During the 1960s Annette Funicello, who passed away April 8 of this year, and Frankie Avalon would emerge as America's Sweethearts. On movie screens, at least. Off-screen they were good friends, that's all.
I had occasion to interview both of them, Avalon by phone in March, 1963, and Funicello a year later in person in Cleveland. At that point they weren't often mentioned in the same sentence. Their first movie together, "Beach Party," was released during the summer of 1963, or about halfway between my two interviews.
Oddly, in our interview Avalon didn't even mention another of his movies, one that would open a few days after my story ran in the Akron Beacon Journal. That film, "Operation Bikini," was advertised in a poster that featured a large photo of actress Eva Six dressed in a skimpy bathing suit. However, the film itself was about theWorld War II adventures of a demolition team that included Avalon and Tab Hunter. The film was produced by American-International Pictures, which would team Avalon with Funicello is a series of contemporary musical comedies with titles that included "Bikini" or "Beach" or both words in the title.
Avalon was only two years older than Funicello, but seemed much wiser and more mature. He seemed unusually self-assured for someone his age (22), but despite his success and the promise of even better things to come, he remained very much a Philadelphia boy at heart.
Two months before our interview Avalon married Kathryn "Kay" Diebel, a former dental assistant who had been a finalist in the annual Miss Rheingold Contest, which in the 1950s and '60s attracted almost as much attention as Miss America. She was three years older than Avalon.
'And I'm the guy who said he wouldn't get married until he was 25," Avalon told me.
[Note: It turned out he had chosen wisely and well. The couple is still together. They have eight children, all grown, and several grandchildren.]
Their romance started, Avalon said, "When one of my friends brought a girl over to my house one night to listen to records and play cards. I asked her out the next week and we dated steadily for five months. Then I proposed."
Avalon's phone call to the Akron Beacon Journal (and, I assume, several other newspapers) was not to promote "Operation Bikini," but to publicize an upcoming appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Folks were just starting to take Avalon's singing seriously. Some folks, in fact, were calling him "the next Frank Sinatra." But that was mostly because they looked a bit alike, certainly were built a lot alike, and both had similar effects on their swooning fans.
While Avalon had a pleasant voice, however, he was not in Sinatra's league. For that matter, Avalon's first hit, in 1958, was considered a joke, which it was, though listeners weren't let in on it until later.
The song was called "De De Dinah."
"I was clowning around in the studio," he said, "and I put my fingers over my nose and tried singing that way. Bob Marcucci, who is the boss at Chancellor Records, overheard it and liked the sound. He figured it might be the gimmick to make the song a hit.
"Well, he was right. 'De De Dinah' became one of the top songs in the country, but every time I hear it I get the urge to crawl under a chair. It sounds awful."
Avalon sang in front of an audience for the first time when he was six years old. It was at Philadelphia's Broadway Theater where he won a talent show for singing "Give Me Five Minutes More."
For awhile he gave up singing to play the trumpet and was regarded as a child prodigy. Avalon and his trumped appeared on the Jackie Gleason, Perry Como and Garry More television shows.
At the age of 14 he formed his own band and began to sing as well as play. Marcucci, then working in a Philadelphia stationery store, was anxious to cash in on the rock 'n' roll craze and he thought Avalon had the looks and the voice to become a star. (Later Marcucci also signed Fabian.)
In March, 1964, when I met Annette Funicello in her Cleveland hotel suite we took an immediate dislike for each other. It was something that didn't often happen in interviews with people you figured you'd never see again. Apparently my first question or something in my body language conveyed some disrespect for Walt Disney and the kind of movies he was making at the time. One of them, "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones," was the reason Funicello was in Cleveland. She was a Disney discovery, having been a Mousketeer and a featured performer on his "Spin and Marty" series, and she starred in "Merlin Jones" with Tommy Kirk.
I was surprised she read me so well. It was true that I was underwhelmed by her success and considered most Disney live-action films fodder for young children. You could almost hear her defensive shield fall into place, dropping the room temperature by about twenty degrees. Her answers were brief and sounded rehearsed. My hunch was they would have been delivered in the same manner even if she had found me charming.
She seemed out of place as a movie starlet. Oh, her appearance was striking, though her lovely face was framed by a helmet of hair styled and sprayed in such a way that ever strand seemed cemented into place.
Her dress was modest enough to remind me she was a former Mousketeer, but tight enough to suggest she'd look great in a bikini. (However, the bathing suits she wore on screen were always modest, a condition dictated by Walt Disney and agreed to by the bosses at American International Pictures.)
