Beyond the Screen, Gilda’s Club Is Gene Wilder’s Greatest Legacy

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Gilda's Club

Along with a trove of hilarious films and comedic performances, beloved comic actor Gene Wilder leaves behind a different kind of legacy with Gilda’s Club, the charitable organization that he founded in 1991, two years after his third wife, Gilda Radner, died from ovarian cancer.

Wilder established the non-profit in the belief that had Gilda been diagnosed earlier, she would be alive. With a mission that nobody should face any kind of cancer alone, Gilda’s Club is committed to support, educate and empower cancer patients and their loved ones. The community-based network is there for the cancer community—because cancer affects everyone, not just the patient—during treatment and beyond.

For two decades “Gilda’s Clubs” have provided safe spaces for anyone with cancer and loved ones and friends to come together to share experiences and draw strength from each other—and yes, laugh. Since 1995, 11,000 individuals and families have participated in the NYC branch of Gilda’s Club alone, and the group today has over 4,200 members.

Gilda's Club logoAcross the US, Gilda’s Club has 16 clubhouses and in the wake of its 2009 merger with The Wellness Community to form the Cancer Support Community (CSC), now comprises the largest cancer support network in America. While some Gilda’s Club chapters decided to rebrand in the wake of the merger, as we covered in 2012, Radner’s name lives on including at its flagship original location behind the red door in New York’s Greenwich Village, just off Sixth Avenue, along with locations in New Jersey, Connecticut and beyond.

It’s also firmly part of Wilder’s legacy after his passing on August 29th—arguably his greatest legacy along with his body of comedic performances. The well-known actor whose portrayal in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is iconic, was a natural partner for Radner, whose Roseanne Roseannadanna and Baba Wawa, Barbara Walters’ alter ego, were among Saturday Night Live‘s most famous and beloved characters.

They married in 1984 after meeting on the set not of SNL but of Sidney Poitier’s movie Hanky Panky, in 1982. Radner said of their relationship, “It felt like my life went from black and white to Technicolor.”

In keeping with that colorful theme, a pink vinyl pressing for the 10 Bands 1 Cause campaign (including the appropriately-named Red Hot Chili Peppers and The Black Keys) will donate proceeds to Gilda’s Club. The idea is brilliantly simple:

Ten Bands re-issue their albums on limited edition pink vinyl, all for one cause. This is the third year for the initiative that helped raise $65,000 for Gilda’s Club NYC, an organization that provides community support for both those diagnosed with cancer and their caretakers. It is named after comedian Gilda Radner, who passed away from the disease at the age of 43 in 1989. 

This year’s limited pink vinyl are from Anthrax, The Black Keys, Courtney Barnett, Ed Sheeran, Jim Breuer & The Loud & Rowdy, My Chemical Romance, NOFX, Opeth, Pixies and Red Hot Chili Peppers. The releases will be available for purchase at retailers nationwide wherever vinyl is sold, and proceeds will sponsor Gilda’s Club NYC. 

We asked Gilda’s Club CEO Lily Safani to give us a snapshot of how the organization is doing and what kind of support they’re seeking.

“We reach 20,000 people living with cancer annually in person, over the phone, and on our website,” she told us. “Our mission is to support, educate and empower cancer patients and their families. Our members are as young as 4 years old and as old as 85 years old. They come from all walks of life to be part of a special community that understands what it means to be living with cancer.”

Social media has been huge in helping spread the word and connect supporters. “It is a great way for us to stay connected to a much larger group of people than ever before,” said Safani, adding that attitudes towards the disease have changed. “People are much more open about talking about their cancer than when Gilda’s Club first opened their door in 1995.”

“In the past 21 years the landscape for cancer treatment as changed dramatically especially with immunology playing a big role. People are more aware of the impact of changing their lifestyle – eating healthy and exercise. Once you are diagnosed with cancer it lives with you for the rest of your life. We provide educational lectures that teach our members about healthy lifestyles.”

As for Wilder, Sefani said, “He was a very dedicated to Gilda’s Club and providing support to cancer patients.”

In keeping with its funny bone origins, Gilda’s Club honors comedians annually and this year’s honoree was Melissa McCarthy, last year’s was Amy Poehler. “We try to keep the spirit of comedy alive and remember her in that way,” said Safani. “Gene was our honorary chair. He’s an icon of this organization.”

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