Harriet Burns, first woman ever hired by Walt Disney Imagineering in a creative rather than an office capacity, died July 25 in Los Angeles, Calif. She was 79.
Burns helped design and build prototypes for Disneyland attractions such as the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Carousel of Progress, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.
A memorial service is planned for Aug. 20 at All Saints Episcopal Church in Montecito, Calif. She was an active member of the arts and music community in Santa Barbara.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, she attended from Southern Methodist U. and studied advanced design at the U. of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Her first entertainment job in Los Angeles was at Dice Display Industries Cooperative Exchange, where she helped design and produce props for TV’s “Colgate Comedy Hour” along with interiors and sets for Las Vegas Hotels, including the Dunes. She also worked on the creation of the Southern California tourist destination Santa’s Village, which was located near Lake Arrowhead for several decades.
In 1955, she began working for Walt Disney Productions on the TV series “The Mickey Mouse Club,” where she was a prop and set designer. While working at the studio, she shared workspace with Fred Joerger, a model builder for WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering), who was working at the time on models for Disneyland Park. She worked on models for both the television show and the theme park in the model shop, helping create the models of Sleeping Beauty Castle as well as other opening day projects like the miniature scenes in the Storybook Land Canal Boats attraction.
According to Walt Disney Imagineering, she worked shoulder to shoulder with men in the model shop, wielding saws, lathes and sanders, and was still considered the best-dressed employee in the department. “It was the 1950s,” she explained. “I wore color-coordinated dresses, high heels and gloves to work. Girls didn’t wear slacks back then, although I carried a pair in a little sack, just in case I had to climb into high places.”
“What really earned respect for Harriet Burns was her creative skill,” said Marty Sklar, Exec. VP of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts and Imagineering Ambassador. “Fred Joerger, Wathel Rogers and Harriet became known as the WED Model Shop, the heartbeat of Walt’s design engine for Disneyland and beyond.”
After the opening of Disneyland, she worked on projects such as models of the Matterhorn as a 1/100th scale replica of the famous Swiss mountain and painted underwater figures and set pieces for the Submarine Voyage.
She also worked as a figure finisher for Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, applying individual feathers to the birds. Among other contributions, she worked on everything from figure finishing to stage design for 1964 New York World’s Fair attractions, including Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and The Carousel of Progress.
She helped with the models and designs for much of New Orleans Square including Pirates of the Caribbean, where she built a model of the entire attraction and was also a figure finisher on the pirates, and worked in a similar capacity on the Haunted Mansion.
In 1986, she became the first woman with a window dedicated to her on Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. which reads, “The Artisans Loft — Handmade Miniatures By Harriet Burns.” The Walt Disney Company named her a Disney Legend in 2000.
She is survived by a daughter and two sisters.