Standing up for Gilda: Gilda's Clubs should not erase the memory of their namesake

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I find it quite sad that the Madison, Wis., chapter of Gilda's Club decided to change its name to the bland and generic Cancer Support Community.

It's possible that Gilda Radner herself wouldn't have minded much, as long as the mission was still being fulfilled. But the reason that the affiliate gave for the switch kind of sets my teeth on edge. Namely, that young people today don't know who Gilda was, so they might be "confused" by the name.

Call me a whiny baby boomer if you must, and maybe it's true. But how hard could it be to explain Gilda to young people? A single sentence would do it: "Gilda Radner was a brilliant comedian who fought hard against her cancer and wanted a place where others with the disease could go for comfort and support." Confusion -- gone. Was that so hard?

It sure seems to me that she is worth remembering, not only for her death but her life. Erasing her name is like erasing her contributions.

Gilda Radner was a comedic genius and wildly inventive sketch artist, my favorite person on "Saturday Night Live" for all the years she was on the show. A member of the original cast in the 1970s, she created characters that made us laugh until we ached and that embedded themselves in the popular culture. True, the popular culture has moved on. But if we disappeared everyone overtaken by modern times, there would be no classic TV, movies or music.

Gilda gave us Baba Wawa, her hilarious take-off on newscaster Barbara Walters and her speech impediment. Could anyone get away with that today?

She gave us Roseanne Rosannadanna, with the triangular helmet hair and the brash, blundering appearances on the fake-news "Weekend Update" segment. Her responses to letters from "Richard Fader of Ft. Lee New Jersey" wandered so far off the point and into such gross territory that fake-anchor Jane Curtain would cut her off looking green in the gills. Invariably, Roseanne would wrap it up with one of two closings -- her father telling her "Goodnight, my little Roseanna Roseannadanna" or "It just goes to show you, it's always something."

She gave us Lisa Loopner, the nerdy teen with a sinus condition and glasses on a chain, snorting through her nose and mooning over Bill Murray's Todd as they gave each other noogies.

She gave us the "Judy Miller Show," a rollicking and completely believable rendition of a little girl sent to entertain herself in her room. With her pigtails and Brownie uniform, she creates a make-believe show with herself at the center, doing all the bed-jumping, costume-wearing, stuffed-animal-kissing things that little girls do.

Most of all, she gave us Emily Litella, the sweet, elderly lady with a hearing problem who offered fractured commentary on "Weekend Update." I loved Emily because she got so worked up with sincere, finger-wagging opinions that were completely misinformed.

"What's this fuss about saving Soviet jewelry [meaning Soviet Jewry]? Where are we going to put it?" Or, "What's all this fuss about five crustaceans [meaning Croatians] hijacking an airplane? Who made their little masks for them?" The fake anchor would let her go on for a while, then gently correct her, at which point Emily would stop, look into the camera, smile and say, "Oh. Well, that's different. Never mind." Karl Rove could have used some of Emily's directness on election night.

Gilda died in 1989 after a three-year fight against ovarian cancer. It was a very sad day and a big, big loss. But she was resurrected somewhat by the fulfillment of her wish: the establishment of a warm, welcoming place where people with cancer could come to find support, camaraderie, relaxation and, if they want it, commiseration.

The first Gilda's Club was set up in New York City. Founded by the actor Gene Wilder -- Gilda's husband -- and cancer therapist Joanna Bull, it opened in 1995.

Some 23 nonprofit affiliated clubs opened around the country, including the Pittsburgh branch in the Strip District in 2006. Its motto, "Come as you are," reflects the casual atmosphere of the place. And there's never a charge. Yoga classes, coffee and hanging out -- all free.

Karen Perry, the sister of one of my college friends, found an indispensable community there, forming close bonds, staying interested and interesting. When she died in October, the memorial reception was held, fittingly, at Gilda's Club, and the friends she made there spoke of her with great affection and appreciation.

In 2009, Gilda's Club joined with another organization called The Wellness Community to become the Cancer Support Community. Today there are 50 affiliates and 100 satellite locations.

But if any chapters of Gilda's Club other than the one in Madison are changing their names, it hasn't made the news. The Pittsburgh chapter, for one, is standing firm.

As executive director Carol Lennon told my colleague, Michael Fuoco, for his story about the name change, there's no reason to detach the organization from its founding force, a widely beloved woman who fought 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."

Yes, it does, and it should continue to do so. Gilda's Club has its name for a reason. Perpetuating the memory of this very funny, very brave and very determined woman seems like the least we can do.

sallykalson

Sally Kalson is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (skalson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1610).


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