By: Rachel Goodman
After landing many leads in comic roles at the University of Michigan, Gilda Radner landed her first professional theatre role as part of the legendary cast of Godspell at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto in 1972. Gilda then went on to become one of the founding members of the Second City Toronto under Andrew Alexander, along with Dan Aykroyd, Eugene Levy and Valri Bromfield.
Here in Toronto, Gilda made a name for herself as a comedienne. A reviewer once correctly projected that she would go on to be the “toast” of comedy in London and New York. Fulfilling this prophecy, a year and a half later, Gilda went on to New York City where she worked on the National Lampoon Show as a writer and performer, before becoming the first Not Ready For Prime Time Player to be hired for Saturday Night Live. Her characters such as Roseanne Roseannadanna, Emily Litella, Baba Wawa and Judy Miller still have not been forgotten in pop culture or to her fans. With these characters she has inspired people such as Tina Fey, Emma Stone, Tracey Ullman, Cheri Oteri, and countless others who have gone on to do great things in their lives and performances.
But what really makes Gilda so incredibly different is that the world truly loved her – and practically anyone that ever met her has said that she was the nicest person ever.
“When Gilda came out on stage,” said the late Joyce Sloane, who was considered to be the mother of Second City, “the whole audience just wanted to put its arms around her.”
“People who met her for the first time, they felt like they were her best friend and she theirs, and what I just told you with that story is not an unusual story,” says Alan Zweibel [one of the original writers on Saturday Night Live] in an interview with Peter Anthony Holder, “you’d go to a restaurant and if you passed a homeless person on the way to restaurant, at the restaurant she would order a couple of extra desserts or an extra sandwich and come back and give it to the guy.”
Many were devastated to hear of the loss of Gilda back in 1989, including Steve Martin, who was hosting Saturday Night Live that day that she died. Holding back tears, Martin introduced the famous Dancing in the Dark sketch where he and Gilda danced to their own rendition of the song of the same name from the movie The Band Wagon (with Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse).
Even after death, Gilda’s legacy lives on. During her illness, Gilda was able to go to a cancer support group in Santa Monica, California and her hope was that people could have this same help no matter where they live. Gilda’s Club was established by her husband Gene Wilder and her cancer psychotherapist Joanna Bull. Cancer patients can go to Gilda’s Club to be with other people who are going through the same thing as Gilda during her battle with cancer. After opening the first Gilda’s Club in NYC in 1995, it was so successful that in 2000 Gilda’s Club Worldwide formed with the goal of bringing cancer support groups worldwide.