Harriet Burns, the first lady of Imagineering, was the first woman hired at WED Enterprises in a creative position rather than an office position and is considered to be one of three original Imagineers. On a recent segment of The DIS Unplugged Podcast: Disneyland Edition, I spoke with Pam Burns-Clair, daughter of Harriet Burns, about her mother’s career as an Imagineer.
Harriet Burns’ Window on Main Street above the Carriage Place Clothing Company (Emporium Annex) facing Town Hall. Image courtesy of Tom Bell.
Harriet Burns began working for The Walt Disney Studio on the original Mickey Mouse Club television show designing and painting the props, including the Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Her use of color and graphic design caught the attention of Walt Disney and soon she was working in the Model Shop of WED Enterprises, now Walt Disney Imagineering, on projects for what would become Disneyland. From his experience as an animator and film maker, Walt Disney knew a painting or drawing could fool the viewer. So he preferred to see his projects more clearly in three dimensions through models. Walt once said, “A model may cost $5,000 but it’s sure less expensive than $50,000 to fix the real thing.” Harriet Burns helped create models for opening day attractions, including Sleeping Beauty Castle. She also helped construct Storybook Land with models depicting scenes from Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Pinocchio, Mr. Toad and others.
Walt Disney and Harriet Burns studying a bird in preparation for creating the robin in the playroom scene of Walt Disney’s Mary Poppins. Image courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Harriet Burns then worked on the elaborate plumage of the Tiki Birds for Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room and worked on the attractions for the 1964 – 1965 World’s Fair, including “It’s A Small World“, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” and “Carousel of Progress.” Her contributions included being a “Figure Finisher” which meant adding fur, feathers, skin, makeup, hair and other material to the raw construction of a figure and give it a life-like appearance. After the World’s Fair projects, Harriet immediately began to work on the figures for “Pirates of the Caribbean“.
Harriet Burns “figure finishing” a Tiki Bird. Image courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Harriet Burns and the Imagineers hard at work creating the magic. Image courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.
In 1986, after 31 years with Walt Disney Imagineering, Harriet Burns retired and became active in the art and music community. On October 12, 2000, she became part of very exclusive club when she was inducted as a Disney Legend as an employee “whose imagination, talents and dreams have created the Disney magic.” Harriet Burns was honored in 1992 with a Window on Main Street, U.S.A. in Disneyland with the inscription, “The Artisans Loft, Handmade Miniatures by Harriet Burns.” She was the first woman in Disney history to receive this honor. The Window on Main Street is not the only tribute to her at the Disneyland Resort. On Buena Vista Street in Disney California Adventure there is a re-creation of her Big Rock Candy Mountain Model in the window of the candy shop, Trolley Treats.
Harriet Burns showcasing her favorite duo. Image courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Harriet Burns passed away due to complications from heart surgery on July 25, 2008.
In 2010, Pam Burns-Clair and Disney Historian Don Perri, co-authored a tribute book to Harriet Burns titled ” Walt Disney’s First Lady of Imagineering Harriet Burns.” This is a unique biography made up of personal memories, messages and photographs shared with the Burns family by Harriet’s friends, co-workers and family after her passing.
Harriet Burns and Pam Burns-Clair at Walt Disney’s 100th birthday celebration, Walt Disney World, 2001. Image Courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Harriet Burns’ legacy of creativity, artistry and innovation will be enjoyed by generations of children and adults who visit Disney theme parks and watch Disney films.
Want to learn more about Imagineer and Disney Legend Harriet Burns? These links can provide you with more about her life and legacy.
What are your favorite Harriet Burns’ attractions? After listening to Pam talk about her mother on The DIS Unplugged Podcast: Disneyland Edition, does Harriet Burns inspire you to take on a new challenge?