Gilda Radner was sketch-comedy gold.
Leave it to Roseanne Roseannadanna to lift the spirits of everyone in a room on a late Saturday night. The character’s triangular-shaped helmet of black hair and vaguely ethnic voice — satirizing the moment in the 1970s when diversity came to TV news — made the first-ever member of “Saturday Night Live” stand out in a cast of legends.
On the “Weekend Update” segment, Radner’s chatty alter ego would rattle off a litany of complaints. But the comedian’s pluck and wit made her seem the epitome of good health. Even — maybe especially — when she croaked the catch phrase: “What are ya tryin’ to do, make me sick?!”
Tragically, she would repeat that line one day off set — in a bleak hospital room while battling a terminal cancer diagnosis. The question — delivered in the voice of Roseanne Roseannadanna, of course — was both a way to lighten the mood and a comment on how badly invasive treatments were making her feel.
Historically, cancer of varying types had plagued Radner’s family. Radner’s father died of it when it attacked his brain, her mother survived it when it attacked her breast, but it was ovarian cancer that took her grandmother, aunt and a cousin, then claimed her life in 1989, at the age of 42.
Physically, the toll it took on Radner was devastating. But it was the loneliness of sickness that affected her most. Not until she found The Wellness Community in Santa Monica did she gain a foothold. It was that sense of community that made all the difference.
Following Radner’s death, her husband, comedy great Gene Wilder, felt compelled to create a place in her name where, as promised, no one would fight cancer alone. So, in 1995, he co-founded Gilda’s Club, a nonprofit cancer support community, with psychotherapist Joanna Bull and help from film critic Joel Siegel, actor Mandy Patinkin and several of Radner’s friends. Wilder understood too well how much the right mental outlook matters and wanted to create a place to provide good humor and hope in the face of trauma.
Gilda’s Club is a community organization for those battling cancer as well as for their loved ones. It is a place where those in need are given free emotional and social support and free supplemental medical care in a home-like setting.
At the Westchester chapter, life abounds. “It’s hopping,” Marjorie Weintraub, director of major gifts for Gilda’s Club Westchester, says of the chapter in White Plains. “The place is always busy.”
“It’s a very upbeat place,” she adds. “Gilda Radner wanted a clubhouse feel. (She) never wanted anyone to be called patients. They’re members.” That ethos came from Radner’s comment that her illness was like a “membership to an elite club I’d rather not belong to.”
In 2009, Gilda’s Club merged with the original organization where Radner found solace, The Wellness Community. Together they became the Cancer Support Community. Once the two organizations joined, some branches across the nation changed their name from Gilda’s Club, but not in New York.
“It was her legacy,” Weintraub says. “We felt very strongly we needed to keep the name. She lived right here in Stamford with Gene Wilder.”
She emphasized that Gilda’s Club is not just for women and not just for ovarian cancer.
“It’s so much more,” she says. “It’s an all-encompassing type of service.”
Men, women, children and teens are served. Indeed, the organization has launched a new effort focusing on teens. “We’re in over 80 different schools,” Weintraub says.
Members can participate in networking groups, workshops, lectures and social events all with an emphasis on coping strategy. The current organization reaches more than 20,000 people annually across the country — 4,000 at its White Plains location alone, which also serves Fairfield and Rockland counties.
Meanwhile, a new documentary by filmmaker Lisa D’Apolito, “Love, Gilda,” gives us a window into Radner’s all-to-brief life. The feature-length film, which opened the Tribeca Film Festival this year, is a touching portrait of a comedic genius and her reckoning with fate. Audiences get to watch rare footage of Radner, hear newly found audiotapes and listen to comics such as Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph and Melissa McCarthy read her diary entries. There are interviews with Martin Short, Chevy Chase, musician Paul Shaffer and writer Alan Zweibel among others.
D’Apolito’s interest in Radner was sparked eight years ago when she directed several videos for Gilda’s Club. In September, Gilda’s Club Westchester joined forces with the Bedford Playhouse’s Clive Davis Arts Center to present a special screening of the film to a packed crowd.
“It’s a beautiful playhouse,” Weintraub says. “The whole community in Bedford came together.”
Before the premiere, village restaurants and other vendors donated to a cocktail reception that included drinks named after Radner’s famous characters.
Writer Zweibel (an executive producer of the film) and his wife, Robyn Blankman Zweibel, held a Q&A after the screening. “They were actually best friends,” Weintraub said of Radner and Alan Zweibel’s relationship. Their closeness in both work and life lent more insight to the crowd.
The event was one of four premiere screenings in partnership with Gilda’s Club. Others were held at the Greenwich Bowtie Cinemas, Pleasantville’s Jacob Burns Film Center and Avon Theater in Stamford.
“(The event at the Playhouse) was a way to really showcase and say ‘Look, her legacy is right here — right in your own backyard,’” Weintraub says.
“We did a 90-second promo video,” she says, on behalf of Gilda’s Club. “It was a love letter to Gilda. People thought it was part of the documentary. It was heartwarming, it was uplifting and a perfect tee-off for the show.”
And it ended with the message the club wants everyone to hear: That no one should face cancer alone.