Remembering Harriet Burns

Sometimes in our lives we meet extraordinary people who although we don’t truly know them the brief moments we share forever change us. Disney Legend Harriet Burns is one of those people. I won’t pretend to know her but thanks in part to the NFFC and my job at LaughingPlace I had the opportunity to speak with her on several occasions and to hear her marvelous stories about working at the Disney Studios.


So I was completely devastated this afternoon to learn that she had passed away. I will miss her terribly at future Disney celebrations. She had a terrific smile that seemed as though it bubbled from deep within her soul. She became and will remain my standard of true feminity. She was the first woman ever hired by Walt Disney Imagineering in a creative rather than an office capacity which to me illustrates an amazing strength and tenacity. Imagineers are artists and if you’ve ever worked around artists you know it can be a volatile environment. Now add to that mix the male dominated culture of the time and you can see how I’ve come to admire the path that she was able to carve.

I admire her ability to balance that tenacious spirit with a warm, inviting charm. Perhaps it’s the Southern girl in me, but I always adored the way Ms. Burns (also a Southern girl) talked about her adventures in the early days of WED. Her stories about working on the creation of such projects as Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln –or- it’s a small world were always accentuated with delightful laughter as she recounted their various unique challenges. Her ingenuity with materials that help us accept the reality of Disney’s audio-animatronics was a treasure. She has frequently shared the story of frustration over the way the feathers fell over the tiki birds in the birdmobile and how the motion of Walt’s sweater over his shoulder inspired the resolution. You’ll have to do a “google” search for the story.

At the Pirates of the Caribbean celebration in 2000, Harriet Burns talked about being a figure finisher. She talked about the project saying, “the fun part about the Pirates was they didn’t have to look like anything but characters and we could make them anyway, like the Auctioneer – I did him blonde, brunette and red haired and with a beard and with a mustachio, different effects and Walt picked which one he thought was the best. And we had such fun with all them, but we were at work, we couldn’t just dilly dally on them.”

And while I will miss hearing more stories of the early days at WED, it is her demeanor, her style, her charm, her grace, her quiet strength, and her poise that I will truly miss at future Disney events. I’ll simply miss the opportunity to spend a few more minutes in the presence of an admirable woman.