While most Annette biographies state she “retired” from acting and recording in the mid 60’s, the real story isn’t quite that simple. The decline of her "market niche" -- not just a desire for more time with family -- is what most likely led to the end of her film and recording career.
By mid 1967, AIP had dropped the beach/surf/dragstrip/racetrack genres and was heading full steam into hippie and motorcycle gang movies (The Trip, WIld In The Street, The Wild Angels, etc.) AIP never missed a fad in the 1960s and never stuck with one that had run it course. That led to an end in their need for Annette's talents, since she was firmly associated in people's minds with the by-then outdated "fifties idol" and "surfer" themes, not hippies and bikers.
Interestingly, some critics view her performance in 1967's Thunder Alley -- a rather unattractive care racing drama which was her last film with AIP -- as an unsuccessful attempt to transform herself into a late 60's Nancy Sinatra-ish "groovy chick." If that's the case, the effort was doomed to failure; Annette was simply too much the lady to effectively pull off that kind of role.
That left Funicello with no real starring role film options. She couldn't seek them at Disney, since Walt -- her critical mentor there - had died the year before, and the film side of the compnay had pretty much ended producing the sort of live action family comedies Annette had previously been cast in (i.e. The Absent Minded Professor, the Misadventures of Merlin Jones, etc.) Nor was trying to contract with other major studios an option, since established stars (i.e. Vincent Price) who "slummed" at AIP were basically stuck there.
Why? Well, the major Hollywood producers just didn't care for "tacky" AIP and pretty much blacklisted those associated with it (even though they repeatedly tried to copy AIP whenever an AIP theme proved profitable; the Beach Party series being a case in point: as the clone section of this site shows, between 1964 and 1967 almost all the major studios released beach/surfing and related "youth genre" movies featuring pop musical performances).
That lack of opportunity -- not just a desire to spend more time with family -- was likely a large part of what really led Annette to "semi-retire." She actually didn't completely disappear; Funicello showed up occasionally on network TV into the mid 90s, and not just in that infamous commercial role as a peanut butter promoter. She also made numerous "guest star" appearances on shows or specials, and two made-for-TV films (a 1985 comedy with Martin Mull, left, as well as a cameo in one based on her 1994 autobiography). She even attempted to help Frankie Avalon develop a regular weekly series in 1976, but unfortunately that show never got beyond the pilot stage.
However, the mid 1960s was basically the end of Annette's career as a a starring lead in films. She appeared in only a handful of movieds after 1967, mostly in cameos, other than her "vanity" (she co-produced the movie along with Frankie Avalon) starring role in 1987's Back To The Beach. The cameos consisted of a somewhat self-depreciating appearance (as "Minnie," Davy Jones' girlfriend) in the infamous 1968 Monkees film Head (right) and a thrity second walk on (in which she played herself) in 1989's Troop Beverly Hills.
However, her musical recording career didn’t simultaneously end, and in fact continued long after she left Buena Vista. Over the next twenty years she continued to make infrequent but ongoing appearances in recording studios that ended up on vinyl. They included the following:
Two songs (“What’s a Girl to Do” and “When You Get What You Want”) on the 1967 Boardwalk Soundtrack LP for American International’s Thunder Alley, Sidewalk 5902 (mono) and ST-5902 (stereo, left). There was also a single released containing these songs, as well as an open-ended disk-jockey promotional “interview with Annette” record released by American International. Many Annette fans actually consider the mature, sensitive vocals on these two pieces (produced by the legendary Mike Curb) to represent the singer at her peak. At a minimum, they show a significant evolution from the young, childish voice heard during the beginning of her recording career (i.e., numbers like “Tall Paul, “First Name Initial,” etc.)
Interestingly, the home video version of Thunder Alley (the MGM “Midnite Movie” release) contains only “When You Get What You Want,” even though several reviews (and the soundtrack listing) of the film on the Internet Movie Database make references to Annette performing "What's A Girl To Do" in the movie. This leaves one wondering about the story behind “What’s a Girl To Do.” Was this classic AIP-style ballad for some reason left out of the video version? Or was it -- per some claims on various Annette fan boards -- never even in the film? The latter would appear doubtful, given the posts on the imdb, but none-the-less a small but interesting mystery results. For in the broad realm of soundtrack albums, while there may be other examples, I've rarely encountered such “not-in-the-film-but-on-the-album” numbers.
