Note: Disney has released this obituary for Harriet Burns. I’ve included it in full here.
Harriet Burns, Disney Legend and Veteran Imagineer For More Than 31 Years, Dies at 79
Helped to Create Classic Attractions For Disneyland and 1964 New York World’s Fair
Harriet Burns, designated as a Disney Legend by The Walt Disney Company in 2000, and former Disney Imagineer, died on July 25 at the age of 79. As the first woman ever hired by Walt Disney Imagineering in a creative rather than an office capacity, Harriet Burns helped design and build prototypes for theme park attractions, as well as final products featured at Disneyland and the New York World’s Fair of 1964.
Born August 20, 1928, in San Antonio, Texas, Harriet received her Bachelor’s Degree in Art from Southern Methodist University in Dallas, and went on to study advanced design for another year at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
In 1953, she moved to Los Angeles with her husband and small daughter. There, she accepted a part-time position at Dice Display Industries Cooperative Exchange, where she helped design and produce props for television’s “Colgate Comedy Hour” along with interiors and sets for Las Vegas Hotels, including the Dunes. Adept at her work, she was asked to spearhead the creation of the fanciful Southern California tourist destination Santa’s Village, which was located near Lake Arrowhead for several decades.
In 1955, Burns 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. Harriet concurrently worked on models for both the television show and the theme park in the model shop. She helped 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.
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, Executive Vice President 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.”
Transferring to WED as a full-time employee after the opening of Disneyland, she continued to create memorable experiences for guests of the theme park. For the first major expansion of Disneyland in 1959, Harriet created 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.
Harriet 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 attractions featured at the New York World’s Fair in 1964, including Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and The Carousel of Progress.
On occasion, when Walt would introduce new theme park attractions to television audiences, she would appear on segments of “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.”
She helped with the models and designs for much of New Orleans Square including Pirates of the Caribbean, where not only did she build a model of the entire attraction but was also a figure finisher on the Audio-Animatronics pirates. She worked in a similar capacity for the Haunted Mansion attraction.
After 31 years with The Walt Disney Company, Harriet retired in 1986. However, her achievements to the Company were not forgotten. 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.” In 2000, she was designated by The Walt Disney Company as a Disney Legend, which “acknowledges and honors the many individuals whose imagination, talents and dreams have created the Disney magic.”
Harriet was profiled in author Jeff Kurtti’s forthcoming book Walt Disney’s Imagineering Legends and the Genesis of the Disney Theme Park and was interviewed by Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment for a DVD bonus feature on the history of the Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk-through on the forthcoming Blu-ray 50th Anniversary release of Sleeping Beauty.
She is survived by daughter Pam Clair. Memorial services will take place in August in Santa Barbara, where she was an active member in the arts and music community.