Jenni Lilledahl was working for Second City comedy club in Chicago when she came across a most unfunny club connected with the legendary late comedian Gilda Radner.
Radner, aka “Roseanne Roseannadanna” on “Saturday Night Live,” had become the inspiration for a clubhouse for cancer patients. Lilledahl was inspired, too, but it took 15 years to transplant the comedy/cancer club idea.
Now Gilda’s Club has opened its signature red doors in the Twin Cities, one of only 20 in the nation to meet the group’s exacting standards.
“I always knew it would eventually happen, but I didn’t know how it would unfold,” said Lilledahl, who chairs the board of directors.
As co-owner of the Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis, Lilledahl was also able to transplant the comedy/cancer club connection from Chicago.
“Gilda approached her cancer with a improvisational mind-set, which is making something wonderful out of what is in front of you,” Lilledahl said. “That’s what we do at Gilda’s Club.”
The club offers a menu of education, socializing and therapies for people living with cancer, as well as their families. There’s even a break room appropriately called “It’s Always Something,” after one of Radner’s lines.
The emotional and social support is critical, said Joanna Bull, who was Radner’s psychotherapist as she coped with ovarian cancer in the 1980s. Bull came to the Twin Cities for the grand opening in April.
“When Gilda worked with me, I told her the best thing is to get together with other people going through the same thing,” said Bull, founder of Gilda’s Club Worldwide, a network of 20-some clubs. “That’s what we’re doing here.”
A cancer support clubhouse is not what comes to mind for most people who remember Radner. One of SNL’s original cast members best known for her wild hair and characters, Radner died of ovarian cancer in 1989. Hoping to expand the wellness therapies that had helped Radner, her husband, actor Gene Wilder, launched the first Gilda’s Club in New York in 1995.
Several things set it apart from support groups offered in hospitals and churches. The club is open five days a week. People can sign up for a class or support group or just drop in when they feel the need.
The club has a homey atmosphere, where folks can relax in a living room and chat with a friend, learn how to cook healthful meals in the kitchen, and take art or yoga classes down the hall. Children with cancer have their own space, including a fairy garden where they can role-play with the gnomes and trolls that inhabit the place.
And it’s all free. Individual donations, corporate sponsors and foundations fund the services.
“Given all the medical bills people pay, it would be unconscionable to ask them for money,” said Michelle Silverman, CEO of the Twin Cities club.
On a recent afternoon, Pat Finnegan, a breast cancer survivor from Golden Valley, greeted people at the front door.
“I knew from the minute I walked in the door, this is something I want to be part of,” said Finnegan, a regular volunteer.
She recalled joining a cancer support group after she was diagnosed, but it met just once a month. It hardly filled the emotional void, she said.
“Here there is a such a sense of kindred spirits,” she said. “And you can design what you’d like to do — timewise and interestwise.”
Lilledahl had explored opening a club in Minnesota years ago. It turned out to be an imposing task, partly because of the club’s distinct start-up criteria.
Its building would have to be close to bus lines, accessible to a freeway and safe for all ages. The nonprofit would have to raise a year’s operating budget, or $1 million, even before opening the doors.
And it had to follow a wellness model for therapy based on best practices in the field.
In 2005, the national Gilda’s Club called Lilledahl to report that two other Twin Cities residents were now interested in launching a club. The three women — Lilledahl, Carrie Puterbaugh and Dolly Lowery — began devising a plan to raise enough money to find a building, renovate it, hire staff, launch the programs, recruit a medical board of directors and build community.
Minnesota friends and Minnesota’s philanthropic spirit came to the rescue. Over eight years, they raised $3.8 million from more than 2,200 donors, who donated both cash and everything from furniture to light fixtures.
Another 400 people and businesses volunteered help, including United Properties of Minneapolis.
The result is a peaceful oasis off Hwy. 394 in Minnetonka.
On a recent evening, eight people gathered on stools in front of a granite countertop in the kitchen. Shari Carlson was among those attending the Food for Life class. It was her first visit.
“I feel like this is my own little kitchen,” she said.
One woman introduced herself to Carlson. Then another.
“She has the same cancer that you do,” one of the women told Carlson, gesturing to her friend. The friend and Carlson embraced.
These types of connections are what Gilda’s Place is about, said Silverman. More than 28,000 people are affected by cancer every year in Minnesota, she said, “and with the opening of Gilda’s Club, none of them has to face this disease alone.”
Bull said Radner would be impressed that 25 years after her death, another club has just opened in her name.
“I think she’d be thrilled to pieces.”