Comedian Gilda Radner entertained audiences for years with her “Saturday Night Live” characters and impersonations before succumbing to ovarian cancer in 1989.
Radner’s legacy has lived on through the creation of Gilda’s Clubs — cancer support groups started by the late actresses’ friends and family in her honor.
On Thursday, however, the Middleton chapter of Gilda’s Club, near Madison, Wis., publicly announced its decision to change its name, citing a perceived lack of name recognition for the actress among younger Americans.
“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,” Lannia Syren Stenz, the club’s executive director, 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.”
The decision to change the local chapters name was influenced by fundraising concerns, according to Ron Nief, a professor at Beloit College in Wisconsin. Considering that Radner has not been viewed extensively on television for decades, fewer and fewer donors are aware of her and might be less likely to give, he said.
“I think we all want to keep our traditions alive . . . but there comes a reality in this case of what does this group represent and how do we raise money for it,” said Nief.
The decision has enraged many Radner fans, with some expressing their anger via Facebook posts on the support group’s page.
“The only educating you're doing is teaching kids that when they die from cancer, their name will be erased from history in 20 years because the next generation doesn't know who they are. Way to give them hope!” wrote Mark Warneke, 44, of Arlington, Texas.
The decision to change the chapter’s name was also challenged by Cancer Support Community Executive Vice President Linda House.
“Gilda Radner is very much a part of the fiber of this organization . . . There has never been an intent and there is no intent to lose Gilda as part of the organization,” said House, adding that Stenz's comments were “not accurate, period.”
In 2009, Gilda's Club Worldwide merged with The Wellness Community giving way to the Cancer Support Community (CSC). Presently there are 56 CSC chapters worldwide, responsible for raising approximately $40 million annually to provide free care for more than a million cancer patients and their families.
“It's too bad. I wish it weren't so. But I understand,” said Radner’s husband, actor and director Gene Wilder.
Wilder added if he had to explain the decision to his late wife she might ask, “Do they have to throw me out?” To which Wilder said he’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.'”
The Middleton chapter of Gilda’s Club will officially change its name to Cancer Support Community Southwest Wisconsin, effective January 2013.
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