When Disneyland’s “Haunted Mansion” was being designed, the famed psychic, Madame Leota was almost Madame Harriet. She was put in a brace and filmed for the role, which she was so excited to be a part of. But, in the end, she was told that her features were too small and that she wouldn’t show up the crystal ball, so she passed the torch on to one of her staffers, Leota Toombs.
Leota ended up immortalized, but Harriet Burns can never be forgotten. In fact, in the Haunted Mansion’s queue, you’ll find a tomb in her honor: First Lady of Our Opera, Our Haunting, Harriet, Searched for a Tune, But Could Never Carry It.
As the first female Imagineer, she broke boundaries. She was hired in 1955, although she wasn’t originally given the title of Imagineer. She went out to Los Angeles in 1953 with her family and worked at Dice Display Industries Cooperate Exchange, which was out of business by 1955. When a former coworker turned to Disney for a job, Harriet was invited to paint sets and props of the “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” television show. After seeing her talent went way beyond painting sets, she was invited to design and build the entire clubhouse.
She soon began working on the designs for the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle as well as Storybook Land. She became known as a major “figure finisher.” She created many beloved figures, like the pirate who sits on the bridge in “Pirates of the Caribbean,” who she modeled after her milkman. Her job was to add hair, skin, fur, feathers, and make up to Audio-Animatronic figures. All those birds in the “Enchanted Tiki Room?” That was Harriet. The “it’s a small world” children? Harriet again. She even helped finish the first Audio-Animatronics Disney created, “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln” and “Carousel of Progress.”
Back in 1955, the Imagineers were a boy’s club. When Harriet joined what was then WED Enterprises, she joined a pack of boys who would go on to be Disney legends, including Claude Coats and retired navy admiral Joe Fowler. Plenty of women did work for WED, but never in a creative capacity. There were a lot of female secretaries, but no other designers. She was still expected to behave somewhat differently from the men, despite supposedly being on their level. She was expected to wear dresses, high heels, and gloves to work. She later explained though, “It was the 1950s. Women didn’t wear slacks back then, although I carried a pair in a little sack, just in case I had to climb in high places.”
In a way, she already had climbed in a high place. Being an Imagineer was a sought after job then, just like it is now. And up until Harriet opened the door, women weren’t quite in high positions throughout Disney’s many branches. Women did the inking and printing for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” “Pinocchio,” “Bambi,” and “Fantasia.” Most were under 25 and referred to as “girls.” They worked nearly all hours of the day, until they’d collapse on the couches, chairs, even on the lawn. They’d collapse wherever they happened to be. But the girls were proud to be there and (after five months of unpaid training) they were making a salary, even if $16 per week was far from ideal. The girls were the behind-the-scenes workers. The boys took home the glory.
Harriet Burns is now a well known name among Disney fans. She’s managed to get the glory that she deserves. Aside from the tombstone, she has earned her place among Disney legends, in a window on Disneyland’s Main Street. In 1992, the window was given the inscription, “The Artisans Loft, Handmade Miniatures by Harriet Burns.” She was the first woman in Disney history to be awarded this honor. Although she passed away in 2008, her spirit still surrounds Disneyland. What part of Harriet’s work is your favorite?