Harriet Burns, the first woman hired to work as a designer for Walt Disney Imagineering, who helped create and build prototypes for such Disneyland attractions as Sleeping Beauty Castle and the Pirates of the Caribbean, has died. She was 79.
The Santa Barbara resident died of complications from a heart condition July 25 at USC University Hospital, said her daughter, Pam Burns-Clair.
Burns joined Disney Studios as a set and prop painter for the “Mickey Mouse Club” television show in 1955. One of her major contributions to the show was the Mouse Clubhouse that she helped design and build.
She arrived at the studio each day wearing a skirt and high-heel shoes to work a lathe, saw and drill press.
“She could do everything a man could do,” said Marty Sklars, executive vice president 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.”
During her initial years on the job, Disneyland was under construction. In addition to set designing, Burns got an assignment in the model shop, crafting miniature prototypes of attractions for the park.
Her department of three model-makers was known as WED Enterprises and later renamed Walt Disney Imagineering, a reference to the imagination and engineering that go into theme park attractions.
“I think Harriet was Walt’s favorite imagineer,” Sklars said.
Her ladylike manner, perfect grooming and the fact that she was a woman in a male-dominated profession set her apart.
Disney included her in several episodes of “The Wonderful World of Color,” the 1960s television show on which he was the host and presented behind-the-scenes segments about his empire.
One of Burns’ first assignments in the model shop was to work on Sleeping Beauty Castle, an attraction that was in place on the park’s opening day, July 17, 1955.
She later worked on the original Pirates of the Caribbean that opened in 1967, and the Haunted Mansion that opened two years later.
Part of her job was “figure-finishing.” She applied face paint and other touches to the costumed mannequins that are part of many Disneyland attractions. Years later, she said that one of her most challenging projects was the exotic birds she helped to craft for the Enchanted Tiki Room that opened in 1963.
“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. She worked out the problems and later maintained the birds as they aged.
“Good enough was not for Harriet; it had to be perfect,” said Blaine Gibson, a former animator and sculptor at Disney who worked with Burns.
She was part of the team that created several Disney attractions for the New York World’s Fair in 1964, including “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” which later was installed at Disneyland.
Harriet Tapp was born Aug. 20, 1928, in San Antonio and reared in Seguin, Texas. An art student, she earned her bachelor’s degree at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
She married William Burns, and in 1953 they moved to Los Angeles with their baby daughter. Burns went to work at Dice Display Industries Cooperative Exchange, making props for television shows and sets for Las Vegas floor shows.
She also worked on the Santa’s Village theme park that opened in Lake Arrowhead in the mid-1950s. When the company closed, a colleague told Burns that Disney was hiring.
“She got the job and things mushroomed,” Burns’ daughter said of her mother’s career. “She liked being around the creative spark, and Walt took her under his wing.”
Burns retired in 1986 but was not forgotten at Disney. Her work was put in a window display on Main Street U.S.A. in 1992, accompanied by a plaque that reads, “The Artisans Loft, Handmade Miniatures by Harriet Burns.”
She was designated a Disney Legend in 2000, recognized among her peers “whose imagination, talents and dreams have created the Disney magic.”
In addition to her daughter, Burns is survived by two sisters, Wilma Draves and Suzie Mosteller; two granddaughters, Chelsea and Haley Clair; and numerous nieces, nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews. Her husband died in 1986.
A memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. Aug. 20 at All Saints by the Sea Episcopal Church, 83 Eucalyptus Lane, 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, CA 90015. The website is www.salvationarmy-socal.org.