In 1994 I read Annette Funicello's autobiography that she wrote with Patricia Romanowski. It told the story of the little girl from Utica, New York, whose mother saw a singing and dancing talent and convinced her husband to take a chance and move to Hollywood to give her little Annette a shot at fame. After being discovered by Walt Disney for his new Mouseketeer Show -- Annette went on to a singing, dancing and acting career, before retiring to raise her children and then to battle Multiple Sclerosis.
Many had pitched her story when the book was reviewed in People magazine -- and all three of the broadcast networks had passed on the idea of producing it as a movie. Having been a very little boy with a very real crush on Annette when I was young, I was determined to try and option the book and sell it. I went to meet with Annette's ex-husband, legendary agent Jack Gilardi. He heard my pitch, saw my passion and agreed to set up a meeting for me to meet with Annette at her home in Encino. I was quite nervous, but excited to meet one of my childhood heroes.
Annette was everything you would hope she would be -- sweet, sincere, positive and caring. Even battling this insidious disease, which at that point had taken away her ability to walk -- or even hold a pen to sign autographs -- her smile never dimmed and her memory was razor sharp. She heard my pitch for how to adapt her book to film -- which would involve Annette appearing in the film herself -- telling her life story to a group of kids on the day of her daughter's wedding.
The darling Miss Funicello agreed to let me option her book.
Now. How to sell it?
CBS's scripted programming was being run by former fellow movies-for-television producer Larry Sanitsky. I knew Larry grew up watching The Mickey Mouse Club and I took a chance that he might have a crush on Annette too. Working on that hunch, I had Annette call Larry's office and invite him up to her house for a cup of coffee. How could he resist America's sweetheart? Sure enough, Larry was a fan and agreed to the meeting.
I had a pair of Mouseketeer ears made for Mr. Sanitsky, with the name "Larry" stitched in yellow thread on to the front. Annette handed Larry his "ears" as soon as he arrived. He melted -- and we knew we had sold the movie to CBS.
Six months later we had a wonderful screenplay adaptation of the book from John McGreevey and Peter Torokvei. The CBS executive from the movies-for-television department, Michael Healy, was able to get his network to order the film into production. Off we went to Vancouver to make a movie.
Actress Eva LaRue (known now for her work on CSI: MIAMI) was cast to play Annette as an adult and young singing and dancing star Andrea Nemeth was cast to play Annette before and during her Mouseketeer years.
The film opens and closes with Annette sitting on a lounge in a living room on the day that her daughter Gina is to be married. A small group of nieces, nephews and friends sit around her as she begins to tell them the story of her life. From that point she narrates portions of the film, so we can jump forward in time, and, occasionally we return to her in the salon. The film ends with Gina's wedding ceremony. Eva LaRue is in a wheelchair and as she's wheeled past camera she becomes the real Annette -- so do all the other family members in the chapel. The actors are magically replaced by the real family. We had flown up Annette's mom and dad, Virginia and Joe, her brother Joey and her children, Jack Jr., Gina and Jason. Jack Gilardi -- also portrayed in the film -- stayed very close to us during the production and was instrumental in getting the whole family to appear in the final scenes.
Annette's parents were funny and outgoing -- and very protective of their Annette -- even as an adult. I enjoyed talking to Virginia, who was a force of nature, about the early days. As much as Annette enjoyed performing -- it was never her dream to be a star. It was Virginia (portrayed by Golden Globe winner Linda Lavin) who pushed and cajoled and got her daughter the opportunities to showcase her talents -- eventually leading up to the moment when Walt would see her at a ballet recital in Burbank.
Annette adored being on our set. Despite the long hours (and the certain fatigue she must have been experiencing) she was always upbeat and positive. And when she would reminisce about Walt Disney she would simply glow. Walt (played so well by Len Cariou) was like a favorite Uncle to her.
Many of Annette's real life friends also flew up to appear in our film. Frankie Avalon, Dick Clark and Shelley Fabares all played themselves in pivotal moments in the last part of the film, as Annette bravely faced her battle with MS. They all said they would have done anything for Annette.
When Annette was pregnant with her first child (Jack Jr.) she gave birth at a hospital in Los Angeles. At that time, husbands weren't allowed in the surgical wing -- and couldn't participate in the birthing process. Annette gave birth to her new baby boy, was taken to a recovery room and was able to hold her new child. The first person to get to see her and the new addition to her family? Not her husband or her mom. No, that honor went to her dear friend Mickey Mouse, who arrived with a big bouquet of balloons.
This was a scene we had to recreate in the film. But, as a little independent studio myself, I would have to get permission from the Disney Corporation to portray Mickey in my film. From Vancouver we called the appropriate folks at Disney and asked for a one-time license to recreate Mickey. As we worked our way up the legal ladder at The Mouse House -- all we heard was "no." Apparently, Mickey had never appeared in any film that wasn't owned by the Disney Corporation. Imagine that.
As we got closer to the day of shooting the scene in the hospital, we were nowhere closer to getting the authorization. Now less than a week away, we had gone about as high up the food chain as possible and the answer was still a resounding "no way." It appeared as though we were going to have to scratch that scene from our movie.
My one last shot was to see if Annette could help. I called her at home. She was (as always) optimistic and enthusiastic. Let me make a few calls and see what I can do about this...
Later that day, reviewing a budget in a tiny production office in a Vancouver warehouse, the phone rang. The production coordinator appeared at my door and said, "Uhm. Stan? There's a Michael Eisner on the phone for you..."
My heart skipped a beat. EEK. Michael Eisner is calling ME?
Yes, Mr. Eisner. This is Stan Brooks.
Listen. I spoke to Annette and she wants Mickey to be in your film. We will do anything for Annette -- she's a cultural icon and a treasure at this studio. Will you take good care of Mickey and not embarrass us?
Oh, no, sir.
I'm going to put you on the phone with my assistant who worked for Walt and still works here -- she was the one that originally sent Mickey to the hospital when Jacky was born.
And with that, Mr. Eisner was gone and a lovely woman appeared on the phone. She had known Annette going back to the Mickey Mouse Club and still stayed in touch with her. She was excited we were recreating that special moment and that Mickey could be a part of it.
Mickey flew up from Disneyland on the day we shot at the hospital. He was a champ and nailed his scene on the first take. With a few hours to spare before his flight home, Mickey asked if we were shooting at a working hospital. I told him we were and -- on his own -- made his way to the Children's Ward and spent three hours there, making some very sick kids very, very happy.
The film, A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes premiered on CBS on Sunday, Oct. 22, 1995. It was an enormous ratings success. At the end of the film we ran a public service message from Annette on behalf of the MS Foundation of America -- with an 800 number for donations and information. I was told, later, by a representative from the MS Foundation that when the movie aired they received more calls to their 800 number in the next 24 hours than they did the previous 10 months. America loved their Mouseketeer and wanted to support her in this terrible struggle.
Annette Funicello was truly America's girl next door -- the girl every boy wanted to bring home and every girl wanted as their best friend. From Mouseketeer to Beach Bunny to Skippy Peanut Butter spokeswoman -- we loved her.
And I can tell you, from meeting her, working with her and knowing her, she was all that and more. Annette was a ray of sunshine that lit up every room and every life she touched.
M. I. C. K. E. Y.
Because we will ALWAYS love you.
Rest in peace.