On the weekend of March 17 and 18,2012 a very special event is coming to the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim when the Downtown Disney District will host a celebration of creativity in the deaf community – SIGNin’ in the Street.
Local DGA director Marty (Martha) Elcan will be there to promote her latest project, a new Sign Language DVD series “Shut Up and Sign,” designed to make learning American Sign Language FUN through skits, stories and music videos.
Elcan first studied American Sign Language almost 30 years ago because she loved its beauty and how easy it was to learn, but with no deaf friends Elcan said, "I had grown sorely out of practice." Her occasional and brief opportunities to work with a very patient Marlee Matlin (as an assistant director on two TV shows) reminded Elcan "not only how useful that knowledge could be, but also just how rusty I had become," Elcan admitted.
Elcan has worked in the Film and Television production for more than 25 years. As an Assistant Director, she worked with Elizabeth Taylor, Sid Caesar, Milton Berle, Shirley MacLaine, Julia Roberts, Kevin Costner, Brad Pitt, Walter Matthau, Carol Burnett on shows like “Steel Magnolias,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Mystic Pizza,” “Amazing Stories,” “Six Feet Under,"“Inherit the Wind” (with George C. Scott and Jack Lemmon). Elcan worked with and learned from such directors as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Bruce Beresford, Dan Petrie and Clint Eastwood.
Elcan has directed four award-winning shorts and the Indie feature “Next of Kin.” As a woman in the film business Elcan said, "I was finding that directing assignments were hard to come by. I had been seriously contemplating the idea of creating my own projects with subject matter that resonated personally."
Elcan said, "During a lull in employment, or as we call it in the film business 'between assignments,' I decided to brush up on my Signing, and found an adult education class not too far away."
When Elcan first entered Bob Hiltermann’s class, she wondered if she had walked into an improv performance. Elcan said, "the students were laughing out loud at the teacher’s antics, and were so fascinated by this crazy animated teacher that they all enthusiastically echoed the signs he was teaching". A natural comedian, Hilterman made learning fun. Elcan wasn’t surprised to hear that he had a side career as an actor.
Hiltermann is a well-known deaf actor in television, film and stage. His credits include, a year’s run on “All My Children,” the feature “Children of a Lesser God,” “The Heart is a Drum Machine,” “The Hammer,” and he is one of the four deaf entertainers starring in the well-received documentary “See What I’m Saying.”
He is also in the wildly popular all-deaf rock band “Beethoven’s Nightmare” which performs around the world.
The signing classes are two hours long three times a week, and as an intro at the beginning of class, Hilterman occasionally plays 30 minute clips of several different Sign Language series currently on the market. "Compared to his teaching style, these were deadly stodgy and boring, and almost unwatchable", said Elcan.
Elcan caught Bob’s attention from the back of the room and signed, “We need to talk” and approached him after class. Elcan asked Hilterman if he had ever thought about creating a new Sign Language series. His face lit up!
Hiltermann grew up in Germany. He was born hearing, but he had only recently discovered that at the age of four, he had spinal meningitis, and became deaf. Shortly thereafter, when he was six, his family moved to Canada. Between moving to a new country and adjusting to a different life, and eleven children to care for, Bob’s parents didn’t realize Bob was deaf. They just thought he was “slow.” Understandable, since not only couldn’t he hear, everyone was talking in a new language he didn’t know! They called him retarded, and assumed he had learning disabilities. It wasn’t until he was ten years old that a hearing test showed he was deaf.
Three of his siblings were hard-of-hearing or deaf also! When Hiltermann was 18, a counselor suggested he go to Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. At Gallaudet, he was first introduced to Sign Language and it changed his life. Suddenly he found a way to communicate easily with others, his English dramatically improved, he made many friends and he met two deaf musicians and they formed the band” Beethoven’s Nightmare.”
Hiltermann formed “MUSIGN” – a Signing/Mime company that became so popular,it enabled him to acquire his green card in the United States. The group also took the act to Canada and Japan. "Constant performances made him such a good signer than he was hired to teach Sign Language back at Gallaudet" said Elcan.
When Hiltermann moved to Los Angeles he continued to teach and has done so for twenty years. He will also be starring in the upcoming film “Deaf Ghost,” and performing at a big Deaf Awareness event at the Disneyland Resorts mid-March where the just finished "Shut Up and Sign" DVD's will be sold.
The series not only teaches, but has an added humor in the process. Hiltermann plays all of the parts in Elcan's videos. "As part of each dvd, we do a song in Sign Language and Those songs turned into full music video productions," said Elcan.
Hiltermann truly loves teaching Sign Language saying, “Sign Language IS love”, and the “Shut Up and Sign” series gives him an opportunity to not only share the language that changed his life, but also use his acting skills.