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Disney Legend Harriet Burns: A model (maker) of a mother

Disney Legend Harriet Burns: A model (maker) of a mother

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If you ask Pam Burns-Clair to describe her mother, she’ll tell you that Disney Legend Harriet Burns was not your typical 1950s housewife.

“When I was a girl, the shows on TV were Ozzie & Harriet, Leave It to Beaver and I Love Lucy.  These women were very much stay-at-home moms with the chocolate chip cookies and the apron and the pearls.” Pam remembered. “And well, my mom, she had the pearls. But no apron. And no chocolate chip cookies either. I did sometimes wish that she was at home more. But I was also really excited about the projects as they came to pass. Such as the Tiki Room. My mom’s Tiki Room.“

Yeah, June Cleaver couldn’t claim to be the first woman to ever work at WED. But Harriet Burns could. Which is why – to honor her mother’s memory – Pam recently partnered with Disney historian Don Peri to create “Walt Disney’s First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns” (The Downing Co., January 2010), a brand-new book which makes its debut at the NFFC-Disneyana Fan Club All Disneyana Show and Sale. Which will be held this Sunday at the Anaheim Crowne Plaza Resort in Garden Grove, CA.

Harriet Burns and Pam Burns-Clair at the Walt Disney World Resort
Harriet Burns and Pam Burns-Clair togeth
at The Walt Disney World Resort in 2001

And if you look back over Burns’ career as an Imagineer, you'll see that Harriet had her hand in some pretty amazing projects for the Disney Parks.

Like what? Well, she sculpted a working model of the Matterhorn -- a model that structural engineer Don Edgren used as his primary reference when building the actual Matterhorn. Burns also help build many of the miniatures that are on display in Storybook Land. She even created and colored the various fish & mermaids for the original Submarine Voyage.

And yet – though she spent her days at WED working with ban saw and soldering irons – Harriet always wore a stylish dress or an elegant blouse, which she then covered with her work apron. Burns was also known for her quick sense of humor and her enthusiasm for her job -- an enthusiasm so great that she often brought home discarded projects.

Concept drawing of the Big Rock Candy Mountain by Harriet Burns
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Take – for example – Candy Mountain. Back in 1956, Walt toyed with the idea of adding an enormous peak made of lollypops & gumdrops to Storybook Land. Candy Mountain was to have serve a dual purpose. The Casey Jr. Circus Train was to have chug-chug-chugged around its exterior, while the Storybook Land Canal Boats would to have sailed into the mountain itself. Where – as they passed through a series of caves – Disneyland visitors were to have encountered Dorothy & the characters from Oz.

Unfortunately, this Fantasyland addition never made it past the model phase. Once this project was abandoned entirely, one of the models for Candy Mountain -- a smaller, preliminary version of this proposed Storybook Land addition -- came home with Harriet.

Her daughter, Pam, still has it.

The retirement card given to Harriet Burns by John Hench
The "Happy Retirement from WED" card that Claude Coats created for Harriet.
Photo by Pam Burns-Clair

Pam remembered her mom explaining how this project was canceled by Walt: Walt brought art director John Hench to look at the final model that was filled with specialty candies they had ordered from all over the world.  When Walt asked John what he thought, he responded, “Well when you eat dinner you have your meat and potatoes and vegetables, and then you have dessert. This is all dessert -- I think it's too much.” Walt agreed and said something to the effect of, “We're not doing it. Call it off.” And with that, the project was done. So they wheeled the large, final model out into the parking lot outside the WED building and let the birds pick out the nuts from the chocolates.

But even from the large, final model, Harriet took a souvenir. "My mom brought home a treasure: a box of rock candy,” Pam explained. “Much of it she turned into hanging Christmas ornaments that looked like stalactites, a few of which surfaced in Mom's basement after she passed away. But I took it upon myself in the third grade to bring a box of rock candy to school and hand out samples at recess. I think I did this without permission -- I was surely the most popular kid that day.”

