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Linda Bove | One woman's impact on public awareness

Contributed by | Wednesday, March 16th, 2016

If your children watched Sesame Street in the 70s and 80s, chances are they were introduced to American Sign Language (ASL) by Linda Bove, a deaf actress who played Linda the Librarian from 1971-2003.

Sign language ABC chart
Millions of children learned the ABCs
of sign language from Linda Bove on 
Sesame Street.

Bove was born on Nov. 30, 1945 to two deaf parents and grew up learning ASL. She graduated from Gallaudet University with a bachelor’s degree in Library Science in 1968, but a summer program at the National Theater for the Deaf (NTD) during her senior year changed her life. Not only did she meet her future husband, Ed Waterstreet, that summer, she also decided to put her librarian career on hold to join the NTD troupe.

The move proved successful for Bove, who made her Broadway debut two years later in Songs from Milkwood and Sganarelle. When she heard Sesame Street was looking for a “new face” in 1971 she auditioned, ultimately winning the role that would put her in the homes of millions of children every day. Linda the Librarian is currently the longest recurring role in television history for a person with disability.

Although deaf characters have been portrayed on television since the 1950s, a deaf actor didn’t appear until the 1960s when actors such as Audree Norton appeared in guest roles on Mannix, The Family Affair and The Streets of San Francisco. In the 1970s, most of the deaf character roles were played by hearing actors. A public battle with the Screen Actors Guild over casting for the roles of deaf parents in an ABC Afterschool Special about a hearing teenager with deaf parents, effectively ended Norton’s television acting career but her efforts helped draw attention to the lack of work for deaf actors.

The timing couldn’t have been better for Bove. The beautiful, intelligent actress won an AMITA (American-Italia) award in 1974 for her work on Sesame Street; however it may have been the effect she had on the adult writers she worked with that had the most important impact. In a 1991 interview with Barbara Harrington about non-traditional casting, Bove said she worked with the show’s writers to develop an authentic deaf character.

“When I joined the cast I found the writers would write about ‘How would a deaf person do this?’ ‘How does a deaf person do that?’ And it was just related to my deafness and it didn’t feel like they were treating me as a person. I found my character one-dimensional and kind of boring. It showed how brave a deaf person was to do this and that in everyday life. I said it was no big deal. I have a sense of humor; why don’t you show that? I can be angry over something. Show that I can have a relationship with another person. Maybe a love relationship with Bob. It’s not perfect, but … we do have misunderstandings over sign language, make fun of it, and show the funny side of it. It’s OK.”

By the 1980s, roles for deaf actors had increased substantially and Bove continued expanding her horizons. She appeared on Search for Tomorrow in a recurring role as Melissa Hayley Weldon and was Fonzie’s love interest on an episode of Happy Days. During the 1980 episode, Bove played an electric company employee who meets Fonzie when he attempts to straighten out a billing error for Howard. Other television appearances include three episodes each of Law & Order (2010), Weeds (2012) and Farscape (2003, 2004), and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (February 2016). Her film credits include Marion Loesser in the 1986 version of Children of a Lesser God.

She also authored several children’s books. "Sesame Street Sign Language ABC with Linda Bove" is an introduction to the alphabet and simple ASL, and "Sign language Fun" is a book that teaches basic sign language. Additionally, she contributed a series of sign language pages for "The Sesame Street Treasury," a series of books sold in supermarkets and published by Funk & Wagnalls.

Yet perhaps her most important work is ongoing, as co-founder of Deaf West Theatre (DWT). Bove co-founded DWT, a Los Angeles sign-language theater which features deaf and hearing actors telling stories together using ASL and spoken or sung English, with her husband in 1991. Since then the married duo have produced more than 40 plays and four musicals and won more than 80 awards for their work.

In an Ability Magazine article written by Tyrone Giordano, Ed Waterstreet said he and Bove were “surprised to find such a big need for cultural accessibility for the thousands of individuals who are deaf and hard of hearing” when they moved to Los Angeles. Beginning with “one desk, one chair, one typewriter in a shared office space at the Fountain Theater,” DWT is now recognized as the premiere sign language theatre in the United States. In addition to winning a Tony Honor of Excellence (2003), DWT also received the U.S. Department of Health’s Secretary’s Highest Recognition Award (2005) for bridging the gap between deaf and hard of hearing through theatre.

It seems Bove has come full circle, from the young college graduate who postponed becoming a librarian to test her theatrical wings, to a groundbreaking television actress on a children’s show portraying a librarian, and now as an accomplished owner, producer and thespian of the country’s most renowned theater of the deaf. As she continues to reinvent herself, she sets an inspiring example for all who aspire to be heard.

Editor's note: This is the second of three articles in our Women's History Month series on women with hearing loss who made history. If you've enjoyed this article, please read our first article on Alice Cogswell and our second article on Sue Thomas.

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