Annette Funicello Remembered In The City Of Utica
Annette Funicello may have lived in Utica for only four years before leaving for the bright lights of California, but the Mouseketeer turned singer and actress had a long history in our city as a performer and visitor. Her death at age 70, after a long battle with multiple sclerosis, ends a life full of accomplishments.
According to local historian, Frank Tomaino, Funicello's father, Joseph, was a mechanic who moved his family to the West Coast from Utica.
From there, Funicello made her mark as one of the first Mouseketeers after being discovered at age 12 by Walt Disney during a dance recital. As her career grew from the Disney show, she later starred in various "beach party" movies opposite Frankie Avalon.
But, it was her music combined with the popularity of her movies that brought Funicello the attention of the general public.
Local musician and owner of Off-Center Records, John Keller, remembers her for her wide array of works.
"Between the Mouseketeers, the beach movies, being the Skippy mom on the TV commercials, her recording career with top singles like "Tall Paul," and collaborating with Paul Anka... She's one of the very few celebrities that actually came out of Utica," Keller said.
Some of Utica's residents were also under the impression that once she left, Funicello never thought about her hometown. Frank Tomaino says that isn't true.
"I know she visited Utica while she still had relatives here," Tomaino said. "I think she had a couple of aunts who lived on Lansing Street. For some reason, every time she came here during the summer months she would visit Vernon Downs with her aunts. I guess she liked the races."
Keller also mentioned a show she performed at the Stanley Theater with Frankie Avalon, the man who co-starred with her on their "beach party" movies.
"I think it was called 'Frankie and Annette's Beach Party,'" Keller said. "That was the tour that they were on and that appeared at the Stanley."
Although Funicello is easily one of the most recognizable names to come out of Utica, even she ruffled the city's feathers at one point during the 1980s with her country song, "The Promised Land."
"She got a lot of bad publicity because she had mentioned Utica as a 'sin city,' that type of thing," Tomaino said.
Keller called the incident minor, and said that it shouldn't overshadow the community's fond memories of Funicello or her long and storied career as an actress and singer.
"Any musician who writes a bad song about a place where they came from, it gets a little flak," Keller noted.
But, he also summed up Funicello's life flawlessly, praising her accomplishments.
"She was a wonderful person and very likable " Keller said. "I never did get a chance to meet her, but the relative I did know and just the way she comes off... She had a long career of making music and movies while trying to be stay-at-home mom."
It seems that Utica never forgot about Annette Funicello, and through her decades of work, they never will.