Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: Finding my first girlfriend on TV

To paraphrase Bogie's refrain to Bergman — We'll always have, uh … those mouse ears.

With the passing of Annette Funicello within days of the deaths of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and designer Lilly Pulitzer, there have been plenty of strained attempts to link the three women into some common feminist commentary about leadership, entrepreneurship and the balance between motherhood and career.

Lean forward. I have a confession.

Annette Funicello meant an awful lot to a great many baby boomer little boys. An awful lot.

From the age of 6 to 10, I sat in front of the black-and-white television and pined away for Annette. She was my first girlfriend, or at least what I hoped my first girlfriend (if I ever got one) would be like.

I cannot recall a single moment from The Mickey Mouse Club except for Annette. I suppose this qualifies as prepubescent lust, keeping thousands of Catholic priests busily assigning Hail Marys and Our Fathers in penance to millions of boys across the land confessing to a variety of impure thoughts (if we actually knew how to have one), all because of The Mickey Mouse Club.

The allure of Annette Funicello wasn't about fantasies of prurient sex, although I was certainly open to the possibilities if only I had known at the age of 8 what prurient sex was.

Rather, she taught a generation of boys the valuable life lesson of yearning, the entirely selfish act of gazing upon a beautiful older woman of 15 and wondering what might be.

Earlier generations had pin-ups like Betty Grable and those incredible legs, or Jane Russell and those incredible, well, let's just leave it at that. Future generations would pine for Farrah Fawcett, or Raquel Welch, whose scantily attired performance in One Million Years B.C. probably sparked the biggest sales of posters for the most unwatched movie in history.

All those women advanced the cause of carnal knowledge, not there is anything wrong with that. Annette was the classic girl next door, the lass you could bring home to your parents. And yet she also represented the idea that once the family left the room, anything could happen — if only you had a clue what anything could happen meant.

Time goes on. The Mickey Mouse Club of my era left the airwaves in 1960 and Annette went off to make hideous beach movies with Frankie Avalon. I had been jilted.

For the next few years, I vicariously played the field.

There was an Armenian restaurant in Akron, Nick Yanko's. It was a few doors away from the Highland Theater, where I spent my Saturdays watching Three Stooges comedies and horrible science fiction flicks.

On the way home I would always stop at Yanko's doorway to stare, mouth agape, at the glossies of the exotic belly dancers performing at the restaurant. I particularly admired their castanets. And I wondered — a lot — how would Annette look in one of those outfits?

For a good, 13-year-old Catholic chap this constituted international man of mystery lasciviousness.

A boy never forgets his first naked woman.

In 1966, my father made a rare spur of the moment decision to take me to see The Blue Max, starring George Peppard as a German pilot. I think my dad believed The Blue Max would be little more than a good old-fashioned World War I movie with plenty of dogfight sequences, which were indeed included.

But then Peppard barges in on Ursula Andress at the very moment she is stepping out of a bathtub. And I saw Ursula Andress — all of her. My life at 15 changed forever.

As my 6-foot-3 father cringed uncomfortably next to me, three thoughts immediately came to mind: 1) Holy cow! So that's what they really look like? 2) Farewell Annette. Hello Ursula. And 3) I think I'm going to need some extra time in the confessional this week.

But old, now very old embers of yearning have never quite been extinguished. Annette Funicello still beckons to little boys of a certain age, who are now collecting Social Security checks instead of publicity stills.

Annette never governed a nation, or ruled over a business empire. Truth be told she wasn't a very good actress, or singer, or dancer. She was, quite simply, very good as a fine and decent woman who taught us how to live with a horrible illness in multiple sclerosis and die with dignity at 70.

I confess I hope I can handle the end as well as my long-ago girlfriend.

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