Midpoint Series: Ariela Rutkin-Becker on Gilda Radner

This guest post from Ariela Rutkin-Becker is part of the 2012 Midpoint Series. See all of the posts in the series here.

Today, June 26, would have been the pioneering comedienne Gilda Radner’s 66th birthday.  Her life embodied the kind of innovation that Google celebrates, and the cause of her premature death from ovarian cancer at only 47 symbolizes a call to awareness that dovetails perfectly with the publicity-raising effect of a Google Doodle.

Gilda Radner

Gilda Radner (photographed by her brother, Michael Radner).

Radner was born in 1946 in Detroit.  She began breaking down boundaries for women in the male-dominated field of comedy when she was featured on the National Lampoon Radio Hour syndicated comedy show at only 28.  Radner further gained recognition as the first cast member chosen to star on “Not Ready for Prime Time Players,” later becoming Saturday Night Live.  She was irreverent, sweet, imperfect, vulnerable, witty, and relatable.

Many will recognize Radner from her SNL sketches that became classics, including Roseannadanna – with her trademark complaint “It’s always something,” – “Baba Wawa,” and Emily Litella from Weekend Update.   Even those of us who were raised on the later, second-tier generation of SNL players heard Gilda’s name inevitably mentioned in comedic lore, her acts revered as trailblazing, her legacy bringing her colleagues to tears even immediately after her death.  What many might not know, however, is that during her stint on SNL and immediately afterward, Radner also starred in her own one-woman show, in other Broadway plays, and filmed three movies.

Unfortunately, Radner’s impressive career ended tragically; she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 1986 and died from it less than three years later, despite “laughing in its face” according to her last interview.  In the wake of her death, her spouse Gene Wilder established the Gilda Radner Ovarian Detection Center at Cedars-Sinai and the Gilda Radner Familial Ovarian Cancer Registry to screen and collect information about high-risk candidates.  Wilder also testified before congress about the importance of an early and accurate diagnosis of this killer of women, jump-starting a national conversation.  Additionally, a network of clubhouses called Gilda’s Club was founded in 1991 (eventually merging into the larger Cancer Support Community in 2011).  Ovarian cancer kills almost 16,000 women per year in the United States, according to Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, and family history can be a crucial indicator in receiving the best and most accurate treatment possible early on.

We could all use a splash of humor in our lives.  Particularly during this election year, one can just imagine what – or who – Gilda’s impersonations would bring to the table.  Happy birthday, Gilda Radner!

— Ariela Rutkin-Becker

Ariela Rutkin-Becker was born in New York, and splits her time now between the country’s two coasts.  She is mostly located on the West one, but in her heart still knows that the East is really the Best.  She loves learning about, collecting the art of, reading the books of, and meeting inspirational people who self-identify as women wherever she goes.  While, she concedes, it’s a bit sad that we all have to continue to do so much advocacy to advance the status of women in the year 2012, Ariela has so much fun doing it and meeting the amazing, resilient, creative folks involved along the way.  Outside of her soapbox platform(s), she really loves watching the New York Yankees, writing, learning about birds, and reading Calvin and Hobbes.


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