Gilda’s Club, the cancer support community named for the late Saturday Night Live star and comedienne Gilda Radner, with branches throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe, enraged many last week when there was talk of changing the club’s name because many young people did not know who Radner was. According to the Associated Press, Lannia Syren Stenz, the Madison, Wis., area club’s executive director, said her organization decided to change its name to Cancer Support Community Southwest Wisconsin because of this.
“One of the realizations we had this year is that our college students were born after Gilda Radner passed, as we are seeing younger and younger adults who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis,” Stenz told the Wisconsin State Journal. “We want to make sure that what we are is clear to them and that there’s not a lot of confusion that would cause people not to come in our doors.”
While some of the chapters were quick to change their names, other organizations were holding their ground on keeping the Gilda’s Club namesake. LauraJane Hyde, who runs the Chicago chapter, was reported as saying her group has spent 15 years teaching people that Radner’s name was synonymous with cancer support.
“A lot of people feel very passionately about the name,” she said. “We will lose donations if we change it.”
The first Gilda’s Club opened its doors in New York City in 1995. In response to the latest uproar, the New York City chapter took to Facebook to assure supporters of the club and fans of Radner that they have no intention of changing the club’s name. “In response to recent news regarding the name change of one Gilda’s Club in Madison, WI – we would like to assure everyone that Gilda’s Club New York City has no intention of changing our name,” the post read. “As the flagship Clubhouse, we value our brand and our association with Gilda Radner. Most importantly, we value our members and the cancer community in New York City.”
Radner shot to stardom as one of the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players on Saturday Night Live, forging a unique comic image with such indelible satirical characters as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Lisa Loopner, Emily Litella, and Baba Wawa (i.e. Barbara Walters). In 1980, after five seasons on the show, Radner left to pursue a movie career. It was on the set of the 1982 film Hanky Panky that Radner fell in love with her co-star, Gene Wilder. The two were married in 1984 and went on to make two more films together before she died of ovarian cancer in 1989 at age 42.
Following her death, Wilder joined forces with the late film critic Joel Siegel, actor Mandy Patinkin, and Gilda’s therapist Joanna Bull to create a place where people with cancer and their friends and family could go, free of charge, and feel they were not alone. Gilda’s Club is modeled after The Wellness Community, a support group in Santa Monica, Calif., that Gilda went to during her illness. “With all the great medical care I was receiving,” Radner wrote in her 1989 memoir, “and all the support from my family and friends, there was one thing missing: None of those people had cancer.”
Although the Madison chapter’s announcement created waves, protests, and the launching of petitions, it’s important to note a few things. First, Madison wasn’t the first of the country’s 23 chapters to change their name. North Texas and Milwaukee came before them. Second, the Cancer Support Community, which became Gilda’s Club’s parent organization in 2009, has, in no way, mandated that all chapters change their names. Instead, they’ve given local affiliates the freedom to keep “Gilda” in their name or change it to Cancer Support Community or The Wellness Community (Gilda’s Club Worldwide merged with The Wellness Community in 2009).
Wilder said he didn’t like the name change but he understood it. He said if he had to break the news to his late wife she might ask, “Do they have to throw me out?”
Wilder added, “I’d say, ‘It’s not throwing you out, honey, it’s getting more money.’ And she’d say, ‘OK, I guess if they have to, they have to.’ It’s too bad. I wish it weren’t so. But I understand.”