Gilda's Club name change draws ire

Wisconsin branch of cancer support organization removes name because young patients aren't familiar with comedienne


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Confused about the work of the Betty Ford Clinic or the Susan G. Komen for the Cure because their namesakes are deceased?

Familiar with a Ferris wheel or Hershey's chocolate or a Ford vehicle or even Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania -- even though they're all named for people who are dead?

Of course virtually everyone knows about those organizations, products and places even if they don't know the people for whom they're named.

And that's why there is so much criticism, particularly in social media, about the decision of a Gilda's Club affiliate in Madison, Wis., to change its name. The organization believes younger people might be confused about its mission to provide free social and emotional support for anyone touched by cancer -- patients and their families and friends alike -- because they might not be familiar with namesake Gilda Radner. The clubs honor the ground-breaking comedian, an original cast member of "Saturday Night Live," who died of ovarian cancer in 1989.

The Wisconsin affiliate's name will change in January to Cancer Support Community, the same name chosen in 2009 when the umbrella organization Gilda's Club Worldwide merged with Wellness Communities. But affiliates in Pittsburgh, New York and Chicago say they won't be doing the same.

In response to the negative fallout nationally, the group's headquarters in Washington, D.C. posted a statement on its website Wednesday denying media reports that it was mandating nationwide name changes for the 23 Gilda's Club affiliates.

"All affiliates have always been given the choice to be called Gilda's Club, The Wellness Community, or Cancer Support Community. That is because we are an organization that empowers its network to make these kinds of decisions locally," the statement said.

Here, the 6-year-old Gilda's Club Western Pennsylvania located in the Strip District will gladly keep its name, said executive director Carol Lennon. She said there is no reason to detach what the nonprofit provides those touched by cancer from the story of the comedic star who fought her cancer with courage, grace and humor.

"Gilda is very much an inspiration behind what we do here," Ms. Lennon said. "She is someone who lost her sense of humor when getting treatment and only through support was able to regain it. That speaks volumes."

The club's website notes that Ms. Radner shot to stardom on SNL creating such indelible characters as bumbling Emily Litella, scatter-brained Roseanne Roseannadanna and nerd Lisa Loopner. Hailed by critics as the next Lucille Ball, she won an Emmy in 1978. After a five-year run on SNL, she had a brief film career during which she met her husband, actor Gene Wilder.

Diagnosed with ovarian cancer on Oct. 21, 1986, Ms. Radner wrote about her experiences in her book, "It's Always Something," titled for Roseanne Roseannadanna's catchphrase.

Her wish was that somewhere be established where people of all ages diagnosed with cancer could come together and support one another through the illness. Following Ms. Radner's death in 1989, Joanna Bull, her cancer therapist, and Mr. Wilder opened the first Gilda's Club, in New York City in June 1995, according to the website.

Ms. Lennon said "it's not a negative" for the club's mission if someone doesn't know Ms. Radner's story.

"That's what's fun about Gilda's Club, introducing a whole new generation to Gilda Radner. It's our chance to show who she was. She's very much a living breathing aspect of what we do here in Pittsburgh."

Beth Westbrook Starnes of Regent Square, the former executive director of the New York Gilda's Club, said the name is an identifiable brand and those who don't know but learn about Ms. Radner's life will be the better for it.

"She did so much when she was diagnosed to bring humor and support and community to the whole notion of cancer that it's a teachable moment," said Ms. Starnes, who is vice president of Lungevity, a lung cancer nonprofit in Bethesda, Md. "Because I worked in the New York clubhouse, I have a great affection for what she did and the people who supported her through that journey.

If the Wisconsin affiliate expected any support for its board's decision, they were sadly mistaken. On it's Facebook page, the name change is being derided as "stupid," "horrible," "terrible," and "disrespectful."

"Gilda deserves better than this," a woman wrote. "You're saying in effect that she is forgotten. Shame on you."

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Michael A. Fuoco: mfuoco@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1968.


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