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Bob Iger and Disney Studio veterans pay tribute to Annette Funicello during soundstage naming / dedication ceremony

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Bob Iger and Disney Studio veterans pay tribute to Annette Funicello during soundstage naming / dedication ceremony

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There's a perhaps-apocryphal story that's often told about Annette Funicello & Walt Disney. This one starts out back in the Spring of 1955 when the Studio has almost completed casting "The Mickey Mouse Club ." But they're still looking for that one special kid to round out the cast of this soon-to-begin shooting television series.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

About this same time, Disney is dragooned into attending a dance recital at Burbank's Starlight Bowl. This isn't something that Walt particularly wanted to do. Especially after the Burbank City Council had turned down his request to build a Mickey Mouse park on the other side of Riverside Drive back in 1953. But since Disney still wants his Studio to be thought of as a good neighbor within the Burbank community ... Well, that's why -- every so often -- Walt would put in appearances at local events like this dance recital.

As it turns out, it was actually quite fortuitous that Disney found himself at the Starlight Bowl that night. For this was where Walt was wowed by a 12 year-old girl who came out onstage and then danced the Swan Queen part from Swan Lake. As soon as this dance recital was over, Walt allegedly immediately picked up a phone and called Bill Walsh (i.e. the producer of "The Mickey Mouse Club"), saying "I just found your missing Mouseketeer."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Now jump ahead to Annette's very first meeting with Walt Disney. Where Ms. Funicello first thanks Disney for this tremendous opportunity and then announces that she's thinking of changing her last name to something more American-sounding. Walt stops Annette right there and tells her "No." Explaining that her last name is actually a great asset. Since Funicello is so unique sounding, no one who ever heard Annette's last name would ever be able to forget it.

Now what's kind of ironic about the above story is now the name that Walt said no one would ever be able to forget is now emblazoned on the side of the very same soundstage where Annette and her very talented co-stars shot "The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse."

Some of the former original Mouseketeers plus Annette Funicello's friends & family who
turned out for Monday's soundstage naming / dedication ceremony. Copyright
Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Many of the surviving members of the original cast of this Disney-produced TV show made a special trip out to Burbank this past Monday afternoon just to take part in this soundstage dedication ceremony. Which officially got underway when Disney CEO Bob Iger stepped behind the podium and then thanked everyone there for taking part in this celebration of " ... the life and legacy of the incomparable Annette Funicello. America's sweetheart, a Disney Legend, and an extraordinary person both on and off the screen."

After welcoming Annette's friends and family to this event, Iger had something that he just had to get off his chest. " Annette was actually my very first crush. And I remember it as love at first sight. At least on my part," Bob said with a smile. "And I was faithful. I never missed one of her movies. And when she was on television, I was right there at home, watching every show. What can I say? She was gorgeous and I was smittened. Just like every other boy in America at that time."

Disney CEO Bob Iger. Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

After acknowledging that " ... Annette was Walt's brightest star, a cherished part of the Disney family who was loved by millions. And from this day forward, her place in our hearts and our history will be marked forever right here on this stage where it all began when she put on those famous ear and became a Mouseketeer," Iger then invited Bobby Burgess -- one of Annette's fellow original Mouseketeers -- up to the stage to say a few words about his longtime friend.

Speaking on behalf of the rest of the original Mouseketeers at Monday's event, Bobby first reminisced about what it was like to working on the Disney Lot back in the mid-1950s. "Five of us went to school with Annette right down here in the red trailers and across the street is where she had her make-up done," Burgess recalled. "And beyond that, we had our mouseketeer ears fitted at the wardrobe department." Afterwards, Bobby thanked The Walt Disney Company for " ... for keeping her legend and her legacy and her memory alive by naming our Mouseketeer stage the Annette Funicello soundstage."

Bobby Burgess gestures to where the Studio's old schoolhouse (AKA the red trailers)
were located. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Following Burgess' remarks, Iger invited Annette's daughter Gina Gilardi to say a few words on behalf of Funicello's friends & family. Gina kept her comments short, just basically saying that " ... On behalf of our entire family, Mom's husband Glen and our Dad Jack Gilardi, it's an honor for us to have all of our family and friends here. Everybody who was involved in Mom's life -- Mouseketeers, her dear friends, everybody. We can't say enough thank yous and -- on behalf of Mom -- we love you all and thank you for this dedication."

At this point, Iger unveiled the plaque that would soon be installed on an exterior wall of Soundstage One. Which read:

Bob Iger shows the Soundstage One plaque to members of Annette Funicello's
family. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"Annette Funicello - Stage One. Mickey Mouse Club was filmed here 1955 - 1958."

Then a curtain was pulled back to reveal that Annette's name had already been painted on the side of this building (FYI: The Company has only honored one other Disney Legend in this manner. And that was back in August of 2001 when Stage Two was renamed / dedicated The Julie Andrews Soundstage). And after an a cappella performance of "When You Wish Upon a Star" by the MeloD23 Singers, the ceremony was over and the crowd quickly dispersed.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which isn't to say that the people there were now ready to stop talking about Annette Funicello. Dick Sherman in particular seemed eager to pay tribute to his longtime friend, insisting that " ... my brother Bob and I wouldn't have had a career if it hadn't been for Annette. We called her our lucky star because every song that we wrote for her, Annette made even better."

"She was one of the biggest stars of the 1950s & 1960s. But you would have never known it if you ever spent any time with Annette. She was always this sweet, down-to-earth, very hardworking, humble young lady," Sherman stated. "She eventually became a very good friend to myself and my brother. And we came to think of Annette as our little sister. It's not often that someone who seems so sweet & talented on television or in the movies is actually that sweet in life. But that was Annette Funicello. As lovely off-screen as she was on."

Annette and the Sherman Brothers (center of above photo) at a late 1950s era
recording session for Walt Disney Productions. Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

So it's clear -- based on Bob Iger's comments as well as by Bob Sherman's reminiscents -- that Annette Funicello made a very big impression on all those she came in contact with. Which is why it's entirely appropriate that The Walt Disney Company chose to honor that little girl with the unforgettable name by naming a soundstage on the Burbank Lot after her. Which -- just as it was back in the mid-1950s -- is now one of the Studio's major hubs when it come to television production. Having recently been home to those popular ABC dramas "Brothers & Sisters " and "Body of Proof ." And then -- starting in August -- the Annette Funicello Stage then becomes home to a brand-new TV series, "Intelligence." This cyber action-drama debuts on CBS in February of 2014.

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  • My daughter was lucky to get me a VHS tape of the Annette TV biography A Dream is A Wish Your Heart Makes at a Brandeis University fundraiser.  Only a few were made, which is a shame (and no, I'm not selling my copy - sorry).  Until they put it out on DVD (hopefully), look on YouTube.   It's a beautiful film of a beautiful person.

  • Jim, all five Beach Boys are also in that recording studio photo....just saying...

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