On this day in 1928, Harriet Burns – the First Lady of Walt Disney Imagineering – was born in San Antonio, Texas. Throughout her illustrious Disney career, Harriet helped design classic Disneyland attractions, including the Enchanted Tiki Room, Storybook Land, the Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
After growing up in Texas, Harriet earned her undergraduate degree from SMU before attending graduate school at the University of New Mexico. In one of her first jobs, Harriet worked for DICE (Display Industries Cooperative Exchange), where she designed sets for TV shows as well as Las Vegas hotel interiors. Harriet was also part of DICE’s design work for Santa’s Village, the Christmas attraction in the Southern California mountain town of Lake Arrowhead. After DICE went belly up in 1955, Harriet’s friend and co-worker with a prior link to Disney helped her get a job painting and designing sets on the new Mickey Mouse Club TV show.
Once on the Disney Studio lot, Harriet started to work with Disney model shop legends Fred Joerger and Wathel Rogers. The trio would become an Imagineering powerhouse. According to Harriet, “We just helped each other, and it was a good team because each overlapped in talent.” One of Harriet’s first Disneyland-linked assignments was to craft the various rocket ships used by Wernher von Braun in the Man in Space episode of the Disneyland TV show. Walt explained to Harriet how she could work on Disneyland during her downtime: “When I was working on “Mouse Club,” it went intermittently. Walt came in and he said, “Now you won’t be shooting all the time, and when you’re not, you can work with these art directors on this park that I’m gonna build.”
At the time, details of Walt’s plan to build a theme park were sketchy and there were many doubts about his idea, even among Disney studio employees. Harriet said in her early days she’d often overhear studio employees talking about Walt’s park: “What’s the name of that place again? And what in the world do you think people are going to this crazy-named place in a bunch of orange groves?” And a lot of the people, a lot of the top brass even wondered, “I don’t know if they’re gonna go that far to a children’s play park.”
Harriet became the first non-clerical female employee of WED, what would later be known as Walt Disney Imagineering. In an interview years later Harriet explained that in those first years the model shop was “in a boxcar because there was no space for us in the animation building. So he [Walt] just stuffed all the odd-ball people down in this little boxcar. We were with the machine shop, which was great for us because we had all the tools, all the power tools and so forth…And still there were only three of us. So that made for a wonderful relationship with Walt, very informal. He would just come down when he got a chance from the animation building.”
Prior to Disneyland’s opening in July of 1955, Harriet lent her set design skills to help put finishing touches on Main Street and Fantasyland dark rides where she worked closely with Disney Imagineer Ken Anderson. She also contributed to the various models of Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Harriet recalled that after viewing the models “Walt liked the model with the blue roof. He thought it would blend in with the sky, making the castle look taller.” One of Harriet’s first projects after Disneyland opened was building Storybook Land. The model shop was responsible for building the various miniature buildings and decorating them throughout the attractions.
In years that followed Harriet would play a key role in Disneyland attractions that featured audio-animatronics. It was Harriet Burns who would develop and put the finishing touches on iconic audio-animatronic figures like the birds in the Tiki Room, the pirates in Pirates of the Caribbean, dolls throughout It’s a Small World, ghosts in the Haunted Mansion, as well as Abe Lincoln and other presidents. Thanks to her attention to detail, many of these figures have endured and entertained guests for decades. Imagineer and Disney’s legendary sculptor Blaine Gibson said “good enough was not for Harriet – it had to be perfect.”
Walt loved to get his hands on things and explore new ideas, so it’s no surprise that he was a frequent visitor to the Imagineering model shop. According to Disney Legend Marty Sklar, “the true heartbeat of the Imagineering model shop was a little corner where the Queen Bee held court. No matter what time of day, you could find the big boys – even Walt – buzzing around Harriet.” In some cases, his visits led to new ideas. Harriet credits his infamous blue sweater with helping her figure out a challenge she was having with the tiki birds. She said “And that blue sweater. That’s where I got the idea for the breastplates on the tiki birds. I looked at his elbow, and it always came back. And it worked. I had taken old girdle material, and I’d taken baby-suit material and that stuff and glued feathers and tried all these different shingle things. And it would expand, but when it came back it crunched all up and it looked all mangy. I just couldn’t figure out how to do a breastplate that expanded and came back and looked decent. Then I saw this brushed wool on his sweater, and it had loose elbows.”
But, in other cases, Walt would leave his mark in less helpful ways. When Harriet was working on Storybook Land, she had created little beveled stained glass windows for Geppettos Village. Three hundred and sixty little pieces were laid out on a board. Fascinated by the pieces, Walt picked up the board and proceeded to drop them all over the place.
Those setbacks aside, Harriet loved Walt’s enthusiasm and visits to the model shop. She said “Walt was just a ball of enthusiasm. Anything we did. And anything new. Like if you had a new watch or something, he’d say ‘Let me see that, what’s it do?’ Whatever. He was always intrigued, by anything. He would love to talk to people.” Walt included Harriet on a number of occasions when he showed off models of new attractions during television segments of Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.
Harriet’s legacy at Walt Disney Imagineering can’t be overstated. Walt expected perfection, or close to it, when it came to Disneyland, and the work of people like Harriet Burns lived up to those incredibly high standards. Leslie Iwerks, accomplished producer and daughter of Disney Legend Don Iwerks, said the following about Harriet “For a woman in a man’s world, she was always held in high regard and was a magnetic force that drew people together.”
After working for Walt Disney Imagineering for 31 years, Harriet retired in 1986. In 1992, she was honored with a window tribute on Main Street, U.S.A. The window reads “The Artisans Loft, Handmade Miniatures by Harriet Burns.” Harriet was the first woman to receive a window tribute. It’s located on the Emporium building, near the Fire Department and Walt’s Apartment. In 2000, Harriet was named a Disney Legend.