First Female Disney Imagineer Dies

Harriet Burns, the first woman designer hired at Walt Disney Imagineering, has died at 79, according to a LOS ANGELES TIMES obituary. Burns helped create and build prototypes for Disneyland attractions like the SLEEPING BEAUTY CASTLE and PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN.

Burns, a Santa Barbara, California resident, died of complications from a heart condition July 25 at USC University Hospital, said her daughter, Pam Burns-Clair.

Burns was hired at Disney Studios as a set and prop painter for the MICKEY MOUSE SHOW in 1955, helping design and build the Mouse Clubhouse the show would be world famous for.

Working with a lathe, saw and drill press, Burns showed up for work every morning in the early days in a skirt and high-heel shoes.

"She could do everything a man could do," said Marty Sklar, exec VP of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. "She was a fabulous artist. She had a wonderful sense of color and design. And she was the best-dressed. That never changed."

Burns' department consisted of three model-makers known as WED Enterprises, which was later renamed Walt Disney Imagineering to reflect the imagination and engineering that go into theme park attractions.

"I think Harriet was Walt's favorite Imagineer," Sklar said. Disney included Burns on several episodes of his 1960s television show THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF COLOR that he hosted to show the world the behind-the-scenes of Disney.

In the model shop, Burns' first major assignment was work on SLEEPING BEAUTY CASTLE, an original attraction when Disneyland opened on July 17, 1955. She also worked on PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN for its 1967 opening and the HAUNTED MANSION two years later.

Burns worked on figure finishing, applying face paint and touches to the costumed mannequins and audio animatronics that make up the Disneyland attractions. She later said working on the exotic birds for the ENCHANTED TIKI ROOM was one of her most challenging projects.

"When they breathed out, it would be fine, but when they came back they scrunched. They looked like they had mites," Burns said in a 2005 interview with THE HOLLYWOOD REPORTER. Burns was known as a perfectionist, and also worked on maintaining the figures as the aged.

She was also part of the team that worked on GREAT MOMENTS WITH MR. LINCOLN for the New York World's Fair in 1964. LINCOLN was later installed at Disneyland.

Burns retired from Disney in 1986 but was not forgotten around Disneyland. Her work was put into a window display on Main Street U.S.A. in 1992 with a plaque that read "The Artisans Loft, Handmade Miniatures by Harriet Burns."

She was named a Disney Legend in 2000, recognized by her peers as someone "whose imagination, talents and dreams have created the Disney magic."

A memorial service is planned for August 20, on what would have been her 80th birthday, in Santa Barbara.

In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made to the Salvation Army, Southern California Division, 900 W. James M. Wood Blvd., Los Angeles, California 90015. The website is www.salvationarmy-socal.org.

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