As the first woman ever hired by Walt Disney Imagineering in a creative capacity, Harriet Burns helped design, prototype, and build theme park attractions featured at Disneyland, Walt Disney World, and the New York World’s Fair of 1964-65. And while she worked shoulder to shoulder with men in the model shop, wielding saws, lathes, and sanders, she was still the best-dressed employee in the department.
“It was the 1950s,” she later 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.”
Born August 20, 1928, in San Antonio, Texas, Harriet received her bachelor’s degree in art from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She 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, located near Lake Arrowhead.
When Dice went out of business in 1955, a co-employee who had once worked at Disney beat tracks back to the Studio and invited Harriet to come along. She was subsequently hired to paint sets and props for the new Mickey Mouse Club television show. Harriet soon began coordinating the show’s color styling and even designed and built the famous “Mouse Clubhouse.”
She later joined Walt Disney Imagineering, formerly called WED Enterprises, where she helped create Sleeping Beauty Castle, New Orleans Square, the Haunted Mansion, and more. She also helped construct Storybook Land, which features miniature villages inspired by Disney animated movies such as Pinocchio, and designed all of the “singing birds” in the Enchanted Tiki Room, the first Audio-Animatronics® attraction at Disneyland.
Harriet 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.
After retirement, Harriet remained an active member of the arts and music community in Santa Barbara, California.
Harriet Burns passed away on July 25, 2008, in Los Angeles, California.