from 2007 & 2008
HARRIET BURNS
Remembering Harriet in her own words

by Scott Wolf

Harriet Burns - Disney's first Imagineer

I first met Harriet when another Disney legend, Alice Davis, suggested I interview her. My first interview with Harriet lasted over an hour and a half and I had so much fun! She had the most amazing stories and kept me laughing.

We spoke many times after that interview and I often ended up grabbing my voice recorder because she had new stories to tell, many of which will eventually be posted on here. 

Although I was terribly saddened by her passing on July 25, 2008, I'm so grateful for being able to preserve many of her stories.

To share a bit of Harriet's personality with you, I've chosen a few of my favorite stories from her to post below.

So here is Harriet, in her own words... she will be deeply missed.


WARDROBE PROBLEMS AS A LADY IN A MEN'S WORLD

Scott Wolf: What did you wear when you went to work?

Harriet Burns: I wore heels and I wore gloves. I didn’t wear a hat. But then I would take off my shoes and I had some sandals there. They issued a smock, just a crummy old smock. They opened in the front and one day when I was pouring polyester I spilled polyester by accident into my lap. So I quickly grabbed some acetone to wash it off and when I did I dissolved my skirt. It was rayon file. I didn’t even think about it. And my slip was nylon, so I was there with nothing on. It was very funny, and Fred had an old pair of blue jeans for when he climbed ladders and stuff and so I had to wear his blue jeans because I didn’t have anything on! (laughing) I dissolved my clothes!

After that I took my smock which had long sleeves and I used the sleeves as a tie and I turned it around like an apron. They sketched us once for, I think it was Wall Street Journal, they did a series on Disney people and what we were doing and stuff and they took a photo of Fred and me and the guy then sketched us from the photo and I looked just like Whistler’s Mother.

Harriet Burns - in her own wordsTHE SECRETIVE 1964-1965
WORLD'S FAIR PROJECT

SW: What did you work on for the World’s Fair?

HB: All the projects for the World’s Fair. We started it at the studio, Fred (Joerger) & I. By that time Wathel (Rogers) was doing Lincoln alone so most of the time he wasn’t with us anymore.

Fred & I started the Ford Motor Company (Walt’s “Magic Skyway” sponsored by Ford)… that was the first project and they told us this has to be real secretive in case somebody has a brother who works for Chevrolet or something.

We had a little partition in our area of our warehouse, and they said we’re going to have to build it up to the ceiling so that nobody could climb over or take pictures over or anything, and we’re going to have to padlock it. Usually we didn’t lock things up. It was kind of locked up, but not seriously. So now we had to take it seriously. They said, “Don’t tell anybody what you’re working on.” People walked thru our area at lunch hour, and they liked to walk thru the backlot and they thought it was fun to see what we’re doing… animation people, and bookkeepers. We never knew who would be winding in and out of our area and we weren’t to tell what we were working on.

So Wayne the fireman had to come in. He had to be allowed because of the possibility of fire. So he kept saying, “What are you working on?” and we’d say, “We’re not saying what we’re working on.” Finally, he said, “C’mon, you could tell me. I’ve got to come in here.” So I said, “Well, frankly, we’re building a new hotel for Disneyland and I’m going to be the Madame.”

SW: (I laugh) Did you say that for real?

HB: He laughed.

Harriet Burns - Tiki RoomSENDING RUNNERS TO GET THE TIKI ROOM FEATHERS

HB: When I was still at the studio I had runners to get the feathers… they’re sanded on the quills on left hand and right hand. So they’re flat so I had to get so many ounces of left handed blue feathers and so many right handed blue feathers, and different types of feathers, the fluffy feathers and the straight feathers and all the types of feathers.

But, the guys loved that assignment because when they went to Hollywood Fancy Feathers that’s where the strippers got their feathers. They would love me to send them down there and they’d come back and tell me who they’d seen.

One time they came back, one of them said they saw a stripper and her mother and they were both strippers!

