Linette Burton Breaks Her Silence for Smile Train

For this mime with a cleft, all barriers are imaginary

Linette Burton as a mime

Linette “Linnie” Burton of Charlottesville, VA, is a retired mime who was born with a cleft in Connecticut in 1951. She recently reached out to us to share her incredible story and why she and her family’s foundation, the Burton Women’s Charitable Trust, are so proud to be making their first gift to Smile Train.

My parents had three boys, then I was the youngest. I don't know if this is totally accurate, but from what I understand, when I was born, they brought me to see my mom and said, “You have a beautiful, beautiful baby girl… and she has a cleft palate.”

I'm sure that was daunting to them, to say the least, not knowing what that meant at the time.

Black-and-white photo of Linette as a baby
Linette as a baby

They were given a choice. They had to decide between giving me an operation with a mixed chance of success or giving me an obturator, which is a prosthetic device that covers an open palate.

They chose to not do the operation. Well, I did have some operations, but they decided not to do the major operation that would totally close my cleft palate and gave me the obturator instead, hoping that it would help me grow up without any speech problems.

My obturator has been my friend and companion ever since, and I still wear it to this day. I named it my Beezer.

How I Learned That a Smile Can Make Life Less Scary

Some of my earliest memories are of being at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. My mom was very smart because when I needed treatment, she made an exciting day of it. My father worked in the city for Sports Illustrated and Time magazine, so we would see him, then go to Radio City Music Hall after I saw the dentist and the doctor. She made it enjoyable rather than scary.

Black-and-white photo of Linette as a girl
Linette as a girl

And it could be scary sometimes. I was a little girl, and my doctor, Dr. Addison, looked like a linebacker. He was huge! I remember being so little and having his hands come towards my mouth, and I was like, whoa! What's going on? Why is this linebacker coming toward me?

And once or twice, I needed a surgery and they weren't letting parents sleep in the hospital — I couldn't have my mom or dad with me. Which is insane because I was so little. I was scared and I cried so hard that I ripped open the palate that they were trying to close.

But I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Dr. Addison was absolutely wonderful. I remember one particular instance when I must have been getting a little bit older, and he asked me if I would go into the next room with him and see a little girl who was going to have a procedure that I had had. She was terrified, she was nervous. So I was like this ambassador going in saying it's going to be okay. I think that experience meant a lot to both of us.

An Exhausting Cleft Journey

If my memory holds right, I ended up having three operations by the time I was seven or eight, plus a lot of other treatments. My mom would pick me up from school and drive me to hearing tests or speech lessons, and I would fall asleep in the back of the car because I was so tired from school.

But I'm very lucky on the physical level because my cleft was never visible on the outside. I’ve always been very open about my cleft, and I always introduce people to Beezer, but that doesn't mean that I didn't go through all the steps of why is this happening? Why am I different?

The Stories a Mime Tells

My parents may have decided to give me a Beezer when I was a baby so that I could talk, but I guess I made a different choice. I'm not a talker. You take me to a party, and I'll hang out in the corner and have a beer.

Maybe that’s why I chose the profession I did.

Linette putting on her mime make-up
Linette putting on her mime make-up | Photo by Henry Barrios for The Bakersfield Californian, September 29, 1984

I studied miming in Colorado, then moved to California. I traveled all around the world as La Lune, the Silent Clown. I had a wonderful career and even appeared on TV commercials, but my bank account indicates the financial value of my choices in life.

Professional photo of Linette as three of her mime characters
Linette as three of her mime characters

But I did get a lot of good stories out of it — and now that I am retired, I can finally tell them in public! Here is one of my favorites, and it happened pretty recently.

Linette’s Beezers through the years
Linette’s Beezers through the years

I've had five different Beezers over the years. Obviously, you get older, your mouth changes. A few years ago, I had one that had chips in it and one of the brackets fell off. I thought, Okay, I need a new one, but I don’t know how I am going to afford this.

So I went to see Dr. Ben Ross, a specialist here in Charlottesville, just to see how much it was going to cost. I never thought that I would be able to afford it, but I wanted to know.

He was wonderful. We sat down and talked in his conference room, and somehow, we started talking about professions. He found out I was a professional mime, and he was blown away.

Then he tells me my new Beezer’s going to cost $5,000. And I kind of sank in my chair and thought, Okay, well, good to know. Good to know. Now where am I going to get $5,000?

While I’m thinking that, he said, “Come back in a week.”

So I went back in a week, and this time I brought my mime portfolio and my press package that I used to give to people to hire me, and I said, “Here. This is what I did.”

He looked it over, then agreed to do it for me just for cost! He made no money on it, and I am forever grateful to him.

This Beezer is top of the line, too. I'm going to have my dirt nap with this Beezer.

Linette and fellow mime Lani Simpson posing in a series of visual puns for greeting cards
Linette and fellow mime Lani Simpson starring in a series of greeting cards

The Cleft Charity of Choice

I’ve always thought about all the other kids with clefts out there who don’t have Beezers or Dr. Addisons, who never got the kind of care that I did. It pulled on my heart.

Other members of the Burton family in April 2023
L to R: Libby, Nancy, Jeffery, and Julie Burton, April 2023

That’s why I’m so grateful for my brother Jeffery. Unlike me, he chose to help people and make money. He was a lawyer, and recently, at the urging of his daughter, Libby, reorganized some of his stocks to create the Burton Women’s Charitable Trust, through which Libby; her mother, Nancy; and I get a nice sum of money each year to donate to the charity of our choice.

So I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to help others like me, but there are a few cleft charities, and I didn’t know which one to give to. I asked Libby to research where the money goes with each, and she came back with a clear recommendation: We should give to Smile Train.

She said they spent the most money on actual cleft treatments and were the highest rated by all the independent watchdogs.

I was sold. And the more I’ve learned about Smile Train since then, the more I’ve come to appreciate their model and the good work they do… and the more I’ve unexpectedly learned about how far cleft treatment has come since 1951.

Linette in four of her mime costumes
Linette in four of her costumes | Photo from The San Francisco Examiner, January 20, 1981

For one thing, I now know I must have struggled to breastfeed. I mean, obviously, my mother managed to feed me because I’m here, but I didn’t know all the steps it takes to make someone whole, that babies with clefts can die of malnutrition if they don’t receive specialized feeding and nutritional care.

Also, did you know that clefts can cause difficulty hearing? I had no idea, and now I finally understand why my mother had to drag me to all those hearing tests when I was a kid.

But the most shocking revelation was that so few of Smile Train's patients need an obturator, and those that do typically only use them for a few years at most!

Professional photo of Linette without mime make-up
Professional headshot of Linette

I can’t imagine life without Beezer, but I am tremendously grateful that there is an organization giving children with clefts everywhere on earth a level of care that wasn’t available even in Manhattan when I was a girl.

There’s one other important thing I’ve learned since getting involved with Smile Train: Maybe I became a mime not only because my cleft made me not like to talk, but also because it helped me appreciate the life-changing power of a smile.

Linette today
Linette today

And by getting involved, I’m not retired from making smiles at all. In fact, I’m just getting started.

No matter who you are or what your passion is, you can transform children’s lives and create smiles around the world.