Women’s History Month: Harriet Burns, Disney’s First Female Imagineer
Harriet Burns became the first woman to work at WED Enterprises giving her special touch to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, the Haunted Mansion, and designing the birds for the Enchanted Tiki Room. Her daughter, Pam Burns-Clair, and Don Peri, author of "Working with Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists" will introduce you to a woman that worked beside legends and become one herself.
Pam Burns-Clair – A licensed psycho-therapist living in Sonoma, daughter of Harriet Burns, and the co-author of "Walt Disney's First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns"
Don Peri – Disney historian, author of “Working with Walt: Interviews with Disney Artists”, consultant to Pixar, Walt Disney Studios, and The Walt Disney Family Museum. Don conducted many hours of interviews during the creation of the Museum. Don is also aco-author of "Walt Disney's First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burn”
Chelsea Clair – a designer and the graphic design for the book "Walt Disney's First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns". Not to mention being the Grand-daughter of Harriet, and following in her Grandmother’s footsteps.
Harriet Burns as the title of book states was Walt Disney’s First Lady of Imagineering. There are several very good bios of Harriet on the internet so won’t good into any great detail here, other than to give a little background and list a few of the projects she worked on while at Disney.
In honor of Women’s History Month, it should be noted that Harriet enter the Disney organization and WED Enterprise (or as we now know it – Walt Disney Imagineering) at a time when the industry was predominantly male. In listening to Pam and Don talk about her, and an interview clip that was played, I don’t get the sense that Harriet thought herself an earlier feminist. Quite to the contrary, in every outward appearance, she was very much the lady, to the point of working with power tools in high heels and a skirt. However, as both Pam and Don explained by stating they could write a very adult version of the book, Harriet possessed a unique personality, spirit, and provocative sense of humor that allow her to work and flourish in this environment.
As one of the three original WED Enterprises members, Harriet initially worked alongside Fred Joerger and Wathel Rodgers in what eventually became the WED Model Shop. Name your favorite Imagineer or Imagineering legend and Harriet worked with him or her. Don’t believe me? Pick up a copy of the book, I won’t spoil it for you, but the tributes in this book are just amazing. For just a sampling of the Disneyland project Harriet works on in no particular order: The Matterhorn, Pirates of the Caribbean. The Haunted Mansion, The Enchanted Tiki Room, the original Submarine Ride, New Orleans Square, and the list goes on.
Some final notes on Harriet Burns, in 1992 she honored with a window on Main Street at Disneyland, and was the first woman in Disney History to receive this honor. In 2000 Harriet Burns was honored as a Disney Legend. In July of 2008 we lost a very classy lady and she will be missed. But, for Disney fans and Disneyland fans in particular, her memory will live on as we walk the park and remember her contributions to that piece of Magic we cherish.
Pam and Don mostly read passages from the books tribute contributors. Again, pick up a copy of the book, I won’t spoil it for anyone, but a couple of stories did touch me.
From Pam we heard the story of a certain Imagineering Legend, a person I have met and will therefore remain nameless, had done several rather erotic drawing which Harriet found quite good. She took them down to the model to display them… For a dime a look. It was said that a coffee can was filled with dimes. Said Imagineer was saving for a special gift for his daughter, and this was Harriet’s way of helping out. Pam told us how, for reasons that should appear obvious now, her Mother tried very hard to keep her private life and work life separate, but did describe how Harriet would just light up when she talked about Walt Disney. We could all definitely see that in the interview clip that was shown. Whenever asked about her own achievements, she would smile brightly a smart talking about all the wonderful achievement Walt Disney had inspired.
From Don we heard about the help Harriet provided in arranging interviews for his Working with Walt book and even participating in the process to help draw out stories from older interviewees because of her magnificent memory. You could tell that Don thought of Harriet not only as a friend, but a cherished friend.
Probably the most touching story for me came from Chelsea. Because of the travel distant, she only got to see her Grandmother 2 or 3 times a year. She recounted her 8th birthday (I believe) and while her party was happening there was a knock at the door, it was a delivery of popcorn for the party. A little while later there was another knock at the door, it was a delivery of balloons. Yet again even later, another knock. This time, there stood a pink elephant with a box. The children all chase the elephant down the street, but were directed back to the box. In the box… Grandma! That’s a pretty cool Grandma, don’t you think?
Pam, Don, and Chelsea were most kind to spend most time after the session to sign books, and my future imaginer now has one more item to add to her inspiration collections.
My commentary on the event:
First, Harriet Burns was an amazing woman. Not only was she extremely talented artistically, she was very adept at figuring out how to both blend in and stand out in a male dominated environment. The session along with the rest that I have attended only serve to further demonstrate Walt Disney’s true talent. Along with being an entertainment visionary and master storyteller, Walt was a master at bring together many talented people and inspiring them to be more than they thought possible. The one thing I keep coming away from the Museum with is to find something to be passionate about, and then be passionate about it. Now all I have to do is find my Mickey Mouse.
Again, I hope you found reading this report as much as I enjoyed writing it.