1988 Associated Press photo of Gilda Radner.
GRAND RAPIDS. Mich. (WZZM) - Cancer was the illness that took the life of comedian Gilda Radner in 1989. She was the inspiration for Gilda's Club. Now the cancer support centers can be found across the nation, including West Michigan.
Michael Radner recalls growing up with his younger sister, "I wasn't paying a whole lot of attention to what this annoying little person that was living in my house was doing." An annoying little sister who grew up to be one of the funniest female comics.
Gilda Radner was five years younger than her brother Michael. She was born in Detroit in June 1946, Michael says she discovered her talent for comedy early, "She was a fat kid and I think she found humor to be protection and she was very funny and she made all her friends laugh."
Gilda continued to hone her comedic talent as a drama major at the University of Michigan. After graduating she moved to Toronto and joined the Second City Comedy Troupe.
In 1975 Gilda was the first actor to be cast in a new weekly televised comedy show called Saturday Night Live, "The reality was what you saw was the exact truth. Gilda was as nice in person as the Gilda that people fell in love with," says Michael.
Gilda's compassion spilled over into her comedy acts. She had a knack for combining extreme physical comedy with soft, caring characters that were easy to love like Rosanne Rosanna Danna and Baba Wawa.
Her brother was a loyal fan and always enjoyed rehashing the show. "Most evenings I would have taken notes on the show and she would call me and we would discuss the show and it was terrific."
After ending her Saturday Night Live career in 1981, Gilda went on to Broadway and created a successful one woman show. But her career was cut short when she was diagnosed with cancer in the late 1980's. Her husband Gene Wilder made every effort to make sure Gilda had the best, "We were always reassured that Gene was making sure that Gilda got the very best treatment," says Michael.
But unfortunately, it wasn't enough. After a brief remission in 1989 doctors discovered the cancer had spread through her body. Gilda was given a sedative, slipped into a coma, and died with Gene by her side three days later. "He loved her madly and they were the real deal," Michael says fondly.
Gene and Michael would finish what Gilda had started. "She wished that everyone dealing with cancer could get the kind of emotional support she found to helpful."
Gilda found that support through the wellness community. Michael recalls how she even opened up her home so that other women battling cancer had somewhere to talk and laugh about it. "Not being alone being with people who understand you is something that Gilda understood, and wanted other people to have, and that makes a huge difference in your life when you're dealing with cancer."
In 1994 Gene Wilder and Michael Radner, along with the help of other celebrities, opened the first Gilda's club in New York City. "Gilda's Club is not just a name, it's an aura, it's a feeling it's happiness, it's the laughter that Gilda brought to the world."
The clubs soon spread across the country and became known as much for being a place of healing as a place to laugh, which Michael says honors his sister's legacy. "Gilda's Club is a place where you can let your hair down even if you have no hair."
Proceeds from LaughFest will benefit Gilda's Clubs in West Michigan. It is the organization's 10th Anniversary in the West Michigan Community.
By Valerie Lego