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BOOK REVIEW : A Life More Exciting Than Prime Time : GILDA: An Intimate Portrait by David Saltman ; Contemporary Books $19.95, 246 pages

April 05, 1993|CAROLYN SEE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

This is not so much a biography as an affectionate reminiscence, an attempt to re-create a life and a time both irrevocably gone. David Saltman was Gilda Radner's friend since 1965, when they met at the University of Michigan.

His claim to any authority rests not on any "credentials"--though he has enough of them--nor on the dubious credit of being an ex-lover lately come out of the woodwork, but on the strong, tenacious, dependable ties of long-term friendship. It's impossible to know for sure, but Saltman presents himself here as the kind of guy whom you see in every crowd, and who is necessary to the crowd, mostly because he values it--sees it for what it is--and assures its value because he loves it so much.

Thus, this isn't simply the story of Gilda Radner, or even the story of "Saturday Night Live," but an informal history of friends who hung around in the particular two-story house in Ann Arbor, convinced that they were the first people ever to be funny, ever to be on (college) radio, ever to fall in love, ever to betray each other in love. Gilda was there--a "poor little rich girl"--and so was David Saltman.

The author sketches in some information about Radner's family. They were Jewish, well-to-do, mercantile, philanthropic and hailed from Detroit. Gilda's father died of cancer when she was 14. Her mother appears here as gloriously awful, a legendary, destroying, exceedingly self-absorbed, mythic mother-from-Hell. (In a chilling meditation about her cancer at the end of the book, Gilda's right hand writes down the question: "Is cancer your mother inside you?" Her left hand writes back the unequivocal answer: "She doesn't want me to exist.")

In textbook fashion, the early Gilda Radner dealt with the certainty of her mother's disdain, neglect and contempt by going for laughs--and eating too much. She vowed always to be the first one to point out her own shortcomings, to be the first one to laugh at herself. The strategy would work well for her.

In her late teens, Radner ran off with a girlfriend's boyfriend, lived in Toronto, began to do work in the theater, and by great good luck, a set of sweet ways and a lot of talent, found herself in New York, where she was (according to Saltman) the very first of the Not Ready For Prime Time Players.

Much has been written about the early and wonderful "Saturday Night Live"--its horrors as well as its delights. Saltman's role here was as the appreciative outsider who knew all Gilda's old girlfriends from Michigan, who was always at the party when John Belushi would begin his insane "cooking" frenzies raiding somebody else's refrigerator, making up a horrendous concoction of ice cream, fish flakes, Drano. . . .

Saltman was there at some of the amazing parties at Studio 54--the kind of thing Rolling Stone or, later, Vanity Fair could make such magazine hay of, making you feel lousy, because you, the reader, could never get to go there. But Saltman keeps his fresh outsider's perspective: He remembers a Studio 54 party in 1978 this way: "Nobody in the world would have traded places with anyone else in the world that night."

That elegiac tone pervades the whole story here. When Gilda gets more famous, smokes a whole lot more, has bulimia, this isn't told in that morbid celebrity-speak with which we have become so familiar. It's his friend who's going downhill, can't manage her love life, keeps two cartons of Benson & Hedges with her always.

There are members of a whole generation coming of age today who don't remember the first "Saturday Night Live." They don't recall Gilda Radner's (actually quite merciful) rendition of Babwa Wawa (Barbara Walters, in case you forgot) or her mad news reporter, Roseanne Roseannadanna.

Back in the late '70s, things just felt mellower. We have become a more cautious world, one in which most people don't want to "inhale." And humor today has taken on a meaner, cruder face. Maybe that's marvelous for society, but back in the '70s a group of amazingly gifted comics felt differently. Saltman compares their time and place to France's Belle Epoque, when elegance, decadence and creativity came together for a few blindly swell years and the world was better for it.

Gilda Radner was part of all that. Saltman recalls her and the "Saturday Night Live" players with yearning affection. Because they were right. They weren't ready for prime time. Prime time was way too dull.

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