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Remembering Harriet Burns (1928 - 2008)

Remembering Harriet Burns (1928 - 2008)

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This past Friday, the Disney community lost one of its celebrities. Harriet Burns passed on at the age of 79. She was the first woman hired by WED as an artist.

She was born in San Antonio and remained in Texas for most of her young life, venturing only to Dallas to pursue a college degree in art in the early 1950s. After marrying, in 1953, she moved with her husband to Los Angeles, where she found work as a prop and set designer for the Colgate Comedy Hour. But two years later, when work dried up at that TV show, she heard that Disney Studios was looking to hire a prop and set designer for something called the Mickey Mouse Club.

Harriet was given workspace at the back of the studio in an old unconditioned warehouse building that she shared with WED designer Fred Joerger. In one half of the building, Fred worked on models for Disneyland and in the other, Harriet created sets and props for the Mickey Mouse Club. But soon, Harriet found herself working with models for projects at the Anaheim park as well.

This warehouse — better known as the “WED Model Shop” — was the creative center for new attractions developed for Disneyland. “(Each new attraction) would just be talking at first,” she explained to me during our first conversation. “Then the designers would produce some sketches. And then we would do the attraction in 3-D model form. Everything was a model first.” When a model was finished, Walt spent hours with it, observing it from various angles, making suggestions, before passing the project onto architects and engineers.

For the 1959 expansion, Harriet built a series of conceptual models of the Matterhorn. Though the Walt Disney Company claims that the Matterhorn is a 1/100th scale replica of the actual Matterhorn, Harriet often told me, that wasn’t exactly the case. Though she used photos from postcards and from National Geographic as a guide, she only modeled the upper third of the Disneyland mountain after the real Matterhorn. And even there, she accentuated the tilt of the mountain’s iconic chimney because she felt it looked better. The bottom two-thirds were designed by Harriet and the project’s art director, Vic Green, to better accommodate the bobsled ride.

For the Submarine Voyage, she not only worked to paint and finish the underwater figures (such as the fish and mermaids), she also experimented with new synthetic compounds and applications techniques to create underwater figures whose colors wouldn’t fade. The mermaid’s wigs, she told me, were particularly difficult to create.

She worked on the Tiki Room (as a figure finisher for each bird’s plumage); she worked in figure design for it’s a small world; for the Pirates of the Caribbean, she not only helped build a 40’ model of the entire attraction, she also worked as a finisher to complete the human audio-animatronic figures once they were installed on the ride. When I asked about her experience on the Haunted Mansion, she said she contributed to “everything.”

But for me, I will most miss Harriet’s ability to tell stories.

I’ve talked with Harriet on-and-off for the past three years. You see, I’ve been working on a book about the early theme parks—which would include Disneyland, but also other lesser-known parks, such as Freedomland, built in the late 1950s. Through this project, I’ve had the unique pleasure of talking with dozens of creative individuals—such as X Atencio, Blaine Gibson, Don Edgren, Bob Gurr, and Bill Martin—but Harriet was unique. Her memory was fantastic: she could recall in detail the development of each attraction, each model. Simply put, she was one of my go-to people whenever I was stuck.

When I needed to know more about a forgotten theme park called Bible Storyland that was planned (but never built) in Los Angeles County, I called Harriet. She recalled not only how she and Fred used to make fun of Bible Storyland (“We used to have funny jokes about what rides we would add to that park”), she also recalled that the park’s lead designer (an early WED employee named Nat Winecoff) repeatedly visited the studio, hoping to lure Disney designers to his new park.

Likewise, when I needed to know more about Walt’s brief connection to Freedomland, a massive yet unsuccessful theme park built in New York, I talked with Harriet. For months, I had known that the owner of Freedomland, Bill Zeckendorf, had tried to interest Walt Disney in taking over the management of his failing park. I knew this from talking with Zeckendorf’s son. But I never knew Walt’s exact response until I talked with Harriet. Harriet remembered Walt’s trip to Freedomland, as well as his exact reaction. She offered up great details and bits of remembered dialogue, as though these things happened only last week.

From our conversations, I also learned that Harriet was a true Walt loyalist. As the theme park mania of the late 1950s gave way to regional amusement parks built in the 1960s, design firms repeatedly tried to hire Harriet away from WED. Though she had many offers, she only gave serious consideration to one—an offer from Six Flags because the park was located in her home state of Texas where she still had family. “They said, we’ll double your salary to go there.” But she decided to stay at WED because she liked working with Walt, Fred Joerger, Wathel Rogers and many others. She liked the work, how it engaged her; she like her fellow artists; and she liked the feeling of accomplishment when an attraction was completed. One of the hardest things for her to do, she told me, was to retire from Imagineering.

Over the past three years, I talked with Harriet many times. Once I even drove her to Disneyland, where she was a featured speaker for a fan presentation on the Haunted Mansion. But during my last formal interview with her, we spent the final fifteen minutes talking about our families and our lives outside of theme parks. She told me again that she was having heart trouble but was feeling better than she had at Christmastime. But just before I turned off the tape recorder, before I said goodbye to her, she said, “I hope you got everything you need,” as though she sensed that this might be my last opportunity to talk with her.

From the short moments I was lucky enough to share with Harriet, I can tell you that she could tell a story like no one’s business. She had a memory like a steel trap. She had a wonderful sense of humor. She was exceedingly generous with her time. But mostly, she was a very warm person who took an interest in everyone.

The entire JHM staff wishes to extend its heartfelt condolences to the friends & family of Harriet Burns during their time of sorrow.


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  • This is truly sad news.  I had the opportunity to meet and speak with Harriet at several events at WDW.  She was a warm, gracious woman and I am happy I got to know her.

    I have related this story elsewhere, but it bears repeating.  At the 999 Happy Haunts Ball in WDW in 2004, I spoke to Harriet about my daughter Meg (who was 13 at the time) and her aspirations to work for WDI.  I also told her about a report she had written about Mary Blair for a Women in History project at school.  She asked if I would send it to her so she could share it Mary Blair's neice.  We sent it to her and never expected to hear any more about it.

    One Sunday afternoon our phone rang with an unfamiliar phone number from California on the Caller ID.  I asked my daughter to answer the phone in the other room.  After a few minutes, Meg was still talking on the phone so I went to see who she was talking to.  I listened for a few minutes and realized she was speaking with Harriet Burns.  I couldn't believe it!  Harriet spoke with her for about 15 minutes and then asked to speak with me.  We talked for about 10 minutes and I thanked her profusely for calling Meg and told her what a thrill it was for her.

    When I saw Harriet last year at the WDW Pirates Event in May, she remembered me and asked how Meg was doing.  Meg had sent a drawing for me to give to Harriet and she was so happy that Meg was still pursuing her dream.  

    We will miss Harriet, but always remember her numerous contributions to Disney.

  • What nice memories.  Thanks for sharing!

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