Over the years, Harriet brought home dozens of items discarded from WED.“There were rubber-cast arms from the cavemen (created for the 1964 New York World's Fair) and more from Pirates. And a big cave bone. One pair of those arms was cast from my mom. I used those at Halloween one year. I was dressed as a witch. I carried the wiggly hands in my hands (hidden beneath extra-long sleeves from an oversized bathrobe) to make my hands long and jiggly. Beyond that, there were also rubber masks. A China man’s mask. A Neanderthal mask. They fit over my head, and boy, were they hot and smelly.”

Rubber casts of hands, arms and feet that Harriet Burns carried home from WED
Some of the rubber-casts that Harriet Burns hand-carried home from WED.
Photo by Pam Burns-Clair

The China Man’s mask, I explained to Pam, was likely the talking Confucius, another abandoned idea for an attraction at Disneyland. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Walt Disney played with the idea of opening a Chinese restaurant at Disneyland, with a talking, automatronic Confucius who would offer words of wisdom. An attraction that, apparently, in part, became one of Burns-Clair's childhood playthings.

"I didn't realize, growing up, how unusual and 'over the top' she was,” Pam continued.  “In the extensive process of remodeling our 50's style house into something modern and 'edgy' at the time, she cast her own fiberglass doorknobs for her wall-to-wall bedroom closet doors.  I helped her do this one weekend. They were about six-inches round in diameter and the mold was sort of a stylized flower mandala that she then painted to look aged. Another project was replacing the dining room ceiling with gold-leafed glass panes that she hand-applied ... so tablets of tissue thin gold leaf were among our household paraphernalia. My dad secured the panes into the ceiling with little plastic flower shaped brackets in the corners. It didn't come down in the earthquake in the 70's!"

Burns-Clair had such an unusual childhood that – after her mother passed on in 2008 -- Pam decided to honor Harriet’s memory by creating a book. Which is why she sought out Disney historian Don Peri to serve as her co-author. Pam also recruited her daughter Chelsea to serve as the designer of “Walt Disney’s First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns.”

Walt Disney checks out Harriet Burns' work in the WED model shop in 1956
Walt inspects Harriet's handiwork in WED's model shop circa 1956.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Obviously this was a labor of love. But at the same time, as Burns-Clair & Peri collected stories from many longtime Imagineers and artists about this Disney Legend, Pam was surprised by how much she learned about Harriet.

“I found (out) a lot of things about my mother while (writing) this book,” Pam told me. “Readers will be interested to learn about this dichotomy between her as the pristine lady who dressed well (with scarves, hairdos, and make-up just so) and her bawdy side with the guys. She worked with chemicals, asbestos, lead, toxic glues, and power saws. Readers will enjoy learning about her sense of humor. Also how into people she was. There are some intriguing, amusing stories and some heartwarming stories as well.”

If you’d like to be among the first to own “Walt Disney’s First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns," then you should definitely plan on attending the NFFC-Disneyana Fan Club’s All Disneyana Show and Sale. You see, the reason that you need to drop by the Anaheim Crowne Plaza Resort this Sunday is that Pam, Don & Chelsea will be on hand. Which means that the co-authors & designer will be able to personalize any copy of this new Downing Company publication that you purchase.

Chelsea Clair and Pam Burns-Clair, designer and co-author of "Harriet Burns: Walt Disney's First Lady of Imagineering"
Chelsea Clair, designer, and Pam Burns-Clair, author of
"Walt Disney's First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns"

Not only that ... But -- given that Harriet's scarves were her trademark at WED -- Burns' Imagineer Jim Sarno has created a commemorative silk scarf in her honor. And this sure-to-be-sought-after collectible (which features caricatures of Harriet by Disney Legend Blaine Gibson and Burns' Imagineer colleague Julie Svendsen) will only be available at book signings / sales events for "Walt Disney's First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns."

Mind you, there is a limit of the number of these commemorative scarves that one can purchase (i.e. two scarves per person). And these stylish souvenirs will go for $29 apiece ($64 total when you factor in that autographed copy of Pam, Don & Chelsea's book).

If – on the other hand – you can’t make out to Garden Grove this coming weekend … Not to worry. You can still order a copy through the official Harriet Burns website. Which is well worth checking out, given all the info that you'll find there about this mother of a model maker.

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