The Walt Disney Family Museum hosted a special virtual event tonight that celebrated the life and legacy of Disney Legend Harriet Burns. Titled “Crafting Disneyland Magic: The Life of Harriet Burns,” this special presentation was led by Burns’ daughter, Pam Burns-Clair, and one of her granddaughters, Haley Clair. For the low admission price of just $5, Disney fans were treated to a spirited discussion and had the opportunity to ask questions during a Q&A.
The presentation began with an audio interview shared by Scott Wolf, who hosts the full interview on his website, MouseClubhouse.com. The audio file was a fun way to start the presentation with Harriet telling part of her story in her own words.
Growing up as Harriet Tap in Segine, Texas, those that knew Harriet as a youngster called her “Tippy Tap” and assumed that she would go on to be a dancer because she taught herself to tap dance after watching Shirley Temple movies. As a young adult, she met her husband Bill Burns at Southern Methodist University in Dallas and not long after tying the knot, the newlywed couple moved to Los Angeles where Bill had dreams of becoming an actor and a screenwriter.
New in L.A,, Harriet got a job at a company called Dice that made props for Las Vegas and amusement parks. When the company went under, she heard that Disney was hiring artisans with similar skills and soon found herself working on the studio lot on a new TV venture for the studio called The Mickey Mouse Club. As a set designer, Harriet created the famous clubhouse on the TV show and found herself working at Disney at one of the company’s most exciting times, shortly before the opening of Disneyland.
One of the earliest photos taken of Harriet at Disney around this time shows her painting a model of the dwarf’s cottage for Snow White’s Adventures (Soon to become Snow White’s Enchanted Wish). Although she was hired to work on the TV show, the rapid finish on Disneyland was an all hands on deck job and she soon found herself in the heart of the action. Through demonstrating her talent and skill under pressure, Harriet became the first woman officially hired at Disney’s model shop, the earliest version of WED.
Pam recalled that she was three-years-old and got to accompany her mother at the grand opening of Disneyland. The only memory she has of that auspicious day is that she got a Mickey-shaped balloon. One of the famous stories from Harriet’s time as the only woman in the model shop is that there was only a restroom for the men, so she would either sneak in when it was empty or ask a coworker to stand watch at the door and tell men they had to wait until she came out. Walt Disney eventually learned about this and offered to build a bathroom just for her, letting Harriet choose a color, which was to be lavender. Work began on the women’s restroom for her, but before it could be completed the department expanded into WED and was relocated to Glendale.
Another famous story from the designs for Disneyland is Candy Mountain and as the story goes, the original model was eaten by birds in the WED parking lot, which is partially true. But Pam shared that Walt Disney scrapped his plans before the model was completely finished and Harriet Burns brought a box of rock candy home. Pam shared that she got in trouble for taking some of it to school to share with her classmates, but the family actually still has some of it. It’s part of the Burns-Clair Christmas tradition and they decorate their tree with it year after year. The legend of Candy Mountain lives on beyond the window display at Disney California Adventure.
You would think that having a mother who works behind-the-scenes at Disneyland would be impressive, but Pam shared that her mother’s work didn’t interest her that much until Walt Disney’s The Enchanted Tiki Room, the first project with Audio Animatronics. It proved to be a big challenge for Harriet because one of Walt’s wishes for the birds was that it look like they breath, with their chests raising and lowering. In the days before spandex, finding a material with enough elasticity to not bunch up when contracted was hard, but the answer came to Harriet one day while talking to Walt Disney himself. He was wearing a blue sweater and she noticed that as the head of the company bent his arm, the fabric stretched, but didn’t bunch when he straightened it. She found out the type of material and that’s what they used, which was also able to withstand a stress test of about 4,000 shows.
Another funny Tiki Room story involved a live bird that was purchased for the model shop on the project so they could have a real bird to inspire their work. They named him Joker and he was capable of mimicking frequently used words and phrases. Some of the early Imagineers had some choice words in their vocabulary and they quickly learned they needed to cover the cage when Walt Disney stopped by for fear that the boss might not like what it repeated. One day he stopped by unannounced and without his warning cough down the hall and he heard Joker express a four-letter-word. Instead of being upset, Walt Disney laughed.
Around the same time WED was developing The Enchanted Tiki Room, production was underway on Mary Poppins and Harriet Burns also assisted with creating animatronic robins for the “Spoonful of Sugar” sequence. Julie Andrews wore a ring in the film that could help control the birds and afterwards, Walt Disney kept it in his office. He would show it off to executives from other companies when they would come visit.
Working on it’s a small world was a special project for Harriet, which allowed her to work with another female artist she admired, Mary Blair. One of the funny stories shared involved Walt Disney being displeased with the hair on the hyenas, giving a note that it should be curlier. Harriet sent a messenger boy to a drugstore to buy several perm kits and he had a hard time telling the cashier why he was buying so many.
Having contributed to several projects for the 1964 New York World’s Fair, including having her likeness featured as the mother in Carousel of Progress, Harriet and her husband Bill were invited to attend the fair and were flown out on Walt Disney’s private airplane, the same one used for scouting trips for The Florida Project. As luck would have it, when the couple entered the Sweden Pavilion, they were randomly chosen to win an all-expenses-paid trip to the country where they met the ambassador and were showered with gifts of Swarovski Crystal. Pam shared that they were gone for two weeks as a result.
The Burns family had a milkman who would stop by the house weekly, who Pam described as grizzly. He would wear a stocking cap and sometimes wore shorts and he had very hairy legs. When Harriet was working on figures for Pirates of the Caribbean, she was inspired by their weekly milk deliveries as she worked on the figure that sits above the bridge with his foot dangling. She installed all of his leg hairs by hand.
Madame Leota could’ve been Madame Harriet. One of the rare photos shown during the presentation was of Harriet Burns in a screen test to provide the face for the projection effect in The Haunted Mansion. However, her facial features were too small to read from the ride vehicle’s distance and Leota Tombs got the part instead. She received her own tribute tombstone at Walt Disney World when the queue was expanded to include an interactive experience.
When Pam turned 50, Harriet arranged for the entire family to have a celebratory trip to Walt Disney World. One of the highlights for the family was having Harriet as a tour guide at EPCOT, taking them through the World Showcase pavilions and showing them some of the work she did there. One of Harriet’s film assignments was creating the bejeweled book that opens the classic animated film Sleeping Beauty, which she did by hand. When she retired, among the many gifts given to her by her colleagues was a scrapbook made to look like that beautiful book.
While the majority of the event was focused on Harriet Burns’ contributions to Disney, a lot of it was personal, too. Her daughter and granddaughter shared some family photos and precious memories. Among the gallery were several handmade cards that Blaine Gibson made for her in their later years as widowed sweethearts. The very last card shown was one she never got to see, a get well card from the heart surgery Harriet Burns didn’t survive.
If you enjoyed this recap, Harriet Burns’ descendents run the website ImagineerHarriet.com where you can learn more about the first female Imagineer and also purchase the book Pam Burns-Clair published with Don Peri. To stay connected with Pam and Haley, you can also follow their Imagineer Harriet Facebook Group, where several photos from the presentation can also be found. If you’d prefer to support The Walt Disney Family Museum, you can also purchase the book from their online store where you can also find other unique Disney history items.
Stay up-to-date on future events from the Walt Disney Family Museum by checking out their event calendar at waltdisney.org/calendar.