— NEW YORK (AP) — Annette Funicello, who became a child star as a perky, cute-as-a-button Mouseketeer on "The Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1950s, then teamed up with Frankie Avalon on a string of '60s fun-in-the-sun movies with names like "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "Bikini Beach," died Monday. She was 70.
She died at Mercy Southwest Hospital in Bakersfield, Calif., of complications from multiple sclerosis, the Walt Disney Co. said.
Funicello stunned fans and friends in 1992 with the announcement about her ailment. Yet she was cheerful and upbeat, grappling with the disease with a courage that contrasted with her lightweight teen image of old.
"She will forever hold a place in our hearts as one of Walt Disney's brightest stars, delighting an entire generation of baby boomers with her jubilant personality and endless talent," said Bob Iger, Disney chairman and CEO.
Avalon said Monday that Funicello never realized how beloved she was.
"She would say, 'Really?'" he told The Associated Press. "She was so bashful about it. She was an amazing girl." He added: "She really had a tough existence. It's like losing a family member. I'm devastated, but I'm not surprised."
The pretty, dark-haired Funicello was just 13 when she gained fame on Walt Disney's television kiddie "club," an amalgam of stories, songs and dance routines that ran from 1955 to 1959.
Cast after Disney saw her at a dance recital, she appeared in mouse ears, a pleated skirt and a turtleneck sweater emblazoned with her first name. She soon became the most popular Mouseketeer in the cast, receiving 8,000 fan letters a month, 10 times more than any of the 23 other young performers.
Her devotion to Walt Disney remained throughout her life.