'Shame on you.' Backlash builds over Gilda's Club charity name change

Gilda Radner on Sept. 29, 1980 in New York
Gilda Radner on Sept. 29, 1980 in New YorkToday

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By Lisa Flam

"It's always something."

If you're in your teens or 20s, Gilda Radner's signature line may not mean much to you. At least, that's what some members of Gilda's Club cancer charity believe.

The Madison, Wis. chapter of  “Gilda’s Club” started a firestorm this week after it said it would drop Radner’s name in January for the more generic "Cancer Support Community Southwest Wisconsin."

“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,” the chapter's executive director Lannia Syren Stenz told the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper Tuesday, suggesting that younger cancer patients might not appreciate the star power of one of the original cast members of “Saturday Night Live.” “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.”

Critics called the new name bland and disrespectful of the memory of Radner, who died of ovarian cancer at age 42 in 1989 – a few years before most current college students were born.

“Shame on you,” Dawn Mueller wrote on the chapter’s Facebook page, which drew scores of negative comments. “By changing the name of Gilda's Club to a sterile, no-name entity, you've made it clear that, in your eyes, Gilda's legacy is not worth protecting. Really? Without Gilda's celebrity and attention to the reality of cancer affecting even the brightest and youngest stars out there, Gilda's Club wouldn't exist... no matter what you call it."

Known for her wildly inventive characters such as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella and “Baba Wawa," Radner later became synonymous with cancer support through the founding of Gilda’s Club by her husband Gene Wilder and her cancer psychotherapist in 1995. The group provides support to cancer patients and their families and friends.

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In reality, the chapter isn’t the first to drop the prominent Gilda association. In 2009, Gilda’s Club Worldwide, the national organization, joined forces with another network of support groups, The Wellness Community, to form the Cancer Support Community. Two other of the 23 Gilda's Club affiliates adopted the new name as well – clubs in North Texas and Milwaukee.

Gilda Radner on Sept. 29, 1980 in New YorkToday

The Wisconsin’s chapter’s director, Stenz, referred TODAY.com's request for comment to the national organization.

After the national name change, the affiliates were given their choice of whether to adopt the new name, because they “know their communities better and what their needs are, so we empower them to make those decisions,” Linda House, Cancer Support Community’s executive vice president of external affairs, told TODAY.com.

She called the Wisconsin controversy a distraction from the organization’s mission to provide no-cost cancer support and education at its 56 chapters.

As the backlash against the Madison chapter spread across the Internet, many wondered if everyone today knows who Betty Ford or Susan G. Komen were.

Meanwhile, officials at other Gilda’s Club chapters affirmed their commitment to the name.

On Tuesday night, the first Gilda’s Club, the New York City chapter, tweeted: “@GildasClubNYC has no intention of changing our name. We value our association with Gilda Radner. Most importantly, we value our members ...”

The Gilda’s Club chapter in Grand Rapids, Mich. posted word on its Facebook page on Tuesday that its name remains. “Thank you kindly for keeping this lovely lady at the forefront of your community as she should be!!!!” Nicole Bettinghouse wrote on the page, in a typically appreciative remark.

Radner’s influence is still strong in the organization, House said, with her books on the shelves and her picture on the walls. “Gilda’s presence is part of the fiber of the organization,” she said.

The national organization has not dropped Radner’s name, House insisted, noting that the organization is “tri-branded” and displays the logos of Gilda’s Club and The Wellness Community, albeit smaller than the umbrella name, on its website.

For many, the name matters. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper said that he has co-hosted Gilda’s Club fundraisers in Chicago and has had to explain Radner’s legacy more than once. “So what?” he wrote, calling it a great opportunity to teach people about the comedy legend.

And if the Wisconsin chapter thinks 20-somethings don’t appreciate Radner, maybe they should check with young A-listers Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield, who recently gave a high-profile endorsement for Gilda’s Club.

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