What’s in a name? Remembering the Gilda in Gilda’s Club

Gilda Radner fans, comedy fans and Gilda’s Club fans can breathe easier this week.

The Madison chapter of Gilda’s Club in Wisconsin has reconsidered its decision back in November to change its name to the Cancer Support Community Southwest Wisconsin. The board had voiced concerns that people no longer knew who Gilda Radner — the Gilda in Gilda’s Club — was, but immediately received vocal feedback about the name change and reversed course last week.

“It really struck a chord with folks and all of us agreed we want people to come to Gilda’s and get the help that they need,” Wayne Harris, chairman of the board for the Madison chapter, told the Associated Press today. “If this is what it takes to make that happen, we’re all as a group happy to make it happen…In retrospect, we probably should have thought that through or understood it more.”

In a press release, the Madison organization’s executive director Lannia Stenz added: “Over the past few weeks we’ve heard from so many passionate voices about how important Gilda Radner’s legacy is to our members affected by cancer. While we were never going to remove Gilda’s likeness from our walls nor her spirit from our mission, it became clear that however well intentioned, the decision to change the name of our club was not the right decision for our community.”

“We have been overwhelmed by the love and support that everyone has shown for Gilda, this organization and the good work we’ve done and will continue to do. As such, we are happy and humbled to announce that our name will continue to be Gilda’s Club and Gilda Radner’s iconic image will continue to help us welcome and support people affected by cancer.”

Born and raised in Detroit, Gilda Radner was one of the original cast members of Saturday Night Live, and performed on Broadway in a one-woman show before her final SNL season in 1979. Radner was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986, and died in May 1989. She was only 42. Her dying wish was to launch a center where others suffering from cancer could find love and support. The first Gilda’s Club opened in New York City more than four years later. Now, dozens of local chapters across the country offer free meeting places and support to anyone living with cancer and their families and friends.

In New York City, the city renamed West Houston Street between Varick Street and 6th Avenue “Gilda Radner Way” to honor her legacy.

Gene Wilder told Web2Carz over the holidays: “As her husband I could have told [Gilda’s Club of Madison] that ‘I think it would hurt Gilda’s feelings terribly if she were watching what you’re doing and that there’s no reason to hurt her or those who love her. There are millions of people who still love her.”

Alan Zweibel, who co-created the Roseanne Roseannadanna character for Radner on SNL, wrote on his own pages (and later posted to Huffington Post):

Okay, let’s say that these young people have not heard of Gilda who passed away in 1989. I personally think it could be a good thing because when these young people ask who she was, they can be told that she was a very funny comedienne who made millions of people laugh on television every week. And then they can be told that when she was stricken with ovarian cancer, instead of retreating, she embarked on a mission that took her to the cover of Life Magazine that had an article entitled “Gilda Radner’s Answer to Cancer: Healing the Body with Mind and Heart.” And took her to L.A. Lakers games where she laughingly compared her bald head with Kareem’s. And took her onto an episode of “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show” where she made cancer jokes because she looked her disease in the eye when she told me, “My jokes are my only weapon against this fucker.”

And once these young people are intrigued by these stories of this hero, invite them inside and show them the videos that abound on YouTube of her comedy. Show them Emily LaTella. And “The Judy Miller Show.” And Roseanne Roseannadanna. Trust me, these young people will laugh their asses off and be infused with the spirit of the woman who coined the phrase “Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I’d rather not belong to.” Hence, the name Gilda’s Club.

Saranne Rothberg, a cancer survivor who runs ComedyCures, a national non-profit that brings “humor programs to kids and grown-ups living with illness depression, trauma and disabilities,” applauded Zweibel for going so public with his feelings about Gilda’s Club. She wrote to him, and reiterated to The Comic’s Comic: “Bravo and thank you Alan. I was hoping that you were saddened and outraged too. I was hoping that you would be hugely vocal. As a stage IV cancer survivor who helped launch several Gilda’s Clubs (and my own charity), I am mad at the Gilda’s Clubs’ Boards. Is their decision arrogant and immature or a bizarre publicity stunt to refocus people on their mission? Regardless, so many comics that I work with are furious about the Gilda’s Clubs’ decision also. What can we all do in the comedy community to protect Gilda’s legacy? Please let me know how I may help you. Thanks and hugs to you and the family, Saranne.”

In Radner’s native Michigan, Gilda’s LaughFest in Grand Rapids hasn’t forgotten. Her name is in the festival’s title, which celebrates its third edition this coming March. Leann Arkema president and CEO Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids, told The Comic’s Comic, that the third annual Gilda’s LaughFest will feature more than 100 free showcases in addition to ticketed events with headliners Lewis Black, Wayne Brady, Joel McHale, Jim Breuer, Bill Burr and more.

“In 2009 we chose to continue to be called Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids,” Arkema told The Comic’s Comic. “We believe in the important legacy that Gilda left to all of us – the journey of finding your smile and laughter in the midst of dealing with the tough stuff in life; this is what happens in our cancer and grief program.  Children and adults need emotional support and a place to learn how to navigate through cancer and grief. Gilda is an inspiration to many and we value carrying forward her spirit of humor and irreverence.”

Please continue to let Gilda Radner inspire you by remembering her and celebrating her comedy.

Gilda Radner as Rosenne Rosannadanna on SNL:


From “Gilda Live” in 1980, her “commencement address” to the Columbia University School of Journalism

Gilda Radner in “Let’s Talk Dirty to the Animals”

As Emily Litella on SNL, Gilda offers an editorial rebuttal:


Gilda Radner as Baba Wawa on SNL


Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a name? Remembering the Gilda in Gilda’s Club

  1. ” … or a bizarre publicity stunt to refocus people on their mission?”

    Obvious is the word I would use. That’s because I’m having a hard time believing that people are forgetting Gilda Radner.

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