The millions of guests that have explored the shadowy confines of the Haunted Mansion have seen Leota “Lee” Toombs Thomas—or at least the likeness of her face. She appears as Madame Leota, the disembodied head that speaks from inside a crystal ball at Disney’s creepiest and most ghoulishly fun attraction. “As I remember,” the soft-spoken Imagineer recalled shortly after making her debut at the attraction, which first opened at Disneyland in 1969, “my eyes were the right distance apart to fit the test model when the whole thing began.”
Something of the gypsy look in her handsome face worked so well, however, that she later found herself in the Studio’s makeup department preparing to have a special rubber mask made of her face; her visage is now enshrined forever in the Haunted Mansion.
Lee began her career at The Walt Disney Studios in 1940, when she was hired into the Ink and Paint department. She then transferred to the Animation Department, where she met animator Harvey Toombs, whom she married in 1947. She left the Company to raise their two children, Launie and Kim, but returned to Disney in 1962. Joining WED Enterprises, now known as Walt Disney Imagineering, she created and developed designs for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair. A natural craftsman, Lee played pivotal roles in the creation of it’s a small world, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and Ford’s Magic Skyway. After the conclusion of the World’s Fair, Lee transferred her talents to some of the most beloved attractions at Disneyland, including Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion.
Kim Irvine, Lee’s daughter and a Disney Imagineer since 1970, once painted a vivid picture of these heady times in Disneyland history: “When Yale Gracey was experimenting with ideas for a gypsy in a crystal ball, he asked Leota if she would mind posing for the head,” she remembered. “They were a close-knit group, and mom said she thought it sounded fun. Blaine [Gibson] made a life mask of her face and Yale, Wathel [Rogers] and the rest of the team filmed her, crazy makeup and all. I still remember when she wore it home that night! Then they created the ‘Little Leota’ bride at the end of the ride. Since that figure is small, they wanted a high voice, so they kept mom’s voice because she sounded like a little girl.”
Kim adds that when the Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas overlay was created for the Haunted Mansion, Imagineers wanted a new incantation and they asked if she would do it. “Funny thing is,” she explained, “they discovered that our life masks are so similar they can just project her face on my head and they match up perfectly! Mom would have liked that!”
Lee relocated to Walt Disney World in 1971 to start up the on-site team that would maintain shows and attractions. After returning to California in 1979, she worked in several different capacities, including at Walt Disney Imagineering, where she trained many Disneyland figure finishers and artisans.
Leota Toombs Thomas passed away in December 1991.