WALT DISNEY'S RED LIGHT DISTRICT EXPERIENCE

HB: I told you Walt did miniatures. Anytime he went anywhere he’d bring his wind up toys and he’d bring in miniatures that we could use. With the toys, he’d say “I thought you might enjoy fooling with this or taking it apart or something.” So maybe we’d learn something or whatever. I remember he brought a woman spanking a baby one time and a man chopping wood. They were wind up toys and Walt would just bring them in.

When he went to Paris in 1955 after the park had opened, he saw a millner’s shop and it had a beautiful hat in the window with tiny vegetables and fruits all over the brim and beautiful little flowers and leaves. He went in and asked where they got them. He said, “I’d love to buy the miniatures if you sell them.” They said, “We get them from a millner’s supply house.” And so they gave him the address.

So he went out and hailed a cab and gave them the address. When they got there I don’t think he realized it was a red light district, but he did see the little shop. So he told the cab driver, “Just wait here for me. I won’t be long.” And the cab driver said, “Take your time… take your time.” (We laugh)

But Walt packed this whole suitcase for us. He got one of those cheap suitcases and he packed it solid with these little miniatures and we used those forever. It was a wonderful array of things he bought.

A LADY'S ROOM FOR HARRIET

You know, when I first went over there to Glendale there was just a handful of us. We fought not to go over there. They didn’t have a cafeteria or anything. So Fred said, “Oh no, Harriet can’t drive that far.” (Laughs) Five more miles or whatever it was. We just pulled anything out of a hat that we could.

Oh, they were finally going to build me a lady’s john. There was no bathroom for women. I was the only female on the backlot… for years. All these guys had their own, but I had to go across to what we called the Roy Disney building where the accountants were. I had to make a trip where all the guys had everything convenient.

All the guys would tease me and say, “We’re going to do a real nice lady’s bathroom, Harriet.” But they never did. This went on for years.

Finally, they were going to build me one because they were building another building back there. They brought me brochures and showed me this lavender bathroom they were going to do. It was so cute. Just as soon as they got the lavender bathroom done, they were going to have me cut the ribbon and everything, a big deal, and by golly that’s when they sent us over to Glendale.

SW: Did they finish the bathroom?

HB: Yes, they did it. I came back and saw it but I never got to use it.

Harriet Burns - Julie Reihm - Walt DisneyLEAVING DISNEY

SW: How long did you stay at Disney?


HB: 31 years. At one point I said to my daughter, “Pam, next year when I quit…” and she said, “Mommy, you can’t quit! You’re doing the Matterhorn and I’m studying Switzerland.” So I thought, “Okay, I’ll stay.” I just went from project to project but it truly was a carrot on a stick. Each project I thought, “Well, I can’t miss that. I’ll have to stay for that.” Then the next project would come along and I’d be like, “Oh, we’re going to do robots? This should be exciting.”

SW: You retired in 1986?

HB: Yes. I wanted to retire after thirty years. We owned our home up here (in Montecito) for three years and we couldn’t get up here. So my husband had his own corporation and he was going to transfer his corporation gradually. We thought we’d get a condo in L.A. and then sell the house.

I thought I’d retire in 30 years, but I didn’t feel right because I was on the Moroccan pavilion and Norwegian (for Epcot) and I wanted to finish what I started for the company, so I finished those so it was 31 years.

SW: Was it hard to leave or were you ready?

Harriet BurnsHB: I was ready. Walt was gone. Eisner had been in like a year and a half. Of course he was nice. He said, “You’re too young to retire.” I was under 65, but I thought well, it’s still a good time for me. We just thought it was a good time, and Bill could transfer his company and we were eager to get up here.

We were ready to sell our house and then we got here and he died six days after he was here and that was the end of that.

SW: You’re husband?!

HB: Yes, he had a heart attack. Unbelievable, after six days. He never really got to live here. We knew we had the house and he had known it for three years and it was something for him to look forward to it. We were going to celebrate his 58th birthday here.

LISTEN TO HARRIET TALK ABOUT HER TIKI ROOM WOES:


More from Harriet:
Disneyland's opening day and employee's skepticism
Pirates of the Caribbean and Walt's last days
Creating the robins for "Mary Poppins"
Working on Disneyland's original submarines

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