Welcome to Jim Hill Media - Entertainment News : Theme Parks Movies Television

Blaine Gibson remembers Harriet Burns, the First Lady of Imagineering

Blaine Gibson remembers Harriet Burns, the First Lady of Imagineering

Rate This
  • Comments 0

Last year, after Disney Legend Harriet Burns passed away, Pam Burns-Clair decided to put together a book about her mother.

Mind you, what Ms. Burns-Clair had in mind wasn't a traditional biography. But -- rather -- a gathering of memories. Which is why -- in partnership with noted Disney historian Don Peri -- Pam spoke with dozens of Harriet's friends. Disney luminaries like X Atencio, Rolly Crump, Blaine Gibson, Alice Davis, Bob Gurr, Diane Disney-Miller, Marty Sklar and Tony Baxter to collect their stories about her mother.

Harriett Burns: Walt Disney's First Lady of Imagineering book cover

The end result -- "Walt Disney's First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns" (The Donning Co., January 2010) -- will debut this Sunday at the NFFC-Disneyana Fan Club All Disneyana Show and Sale. Which will be held at the Anaheim Crowne Plaza Resort in Garden Grove, CA. 

To get some idea of what this somewhat unconventional book will be like, I recently met with Blaine Gibson. Who was happy to talk about his good friend and longtime WED co-worker, Harriet Burns.

Disney legend Blaine Gibson
Disney Legend Blaine Gibson. Photo by Todd James Pierce

As most of Disneyana fans already know, Gibson started at the Studio as an animator back in 1939, just as the Studios was completing "Pinocchio." He then worked on "Bambi," "Cinderella," "Lady and the Tramp" and "Sleeping Beauty" before Walt Disney eased him over to WED. His first project for Disneyland was to sculpt the figurehead on the Sailing Ship Columbia. His second was to sculpt a model head that would be the basis for the first walk-around character version of Mickey Mouse for the Park. Over his career, he created figures for The Enchanted Tiki Room, The Carousel of Progress, Pirates of the Caribbean and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln. He is probably best known for his work sculpting the Partners statue that is featured at all five Disney resorts as well as on the Disney lot in Burbank.

Though Blaine will celebrate his ninety-second birthday next month, his mind is amazingly sharp. He can relate stories about the 1950s and 1960s as though they happened only yesterday. “Harriet,” he began, “had a great perception of what needed to be done. If you were going to pick a partner, you couldn’t pick a better one than Harriet.”

Harriett Burns working on one of the birds from the Enchanted Tiki Room
Harriet Burns working on birds for The Enchanted Tiki Room.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

At WED, Blaine worked as a sculptor Harriet worked as a model-maker and a figure finisher. The first project the two worked on together was The Enchanted Tiki Room. “My job was to create the physical aspect of the parrots,” Blaine told me. “I did the three-dimensional shapes and had them so that they were working mechanically. But Harriet took it much further than that and put the fur cloth on.  She even did such difficult requests as making a fabric over the stomach of the thing so the birds would look like they were breathing.”

Together, Blaine and Harriet created many of the birds used in the show, though Harriet had the more difficult of their two jobs. The parrot body that Blaine created was reused for the Macaws and the Cockatoos, but Harriet needed to finish each bird individually, creating different feather effects for each performer. “She set the standard in that it is still going today.”

Walt Disney, Disneyland Ambassador Julie Reems and Harriet Burns
(L to R) Walt Disney, Disneyland Ambassador Julie Reems and Harriet Burns.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

The most famous theme park attraction in the world is likely Pirates of the Caribbean. Though Walt Disney himself never saw the finished ride, he did see a mock-up of key scenes, a model that was completed in large part by Harriet, Blaine, and Marc Davis. “When Harriet got through with these pirates,” Blaine explained, “they looked like dirty old pirates. We wanted them to be funny, but we didn’t want them to be pretty. We wanted them to be believable. Harriet was able—through her knowledge of portrait painting—to make them believable. Their skin has paint with the blood shining through.”

Harriet retired in 1986, after 31 years with the Walt Disney Company. For her retirement, she and her husband moved to Santa Barbara, where they planned to spend their sunset years in a quiet ranch-style house in the foothills. The tragedy was this: her husband only survived a few weeks after her retirement.

Harriet Burnes and Blaine Gibson with some hitchhiking ghosts outside the Haunted Mansion at a Disneyana Event in 2008
Harriet & Blaine hang out with a few of their ghostly friends at a 2008 Disneyana event

In the 1990s and the 2000s, Harriet became involved with the Disney fan community. She was a popular speaker, always warm and humorous. She appeared on TV shows and many DVDs, most recently interviewed by Chris Merritt on the Sleeping Beauty DVD, where she discusses the dioramas for Disneyland's original Sleeping Beauty Castle Walkthrough. In 2007, while visiting her daughter for Christmas, Harriet experienced a heaviness in her chest and shortness of breath, symptoms she initially believed were the result of the flu. The symptoms, after further examination, indicated a problem with her heart requiring surgery.

Though she had lived on her own for over twenty years, Harriet decided to finally move to a retirement community. The retirement community was located about a mile from her house, but Burns wouldn’t be the only Imagineer residing there. Her old buddy Blaine had already taken up residence there. She spent her final months reunited with her co-worker.  As was the custom at the community, the women ate breakfast at the womens' tables, the men at theirs. But the two ex-Imagineers most always enjoyed dinner together. Often they talked about their careers at Disney.  “She was very happy there,” Blaine explained.“She had a nice apartment. It’s very close to where I am.” And here Blaine stopped for a moment, clearing his throat. “I thought she was a great friend. A lovely person.”

Disney legend Blaine Gibson sitting in his house
Photo by Todd James Pierce

Come back on Thursday and I’ll share some of Ms. Burns-Clair's own stories about what it was like to be the daughter of the First Lady of Imagineering.

FYI: If you're not going to be able to make it to Garden Grove this Sunday so that you can then pick up your copy of "Walt Disney's First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns" at the NFFC-Disneyana Club All Disneyana Show & Sale ... Not to worry. This handsome hardcover can also be ordered online. And if you'd like to learn more about that aspect of this new Donning Co. publication, please click on this link.

Your thoughts?

Blog - Post Feedback Form
Your comment has been posted.   Close
Thank you, your comment requires moderation so it may take a while to appear.   Close
Leave a Comment
  • * Please enter your name
  • * Please enter a comment
  • Post