In 1964 Annette was under a five-year contract with Disney to do two family films a year, and also under a two-year contract with American International Pictures to do thought-provoking, teen-oriented pictures such as 1963's “Beach Party” and “Muscle Beach Party,” which was released a month after our interview.
Down the road Funicello and Avalon would do “Bikini Beach” and “Beach Blanket Bingo.” Her A-I contract didn't tie them down too much. “Beach Party,” for example, was filmed in only three weeks.
She told me she was happy with her two film contracts “because I enjoy wholesome comedies and that’s just what I’m doing. Yes, I know a lot of people make fun of Mr. Disney’s pictures,” she said, “but these same people would like nothing better than to work for Mr. Disney.”
She said she had no desire to play sexpots or neurotics. Neither did she feel she had prove anything about her acting ability.
“I’m not interested in doing a Broadway play,” she said. “I’ve been told this makes me unique.”
She used to sing a lot, but by 1964 was recording only one or two songs a year.
“It was an accident I started singing at all,” she said. “I did a song on the old ‘Mickey Mouse Club.’ It was ‘How Will I Find My Love,’ and after I sang it everyone in the scene was supposed to break out laughing. We only intended it for comedy.
“But after the show aired we received thousands of letters from kids who wanted to buy the record. That’s how I became a singer.”
It turned out she wasn't kidding when she talked about her plans for the future. She said that after her Disney contract was up in 1969 she intended to retire, get married and begin a family.
She was born in Utica, N.Y., and came from a close-knit Italian-American family. Her parents moved to California when she was a child. “I still live at home,” she said with pride.
She said she would like to marry a non-performer, “but, of course, you never know how these things will work out.”
At the time she looked too young to be married. She was 21 and looked it, but her manner suggested someone still in her teens. That suggestion was so strong that when she lit a cigaret, I felt like snatching it away and reprimanding her.
Apparently she impressed others the same way. For example, before she left Cleveland, she accepted an award from the city’s film critics. The award? “Juvenile find of the year.”
Funicello, as promised, concentrated on family after her 1965 marriage to agent Jack Gilardi. Rather than make two Disney films a year through 1969, she made only one after our interview. That was “The Monkey’s Uncle” with Tommy Kirk in 1965.
She and Gilardi had three children before they were divorced in 1981. Five years after that she married harness racing horse breeder and trainer Glen Holt.
Funicello was very much in the news in 1992 when she announced she had multiple sclerosis. She wrote her autobiography, “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes: My Story,” which was published in 1994. A year later it was turned into a television movie starring Eva La Rue. (The movie changed the last half of the title to “The Annette Funicello Story.”)
Frankie Avalon also made marriage and family a consideration, but while he slowed down a bit, he never stopped working. Instead he picked his jobs pretty much to suit a personal schedule.
Both he and Fabian enjoyed recording success, though Avalon was considered a much better singer. Fabian actually showed more promise as an actor, but after appearing in several films he was relegated to infrequent guest shots on television rolls.
Avalon enjoyed his biggest movie success in those movies he made with Funicello, though his most memorable big screen appearance was in the film version of "Grease" in which he is featured singing "Beauty School Dropout" for Frenchy (Didi Conn). Avalon later was featured as a sort of special guest, singing the song in some revivals on the musical on stage.
He and Annette reunited for a few concerts and television appearances, though as she mentioned in that 1964, she never considered herself a singer and apparently has always been self-conscious about it. She and Avalon were featured in the 1987 movie, "Back to the Beach."
While illness forced Annette into retirement, Avalon continued to sing, in concerts, clubs and occasionally with Fabian and another Philadelphia singer-pal, Bobby Rydell, as a specialty act called The Golden Boys.
I never interviewed Fabian but I did get to meet Rydell, who had been in a band with Avalon before they began their solo singing careers with different record companies. Rydell had a brief acting career, making his most notable appearance in the film version of "Bye Bye Birdie." He was cast as the boy friend of Ann-Margret, which was odd casting, to say the least. Today's equivalent would be casting Angelina Jolie opposite Justin Bieber. Though only 22 at the time, Ann-Margret seemed much too old to be playing a teenager. Rydell, a year younger, managed to look and act as though he were 16, but seemed out of place on the big screen.
I don't remember much from our interview, which took place in Akron a few years after "Bye Bye Birdie," except he seem embarrassed when I mentioned the film and complimented him for the dancing he was called upon to perform in one of the big numbers. He looked at me like he thought I was crazy, and said anyone could have done what he did.
He dropped out of the national spotlight after a few years, surfacing in the 2000s on some of those PBS fund-raisers that feature oldies but goodies music. Rydell still has the pipes which made him the most highly regarded of the Philadelphia singers. I'll never get tired of hearing his version of "Wild One."