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Nearly 15 months ago I shot this video called Laurel Mall: Portrait of a Dying Shopping Mall. As you can see, it was shot on Black Friday but it was still largely empty. Just six months after I shot this video the entire mall closed down for good and much of it has been recently demolished. There’s supposed to be a new shopping place of some kind that will rise up from the ashes but I’ll have to wait and see what happens.

That video was a sad one because I still have memories of that mall’s glory days. There’s one memory I had that I originally planned on mentioning in that video but ended not doing so because it would’ve made the video length run that much longer. Here’s my memory from many years ago. One Saturday, when I was still a relatively newlywed, I happened to go to Laurel Mall when I saw throngs of people standing in this long line that ran down part of the length of the lower level of the mall. I had no idea what was going on. I saw that the line ended at this table featuring two very ordinary looking people with dark hair—a man and a woman. I had no idea who they were and why so many people were dying to meet them.

I finally asked someone standing in line who that couple were. The woman answered, "It’s Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon." At the time the pair were doing a series of public appearances across the United States to promote the film Back to the Beach, the first beach party movie they made together since the mid-1960’s. Here’s a short clip from that movie.

Laurel Mall happened to be one of their many stops on that tour. They were signing autographs for longtime fans who also brought along their chidren and grandchildren. I didn’t get in the long line because I wasn’t into waiting for one hour or more to greet two celebrities whose names I had heard of but I wasn’t a major fan of. (The only time I ever saw any movie that Frankie Avalon was in while I was growing up was when he sang the song "Beauty School Dropout" in the movie Grease.) As I took a final look at the front of the table before moving on to finishing up with the rest of my shopping, I saw a girl who was somewhere between the ages of 7-10 at the front of the line wearing Mickey Mouse ears while Annette was sporting a wide grin at seeing that young fan.

That was the only time I ever saw Annette Funicello in real life. (Sadly I didn’t have a camera with me that day because I would’ve taken pictures.) Yesterday she died at the age 70 after a long struggle with multiple sclerosis. I read on various websites that she was initially diagnosed with MS while she was working on that Back to the Beach movie but she kept it a secret for a few years. (Which means that she was already secretly dealing with that illness when she made her appearance at Laurel Mall.)

Annette reached the height of her fame before I was born so I hadn’t heard of her until years later when local stations throughout the U.S. started to air re-runs of the original 1950’s Mickey Mouse Club series and there was especially lots of stories in the newspapers about Annette, who was the most popular Mouseketeer. My mother and grandmother remembered her very well but they weren’t superfans or anything like that. Yesterday I searched YouTube since I heard that she was also a recording artist for a few years. Most of the songs I heard were okay to listen to once or twice but they didn’t really resonate with me. Her music is mindless yet harmless background music at best. One example is this vintage American Bandstand clip of Annette performing her biggest hit "Tall Paul." This clip had this cutesy effect where Annette sings as she acts the part of a tiny marionette puppet while Dick Clark acts the role of puppeteer.

I’ve never seen any of her beach party movies (nor any of her films for that matter) so I can’t comment on her film career. I know her mainly from the numerous guest appearances on televisison as well as the many ads she shot for Skippy peanut butter in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Here is Annette Funicello in a 1984 Skippy peanut butter ad.

Yes she had a wholesome squeaky clean image but she managed to avoid going down the same destructive path (drugs, alcohol, dysfunctional relationships, etc.) that so many child stars go on once they reach adulthood. Looking at her Wikipedia page, it seems like the worst thing she ever did was to divorce her first husband but that’s no big deal since so many marriages end in divorce these days. (My own divorce is scheduled to be final tomorrow.) She married her second husband a few years later and that one endured despite her MS diagnosis. But she was never self-righteous or arrogant about maintaining her squeaky clean image so I’m not going to be hating on her for it. She basically lived her life that way and she seemed happy and content with her life. The only reason why she said she made her MS diagnosis public is that her walking became increasinly impaired and she didn’t want her fans to think that she had become an alcoholic.

I felt sorry for her when she publicly disclosed that she had MS since I know that it’s a devastating disease with no cure as of this writing. (My own mother is currently struggling with it.) I remember when my husband and I were visiting my parents and my mother had the TV tuned to QVC right at the moment when that channel were hawking collectible teddy bears from The Annette Funicello Teddy Bear Company (which she created soon after going public with her MS diagnosis). Annette herself was on the air and she chatted with phone callers about her bears, her illness, and her life and career in general. The only thing I remember her saying is that maintaining a positive attitude is the key to withstanding the disease.

Despite her efforts at maintaining a positive attitude, MS ended up having the upper hand. At first she couldn’t walk anymore so she ended up in a wheelchair. A few years later she lost the ability to talk, which is really devastating to an entertainer.

I read on her Wikipedia page that her teddy bear line folded in 2004—the same year that she lost the ability to walk. One can see what the bears looked like by doing a quick Google search. They were pretty cute and I might’ve even bought one if I have had the extra money at the time.

I’m not surprised that she died. But given the fact that my own mother also has MS, Annette’s declining years have given me a glimpse of what my family can possibly look forward to in the future. So far my mother can no longer walk and she she has to have home care nurses help her with getting dressed and getting out of bed. She has problems with controlling the fingers on her hands so she had to give up crocheting (which she loved to do). She can still feed herself since handling knives and forks don’t require as much dexterity as crocheting does. Right now I’m hoping for the best but I’m also mentally prepared for the possibility that my mother could suffer the same fate as Annette in terms of losing the ability to speak as well as losing other bodily functions as time goes on.

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