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Inside LaughFest

Gilda's Club Grand Rapids sits on Bridge St. NW, serene and quiet in late afternoon. I am able to meet President and CEO Leann Arkema in the kitchen. She tells me it gets peaceful before dinner.


In this moment of silence, I ask her to tell me how LaughFest came to be.


LaughFest has been brewing for a long time, it turns out. While the press releases say they've been planning the 10-day festival for 20 months, it seems as though LaughFest has been there all along.


Arkema became involved with Gilda's Club near the beginning, in 1998. She had been the medical power of attorney for a close friend who passed away unexpectedly.


"I just sat down one day and had a conversation with God about how angry I was that He had taken this person from me in such an unexpected way," she says. "I wrote down a list of ten things in terms of what I wanted my life to mean based on this experience and what kind of work I wanted to do. Literally six months later, I saw an ad for this."


Gilda's Club became more of a passion than a job for Arkema, and she became attached to the beauty of the club and the good that it does for people. She muses that a lot of people are emotionally unhealthy, especially when big things happen to them, and part of becoming emotionally healthy is learning to laugh.


Gilda Radner, the namesake of Gilda's Club, had the same opinion. The engaging comedienne and original SNL cast member was diagnosed with cancer in 1986 and passed away in 1989. While initially losing the ability to be funny, Radner eventually wrote in her book, It's Always Something, "My job was to find what was funny about whatever was going on. So I began to think that I should do the same thing with cancer."


This is the quote always brought up when discussing LaughFest. Gilda's Club began in 1994 in New York, started by Radner's husband, Gene Wilder, broadcaster Joel Siegel and Joanna Bull, Radner's cancer psychotherapist. Gilda's Club acts as a free, nonprofit entity where those with cancer and their loved ones can find company, support, information and socialization. Their motto is: "In this together. Learn. Share. Laugh."


Gilda's Club Grand Rapids was the twelfth club to open in the country on Feb. 15, 2001. Even from that first moment, they knew they wanted "some sort of signature event." Gilda's relies entirely on cash donations, receiving no funding from the national organization. Every dollar they raise stays at Gilda's. Arkema and the crew could never quite come up with the right event. Comedy seemed like an obvious choice, but they didn't want to hold the typical dinner events. While their events had been always been fun with a twist, the perfect event eluded them. On the precipice of what would be their tenth anniversary, they started brainstorming.


"We knew (our anniversary) would be significant," Arkema says. "We knew that we wanted to change some perceptions about us being a sad, depressing place. We're a place where people express lots of emotions and laughter. Laughter is one of the most expressed emotions here."


They decided they weren't going to hold another rubber chicken dinner. They weren't going to do anything unless they come up with the right thing. And they started to focus answering the question of what did they hope to accomplish in bringing people together.


"We wanted to raise awareness. We wanted to start a dialog about emotional health," Arkema says. "Our message is that this is not a sad place; this is a place where you find your smile and laughter in the midst of a cancer journey."


With the help of three-time cancer survivor and ArtPrize's Director of Development and Merchandising David Abbott, the idea of a festival formulated, and Gilda's moved away from the idea of comedy and into the idea of laughter. Gilda's isn't necessary about comedy, and certainly not about making jokes about cancer. The idea of a LaughFest resonated with Gilda's Club.


"If the gift of Gilda Radner is the permission to laugh, then (this festival is about) whatever you want to laugh about," Arkema says.  "Let's focus on all kinds of opportunities to laugh, and most importantly, ask the community what makes (them) laugh."


Additionally, Arkema refers to a staff member who always says, 'if you can get them to laugh, you can get them to listen.' So here was Gilda's shot at a large-scale event, to make an impact, to be a presence. They had five clear goals in mind: they were looking for an opportunity to share their vision, to raise visibility for their cause the importance of emotional health, "to celebrate year ten in an unexpected, fun and whimsical way," to "engage the entire community in a way that mirrored" what happens at Gilda's Club and to raise funds.


In the question of when, Gilda's searched for available dates at a number of venues. March 10-20 was open and accessible. Gilda's made the bold decision to make LaughFest a full, 10-day event. They worked with Reagan Marketing in terms of logo and branding. They spoke with community leaders about the feasibility of it all.


"When we were landing on this concept, ArtPrize was just starting," Arkema says. "We were able to sit back and watch, and see if the community would take hold of a really big concept. We're very different from ArtPrize, but it was refreshing and empowering to know that this community saw itself in a whole different light. It helped us believe we could make the 10 days successful."


While Gilda's teaser campaign involving smiley faces all over GR didn't quite go as planned, with the announcement leaked before the scheduled press conference, it did get people talking. As the buzz grew, Gilda's knew they'd secured Bill Cosby and Betty White, whose third husband had passed away due to cancer. In January, Gilda's had found over 1000 volunteers who have been meeting weekly since then.


A glance at the calendar of events shows 110 free showcases, in addition to the paid events, at nearly 50 venues. There are events of all kinds, suitable for all ages and tastes.


"If we can get a community to laugh together, we've got a healthier community," Arkema says. "We want to bring people from a broad demographic to laugh together, so when we programmed, we wanted to make sure we were appealing to broad sectors."


The event will kick off with a rubber chicken toss at Rosa Park Circle. That is a literal description of the event: grab a rubber chicken (supplied by Gilda's Club), toss it at the same time as everyone else. This is a world record attempt, and you can read more about it over in Tommy's G-Sync column this week.


Ticket holders are coming in from 18 states for LaughFest. Let's show 'em a good time.

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.


Leann Arkema at Gilda's Club

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

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