club was on, I’d don my mouse ears and sit on the floor in front of the television and sing along: “Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C . . K-E-Y . . M-O-U-S-E.”
I was too young and naive to have a “crush” on Annette. But I did want to be like Spin and Marty, the two really cool young guys who spent their summers at a dude ranch, riding horses, twirling ropes, and sitting around the campfire telling ghost stories. I really wanted to go to a dude ranch. But since none was available I ended up in the minor seminary. My older brothers made fun of the Mickey Mouse Club and its leader, Jimmie Dodd, but I just chalked it up to the fact that they were getting old and out-of-touch.
Other television programs of the era were equally innocent. If you remember “the Mickey Mouse Club” you probably also remember “Howdy Doody,” “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” and “Captain Video” with his robot named “Tobor,” which of course is robot spelled backwards.
My journey down memory lane next led me into the photo albums that my mom had carefully preserved over the years as other archived items from my childhood surfaced.
From the same television era I found a picture postcard of the talented, lovable dog Lassie. I was a member of the Lassie fan club and apparently had entered a contest to name her puppies. The picture I received in return was autographed with Lassie’s paw print and had a message thanking me for participating. I don’t know what names I submitted but I wasn’t very creative with pet’s names anyway. I had a black dog named “Inky” and a hamster named “Hammy.”
And then there’s the picture from my Scouting days. There I was, standing at the foot of the steps in our living room in my blue Cub Scout uniform, saluting proudly for the posed photo. Our Cub Scout pack met at the local Lutheran Church, which, surprisingly for those pre-ecumenical days I was allowed to enter. I never got further than being a Cub Scout though, since there was no Boy Scout troop in the neighborhood.
Another picture I found, this time in a baseball uniform, documents my Little League career. I was on two teams at different stages – the Braves and the Yankees. One year at least we were pretty good and won the championship. I played different positions in the outfield and infield, but was all glove and no bat. I always blamed my poor hitting on the fact that we played too much whiffleball in our neighborhood and making the transition from a flimsy plastic bat and ball to a heavier wooden bat and baseball was too difficult. Or it may have been because in 5th and 6th grade I needed glasses and didn’t know it yet.
All this reminiscing reminded me what an idyllic childhood I had and how the 1950s were simple, innocent and fun. But as the 1950s rapidly fade in the rear-view mirror, and as the United States continues to trash traditional moral values, the culture in which many of us grew up seems increasingly remote and foreign. And I recognize that there’s no going back; that the world has indeed changed, for better or worse.
Nonetheless, we should appreciate those days when kids could watch television without being bombarded by a steady stream of advertisements about erectile dysfunction; when you could watch a program about a faithful dog without having PETA looking over your shoulder; when you could be a member of the Boy Scouts without having the adult leaders fighting over the homosexual agenda; and when you could play Little League Baseball without fear of your major league heroes being suspended for using steroids.
Thank you, Annette Funicello for contributing to a wonderful era. Rest in peace.