No reference is made to Disney or Buena Vista on any of the records related to Thunder Alley, suggesting Annette’s contractual relationships with those organizations had ended by then.
In 1981, a 45 -- Pacific Star (569) – titled “Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Together We’ll Make a Merry Christmas” (right). This was privately produced by Avalon and Funicello and was the beginning of what I like to call their “1980’s nostalgia comeback marketing relationship,” which eventually led to the production of “Back to the Beach” in 1987.
An independently produced 1982 LP “The Annette Funicello Country Album,” which honestly speaking is probably the least impressive of all of her recording efforts. This is less due to the material and more due to the performance; across the whole album, Annette’s once beautiful timbre had mysteriously disappeared, replaced with one scratchy, sometimes tired and often out of tune. None-the-less, it’s an interesting item, both given the choice of material and the fact it appeared during but separate from her early “nostalgia” appearances with Frankie Avalon. Some sources state that Annette’s second husband Glen Holt was heavily involved in producing this, but how that ties into the choice of material and timing is unclear (she briefly discusses the LP in her autobiography, but doesn’t really address the intriguing question of exactly why she made it). Bottom line: there’s a story behind this record – potentially an interesting one -- that has yet to be told.
In 1987, a single number, a noisy 80’s style Fishbone-backed re-make of her “Jamaica Ska,” (which originally appeared on her Buena Vista Annette at Bikini Beach LP way back in 1964) on the Capitol Soundtrack LP “Back to the Beach.”
While Back To The Beach was clearly aimed at playing to Beach Party nostalgia, the consensus among pop historians is not to classify it as part of the AIP Beach Party series, which is why I don't discuss it or its music here in any detail. Suffice to say reviews of the film itself tend to be quite varied. My own opinion tends to be thumbs down; on many levels, this well-intentioned but made-for-TV-ish-feeling movie just isn't the fun it's supposed to be. Or in the insightful words of some other viewers, "a lot of people put their time and talent into this picture, but it doesn't soar, doesn't spark fond memories...basically a love letter to the worst elements of pop culture in 1987." For those interested, the Internet Movie Database (IMDB) contains a good representation of the interestingly wide range of opinion on “Back to the Beach;” it can be found at IMDB User Comments on Back To The Beach.
By the way, following up on the release of “Back to the Beach,” Annette and Frankie actually did a limited “nostalgia concert tour” (mostly appearances at small theatres and parks) between 1989 and 1990. Those shows – unfortunately I never caught one – apparently featured both some actual beach party movie music and some pop material from the same era. This was the last gasp, so to speak, of the original Beach Party Musical legacy.
But back to that song on the soundtrack LP: while Funicello’s piece in Funicello and Avalon in Back to the Beach isn’t particularly interesting, it has the notable footnote of Parade at Disneyland, April 1996 being the last recording Annette made prior to really retiring, which occured ocurred when she went public with her multiple sclerosis diagnosis in 1994.
On that subject, as I'm sure most readers are aware, Annette has been struggling with one of the more severe forms of multiple sclerosis since the late 1980s (one so acute that she underwent risky brain surgery in 1999 in an attempt to alleviate the symptoms). Understandably, after her diagnosis, her public appearances became increasingly limited and infrequent, before ending completely in 1997 (one of the last is shown in photo above). But during every one she was as positive and optimistic as ever, a credit to her emotional strength.
And with that strength came a selflessness. After her diagnosis, Annette opened up a foundation, which supports research into degenerative neuromuscular diseases. One can only pray that this and other research initiatives will soon bear fruit for her and the others who suffer from these terrible conditions.
To all those who appreciate her legacy, please help her in that effort. You are invited -- in fact, urged -- to click the link below, which will take you directly to a page where you can make a donation to her foundation: The Annette Funicello Fund for Neurological Disorders