My Take by Jim Carl - May 9, 2012

Gilda Radner (1946-1989)

May 20, 1989 was a rough day in my life.  I was 21 years old and graduating from a junior college in Nebraska.  My friends were relocating to different parts of the country to register at new universities.  I was no different; planning to move to New York City to begin film school.  The final goodbyes didn't happen in some fancy restaurant or among some pretty backdrop but in the parking lot outside the auditorium where we'd just been handed our diplomas.  We mingled there, dressed in our red caps and gowns, hugging one another, crying; the class of 1989 in its death throes.  It was an emotional afternoon filled with insecurity.  More so than my high school graduation had been two years earlier.  Walking back to the dorm to collect my things, I passed the TV in the downstairs den and caught a brief glimpse of a breaking news report.  Gilda Radner had died.  She was 42, a year younger than I am today in 2012. 
Of course, other celebrities had died during my life.  I was nine years old in 1977 when my grandmother received the telephone call from her older sister about Elvis.  I remember her raised voice, standing there in the living room, clutching the receiver as she heard the news.  Funny, I didn’t recall her ever once mentioning she had been a fan, but he had been a part of her own generation and his death at 42 shocked the pretty fool out of her.  Besides, when adults get visibly upset, you know it has to be pretty bad. 

Others come to mind: Natalie Wood in 1981.  John Belushi in 1982.  Jon-Erik Hexum in 1984.  Heather O’Rourke in 1988.  All of these deaths were impressionable because of the tragedy of it all.  And although I was saddened by each of their passings, none of these deaths are burned into my memory.  I remember hearing the news but not where I was when I heard it, if you know what I mean.  Gilda Radner was different.  She had been one of my favorite comediennes and actresses.  Her death marked the first time in my life that an adored star of mine went and died on me.  That she did it on my junior college graduation day in 1989 will stick with me for the rest of my life.  

My adolescence is page marked by the release of each of her movies.  Living in Sweetwater, Texas with my grandparents in 1980 when First Family came out, for example.  Spending the summer in Los Angeles with my mother in 1982 during Hanky Panky.  Catching that same film again later that summer at the movie theatre at Offutt Air Force Base in Bellevue, Nebraska.  Listening to Stevie Wonder sing "I Just Called to Say I Love You" from 1984's The Woman in Red, over and over, during the Fall of 1984.  Taking my grandmother to see Haunted Honeymoon in 1986.  Gilda was always there.

I didn’t intend this week’s column to become a tribute to Ms. Radner.  If you want to learn more about her or her career, there’s plenty of info on the web.  Most of it is lovingly written.  In fact, listed below you’ll find a wonderful clip from her 1979 concert film, Gilda Live! that showcases her talent.   Instead as the 23-year anniversary of her death approaches next week, I just wanted to take a moment to remember her in case anyone’s forgotten.

Here’s to you, Gilda.   


Saw her once on Saturday Night Live and she was hilarious. Condolence.

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Jim-- This is a great tribute... I remember it was a tough one/two punch in 1998/99 when Phil Hartman and Gene Siskel died, suddenly and (in Phil's case) tragically. I think about them often, even a dozen years later.

IMO Gilda never got a movie vehicle really worthy of the talent she showed on SNL. The one thing I remember in 1980 (I was 10) was watching the TV advertisement for "First Family" and laughing at Bob Newhart's animatronic head being knocked off and bouncing down the street. Not sure I've ever seen the whole movie. Off topic, but what the hell.

Gene Wilder really seem to take it hard when Gilda died, and it's a shame to think it negatively impacted his own career and film choices afterward. I'm amazed when actors like Liam Neeson can set aside their grief and turn in fantastic work after a spouse's death.

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