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Wellness Community Takes Gilda Radner's Spirit to Heart

May 30, 1994|BEVERLY BEYETTE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Early in 1987, as Gilda Radner battled cancer, she and the Wellness Community found each other. She was to become a regular at the semiannual joke-fests that are part of the community's therapy for cancer patients.

In her autobiography, "It's Always Something," Radner compared these support group gatherings in Santa Monica to "Saturday Night Live" in its early days--"when we had our innocence and we believed in making comedy and making each other laugh."

Even now, five years after her death, "Gilda and her humor are very often topics of conversation around the Wellness Community," founder Harold Benjamin says.

So, on a recent Friday evening, the community came together to share jokes--good, bad and inexcusable--and to remember Radner. During her illness, she once told Benjamin, she spent some of her happiest times here.

She missed show business, he says, but here, "making other people laugh, she was home again. Gilda was always funny about cancer. She was funny about everything."

The joke-fests are a celebration of life, a stress-reducer and just plain fun. Says Benjamin: "Laughter a la Norman Cousins is not the answer to cancer, by any means. But pleasant emotions help enhance the immune system."

This night, emcee Allen Rabinowitz, a psychotherapist and husband of a community staffer, states the rules right off: "There will be no death jokes." And no dirty words.

Soon, it's apparent that we have a roomful of rule-breakers--to the dismay of Benjamin, who begs everyone to keep it clean. (Arts and Entertainment network is also there, filming a Radner bio.)

Betty Hearst's joke is about the doctor who tells a patient he has six months to live. How can he possibly pay off his bill in such a short time? the patient asks? "OK," says the doctor, "I'll give you another six months."

There are truly tasteless jokes and wince-evoking jokes. Carol Bennett shares the one about the horse that walks into a bar. "So why the long face?" asks the bartender.

There are prizes--a rubber chicken, a whoopee cushion, a set of chattering teeth--and lots of pizza and cake.

For Ethel Gullette, who has been cancer-free for seven years, there are poignant memories of Radner, with whom she shared so much: They were the same age (40) when both were found to have ovarian cancer the same month (October, 1986).

Gullette recalls that Radner declined to compete for joke-fest prizes because she thought it unfair because she was a comedian: "The one time she did, she won."

But, Gullette said, "She was inspirational to everyone. She brightened the room."

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