Editor's note: Joe Leydon is a critic and correspondent for Variety and Variety.com, a blogger for MovingPictureBlog.com, a contributing editor for CultureMap Houston on the Web and Cowboys & Indians magazine. He is an instructor and lecturer at University of Houston and Houston Community College. He is the author of "Joe Leydon's Guide to Essential Movies You Must See" and is working on a revised and expanded edition of the book.
(CNN) -- OK, I admit it: Annette Funicello was my first dream crush.
Mind you, I didn't fall in love right away. Because, after all, when "The Mickey Mouse Club" premiered in 1955, I was barely out of diapers. (And as Woody Allen reminded us in "Annie Hall," "Even Freud speaks of a latency period!") But when the five-day-a-week series went into syndicated reruns in the early '60s, I was a goner the first time I tuned in.
Like millions of other guys my age at the time, I fell in love with that vivacious young beauty with the bright, beaming smile. And, as the show continued, the conspicuously blossoming, ahem, womanliness.
Of course, there were other attractive ladies on the airwaves. There was Mary Tyler Moore flitting about in Capri pants throughout various episodes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show." And while some of us couldn't understand quite why Gomez (John Astin) was so attentive to Morticia (Carolyn Jones) on "The Addams Family" -- we couldn't help paying attention to her, too.
But those and other prime-time persons of interest were women. (Like -- yikes! -- our moms.) Annette Funicello was different. She was our age, or close enough. And we couldn't get enough of her.
Unfortunately, there never was enough.
British novelist and critic L.P. Hartley was right: The past really is a foreign country -- and, man, we did things very differently there.
In the early to mid-1960s, an era before cable, videocassettes, DVDs and the Internet, if you wanted to follow a star, well, you had just so many opportunities for star sightings.
You missed "The Mickey Mouse Club" -- and Annette -- on Friday? Sorry, bud: You had to wait until Monday for another glimpse. And even later, when Annette branched out into movies -- you actually had to leave home and go to a movie theater to see her.
And you did. If you are a guy of a certain age, you kinda grew up with Annette Funicello. You started paying attention to her on "The Mickey Mouse Club" at roughly the same time you started paying attention to girls your own age. And when she starred in "Beach Party" -- which begat "Muscle Beach Party," then "Bikini Beach" and "Pajama Party" and "Beach Blanket Bingo" and on and on -- the time was just right for you to respond to a silly popcorn comedy filled with bubblegum pop tunes and bikini-clad cuties every bit as avidly as moviegoers of a later generation might respond to movies about hunky werewolves and sparkly vampires.
Of course, if you were a guy of a certain age at a certain time -- hey, you had to hide your love away. If your buddies wanted to know why you needed to cut short a baseball game or wanted to change the channel from "The Three Stooges" to watch "The Mickey Mouse Club," you couldn't very well tell them the truth. You had to say: "Oh, I'm following that 'Hardy Boys' serial." Or, "Man, haven't you been keeping up with 'Spin & Marty' ?"
You never had to make a similar excuse to any girl you might be dating. And the beauty part was: Girls were never jealous of Annette. Why? Because most of them would admit that they wanted to be Annette. They had 45s of all her hit singles -- "Pineapple Princess," "Tall Paul," etc. -- and they really appreciated that you never complained when they played them over and over again.
Annette Funicello represented an all-American ideal of perky, spunky, mid-'60s sexuality -- nonthreatening, effervescent, even wholesome. (She may be the only actress in the history of showbiz to look demurely G-rated even while wearing a bikini. Compared to her, even Sally Field in "Gidget" looked hot to trot.) And while I normally detest the cliche of referring to this or that fallen star as emblematic of "a more innocent age," Annette serves as a reminder that, sometimes, "cliche" can be shorthand for "undeniable truth."
Annette's career fell into decline, alas, as relatively innocent trifles such as "Beach Blanket Bingo" were edged out of theaters by the likes of "The Graduate" and "Easy Rider," as the much-sought "youth audience" started demanding less homogenized and more realistic depictions of teen and twenty-something life in feature films. And as kid-skewing shows such as "The Mickey Mouse Club" were supplanted in late-afternoon TV schedules by syndicated chat-shows featuring Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin.
To her credit, Annette Funicello retained her dignity and remained relatively active long after her heyday passed. In fact, her post-'60s career path might serve as a game plan for contemporary teen phenoms, including a few who got their first break on Disney Channel series. And even as her visibility was limited to a TV guest spot here or a nostalgia-drenched spoof there (she and Frankie Avalon reteamed in 1987 for "Back to the Beach," a box-office underachiever), her fans continued to hold a soft place in their hearts for her.
We were saddened and sympathetic when we learned of her battle with multiple sclerosis. And Monday, as reports of her passing circulate, we mourn her passing.
And yes: Quite a few of us bid a fond farewell to a first sweetheart.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Joseph Leydon