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Annette Funicello, Original Mouseketeer, Dead at 70

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Annette Funicello in 'The Mickey Mouse Club' (Getty Images)

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Annette Funicello in the 'Beach Party' movies of the 1960s (Everett Collection)

Annette Funicello, a member of Disney's original "Mickey Mouse Club" from the 1950s, is dead at the age of 70 from complications of multiple sclerosis, a disease that she's battled since 1992. She died peacefully at her home in Bakersfield, California.

Funicello was born on October 22, 1942, in Utica, New York; her family moved to Los Angeles's San Fernando Valley when she was just 4 years old. Walt Disney himself discovered her when, at the age of 13, she was dancing the lead in "Swan Lake" at the Starlight Bowl in Burbank. He invited her to audition for "The Mickey Mouse Club" and hired her on the spot.

After the show's debut on October 3, 1955, she quickly became the group's most popular member. The series ran for three years and continued in reruns through the 1990s. The show was later revived in the early '90s, featuring future stars including Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake, Christina Aguilera, and Ryan Gosling.

Funicello remained under contract with Disney and starred in TV shows like "Zorro" (1957) and "The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca" (1958). She also appeared in Disney movies such as "The Shaggy Dog" (1959), "Babes in Toyland" (1961), "The Misadventures of Merlin Jones" (1964), and "The Monkey's Uncle" (1965).

In the '60s, she transitioned from leading roles in Disney productions to starring in several Frankie Avalon teen flicks, including "Beach Party" (1963), "Muscle Beach Party" (1964), "Bikini Beach" (1964), "Beach Blanket Bingo" (1965), and "How to Stuff a Wild Bikini" (1965).

If you've ever wondered where Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato took their career-path cues from, look no further than Funicello, who also launched a singing career, recording a series of hit singles such as "Tall Paul," "First Name Initial," "How Will I Know My Love," and "Pineapple Princess." Her hit albums included "Hawaiiannette" (1960), "Italiannette" (1960), and "Dance Annette" (1961).

In 1987, she teamed up with Avalon again to co-produce Paramount's "Back to the Beach," in which they played the parents to a younger generation of rowdy teens. In 1989 and 1990, she and Avalon went on tour singing their famous songs from the '60s.

In 1987 she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), later going public with her illness in 1992. She established the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases, which became dedicated to funding research into the cause, treatment, and cure of MS and other neurological diseases and continues to be an active charity.

Despite her illness, in the 1990s Funicello launched the Annette Funicello Teddy Bear Company, which marketed a line of collectible stuffed bears on QVC. She also developed her own perfume line, Cello, by Annette. In 1992, on her 50th birthday, she was named a Disney Legend. As she became more debilitated by MS, though, she retreated from public appearances in the late 1990s and was cared for by her second husband, rancher Glen Holt, whom she married in 1986. She was previously married to Jack Gilardi from 1965 until their divorce in 1981. She had three children from her first marriage -- Gina, Jack Jr., and Jason -- and three young grandchildren.

Commenting on her passing, Bob Iger, chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, said, "Annette was and always will be a cherished member of the Disney family, synonymous with the word Mousketeer, and a true Disney Legend. 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. Annette was well known for being as beautiful inside as she was on the outside, and she faced her physical challenges with dignity, bravery and grace. All of us at Disney join with family, friends, and fans around the world in celebrating her extraordinary life."

Funicello's daughter, Gina Gilardi, tells “Extra,” "She's on her toes dancing in heaven ... no more MS. My brothers and I were there, holding her sweet hands when she left us."

In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Annette Funicello Research Fund at annetteconnection.com.

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