Annette Funicello’s death, at age seventy, occurred one day after the Sunday night premiere of season 6 of Mad Men. The pilot of the show, you will recall, was set in the year 1960: the same year Annette Funicello segued from The Mickey Mouse Club (which aired from 1955 to 1959) to her career as a singer and performer in a passel of musicals produced in Hollywood, before the British Invasion transformed youth culture. Mad Men’s narrative trek through the decade now compels its protagonists to face the increasingly surreal and riotous mayhem of America’s social and political panorama in the late 1960s: the shift from “We Shall Overcome” to black power. Our total plunge into Vietnam’s quagmire. The generation gap. Two assassinations in 1968: the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. Plus, of course, the incipient women’s movement. All that, set against a sound track ruled by the Doors, the Stones, and the White Album incarnation of the Beatles, whose aural evolution defined the whole epoch.
According to one school of thought, the “real” 1960s did not unfold until well after JFK’s death, definitely after the onset of the Beatles’ psychedelic phase in 1966 (“Strawberry Fields Forever” in lieu of “She Loves You”), and eons after the earlier half of the decade was sweetly personified by Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon in a slew of beach movies, replete with “Twist”-era rock-and-roll dance music. Of course, it was that earlier part of the 1960s—the Annette Era, so to speak—that first created Mad Men’s buzz. The meticulous re-creation of the fashions, manners, and mores of 1960–63 reminded (or taught) viewers how drastically different the first part of the decade was from the latter.
Consider that Elvis’s film Blue Hawaii (the same genre as Annette’s beach movies) was a big hit in 1962: one of that year’s top ten at the box office, and Presley’s most successful album to date. By 1969, the smash-hit movie of the moment was the drug-fueled, acid-tinged Easy Rider, which went into wide release during the same season as a festival called Woodstock.
Yet, somehow, the two halves of the 1960s have collided in the public imagination. The first half of the decade seems like a legendary tale unto itself; the latter half of the decade plays out like a Greek tragedy. And yet, for most Americans old enough to remember anything of those times, the whole period is retained in the memory as a cavalcade of TV images, moments of media-accentuated highs and lows, a dizzying kaleidoscope of contrasting profiles and endless arguments that continue today. Was Vietnam noble or a war crime? Was the sexual revolution a disaster or not? Were the Beatles more appealing in matching suits or as hippie artistes? And so on, ad infinitum. As for the images, they exist in a realm that transcends argument.
As fate would have it, the images of Annette Funicello (the former Mouseketeer, the bouffant-styled beach goddess, the good girl, the nice girl, the girl next door) are as much a part of the 1960s iconography as “The Ballad of John and Yoko” or Janis Joplin at Monterey Pop. And Annette’s audience was equally enraptured. Just quieter.
Last Sunday night, as Don Draper and company brought Mad Men (and its ever-more-powerful women) into the later years of the decade—the sixties, as they’re increasingly thought of—anyone channel-surfing was likely to see and hear Annette Funicello. On another network, one of her beach movies with Frankie Avalon was playing, the early-sixties analog to “California Dreamin’.” And Annette’s profile still defines the first half of that ever-debatable decade as much as Jackie’s pillbox hat.
M. J. Moore is writing a biography of novelist James “From Here to Eternity” Jones.