From Mickey Mouse to Multiple Sclerosis: The Life and Legacy of Annette Funicello
April 8, 2017 marked the fourth anniversary of the death of Annette Funicello, a mid-20th century Disney icon who died at the age of 70 after a twenty-five year battle with MS.
For those of you born after 1957, hers might be a faintly familiar celebrity name among several who went public with their MS diagnoses such as Richard Cohen, Teri Garr, Jack Osborne, Alan and David Osmond, Richard Pryor, Ann Romney, Jamie-Lynn Sigler, Clay Walker, and Montel Williams. But for older baby boomers, Annette Funicello stands out as a special part of our preschool days in front of the television watching the Mickey Mouse Club. She retired from show biz in her twenties to raise three children, and thus her story hasn’t gotten much coverage compared to other celebs. So this is my little tribute to a gentle soul who initially dropped out of sight to raise her kids before attempting a career comeback—then dropped out a second time to quietly fight for her life. Here’s a little bit of her story.
Annette Joanne Funicello began her entertainment career as a ballet dancer. At age 12, her leading role as Odette in “Swan Lake” caught the attention of Walt Disney, who hired her for the original cast of The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955. While her dancing skills launched a television and movie career, dancing also tipped her off years later that something was wrong with her legs.
Waiting to tell
In 1987, Annette and Frankie Avalon made a sequel to their early 1960s beach movies called “Back to the Beach” during which she developed balance problems and leg weakness while filming song and dance numbers. She confided her fear to him that people might think she was drunk. Although she was diagnosed with Chronic Progressive MS (today we call it Primary Progressive, or PPMS) that same year, she waited until 1992 to go public with the diagnosis.
Her decline is chronicled to a limited degree in various talk show interviews available on youtube. In 1994, she published a memoir titled A DREAM IS A WISH YOUR HEART MAKES and made the talk show rounds where she told her story to several hosts, most notably, Sally Jesse Raphael. Annette described her diagnosis conversation with her neurologist. He told her it was MS and that she enjoyed an advantage, having developed it later in life (age 45). “You’ll live with it for fewer years and we are so near a cure now that the future looks good.” Annette emphasized her lack of fear about the diagnosis, stating that she wasn’t afraid because she knew nothing about MS. She also insisted that her decline was very slow. But subsequent talk show appearances told a different story. In 1998, only four short years after the 1994 interview, Entertainment Tonight’s Mary Hart interviewed Annette at her home. She had visibly declined and dramatically so, barely able to speak or move. It would be her last public appearance.
Trying different treatments
Annette and her husband, Glen Holt, decided to investigate and try several experimental procedures, most notably an angioplasty that opened up neck veins blocked by a condition called Chronic Cerebrospinal Venous Insufficiency, or CCSVI. Mr. Holt insists that he observed a slight improvement in his wife after the procedure: The color was restored to her otherwise pallid complexion, and an arm that was previously seized up rigidly against her upper body had relaxed and now lay comfortably at her side. By the time Annette received this therapy, however, the nerve damage was already so severe that she needed total care. The noted improvements were temporary and she continued to decline.
Annette Funicello died at her home in Bakersfield, CA on April 8, 2013 at age 70. The previous October, Mr. Holt allowed a Canadian documentary filmmaker into their home to let the public see Annette’s real life with MS in an effort not only to inform her fans and let them grieve over the authentic ravages such a disease can inflict, but also to educate and inspire them to contribute to MS research.
Portraying yourself as a person with MS
My own feelings about Annette Funicello’s choices for how to portray herself as a person with MS are complex. I’ve always thought of her as genuine in her modesty and soft-spoken style, choosing to downplay the upsetting, dark side of her battle, and I still do. What troubles me is, perhaps, the inside knowledge I have about Primary Progressive MS that the public still doesn’t know much about. Those of us who have MS, who have even rudimentary knowledge of the forms and their therapies know that there was never going to be much that modern medicine could have done for her progression. The public still doesn’t know that PPMS comprises 5-10% of the MS community and to this day, still has no FDA-approved therapy. Ocrelizumab has shown promise in recent clinical trials; if it is approved, it will be the first therapy designed for and given the green light to exclusively treat primary-progressive MS. It is important to point out that PPMS doesn’t necessarily affect people as severely as it did Ms. Funicello. Her case was the worst of the worst.
The October 2012 Canadian documentary titled “Annette Funicello: Her Life with MS COMPLETE” was filmed six months before her death and showed the brutal effects that PPMS inflicted on her. Husband Glen Holt walks us through his typical day performing physical care for his wife, from suctioning saliva that threatened to be aspirated into her lungs to applying her make-up and dressing her. As hard as it is to watch, I think everyone needs to bear witness to Annette’s decline and her husband’s devoted efforts to try anything that might give her a reprieve from the myriad symptoms with which she had to cope. You’ll cry at the sight of her, at the hopelessness and injustice of it all.
But please don’t think for a minute that it is anything approaching the vicarious thrill of observing a traffic accident. We are witnessing a life struggling against overwhelming adversity—and a loving spouse who was never defeated by his wife’s decline. Glen and Annette knew it was all about fighting the battle. And fight they did.