Michelle Gillett: Guided by Annette



Occasionally, someone posts a photograph on Facebook with the caption, "Does anyone remember what this is? Click like if you do." The last one was a reel of red tape with small dots evenly spaced along it. Caps, clicked in my brain. I am good at guessing the answers -- rotary phone, an outhouse, those plastic adaptors we put in the center holes of 45s so they fit on a turntable spindle. I imagine the "Do you remember this?" posts of the future will include cursive writing and newspapers.

When somebody posted a photo of Annette Funicello one day last week, I figured it was another one of those memory games. "Does anyone remember who this is? Click like if you do." Sadly, it wasn't a guessing game but an elegy. Annette Funicello was dead from complications of multiple sclerosis. It didn't seem possible. She was not just a person, she was our hero.

Whenever we played Mickey Mouse Club when I was a little girl, I was Annette. I was somewhat typecast -- I had curly hair and was sweet and shy.

My best friend was the more dynamic Doreen, my little sister was cute little Karen and, if we let the boys across the street play with us, they were Cubby and Bobby.

In truth, I didn't really want to always be Annette. Sometimes, I wanted to be someone a little sassier, someone with straight hair, someone like Darlene who displayed boundless enthusiasm. But I accepted the part.

We put on our black felt Mickey Mouse Club ears and sang and danced, and went on adventures. We wrote letters trying to convince Jimmy Dodd and his producers to choose us for Talent Round-Up Day. We spend hours coming up with routines that would prove how exceptional our musical and acting abilities, although deep down, we knew we were no match for the Annettes and Darlenes, the Karens and Cubbys. We would always be pretend Mouseketeers.

When the show ended in 1963, we had already moved on to more mature roles and role models. We aspired to be a love interest for Spin or Marty, a sidekick for the Hardy Boys, and then we outgrew them all. The movies that Annette Funicello starred in with Frankie Avalon did not hold interest for me. By then I was having a precocious relationship with Shakespeare and favored Romeo and Juliet to Frankie and Dee Dee. But there was always a little bit of Annette in me, or maybe what remained in me of those Mickey Mouse Club years was a nostalgia all of us harbor for a time that seems simpler when we reminisce about the past.

A friend of mine has written a collection of essays about nostalgia. Nostalgia, he says, "sees the difference between past and present related less to issues and events than to a personal sense of well-being, of predictable values, common boundaries, and a faith in the bedrock of one's culture, all of which are presently dead or dying. More private than public, our longing is for a kind of lost innocence, a sense of being at home in a slower, more intimate world ... "

These days we tend to look forward rather than back. But Annette's death reminds us of an time of innocence when there was nothing silly about wearing your Mouse Ears all day, when we were at home in that slower, more intimate world before the high tech, fast pace of the present century.

Of all the Mouseketeers, Annette was the one who didn't fade into oblivion after those dancing, singing Mouse Club days. She survived in our memories maybe because so many of us wanted to be her or were in love with her, or some variation of her. It isn't just sentimentality that fuels our sense of loss. As my friend wrote, "nostalgia is less a refuge in the past than a healing in the present. We long for something changeless and eternal as reassurance we are not just process."

Of course, Annette changed, she grew up, she left show business, she raised a family, she worked to find a cure for the disease that killed her. If "nostalgia is a quest for meaning and identity," Annette was one of our guides. She gave us direction from the time she first told us "...to come along and sing the song and join the jamboree," to when she announced her illness publicly. "You learn to live with it," she said." You learn to live with anything, you really do."

Words of wisdom especially for those of us who remember sending away for our Mickey Mouse Club membership certificates, who have lived through many life episodes and are glad to be reminded of the truth of who we really are.

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.


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