How much do we all love Harriet Burns? A Disney Legend, and the first woman Imagineer, Harriet Burns had an enormous impact on the Disney parks. In fact, as one of the early Imagineers, she surely had an impact not only on the development of the parks, but also of the Disney culture.
But somehow, when I was preparing to write a post for Ada Lovelace Day, Harriet Burns didn’t come to mind. You see, Ada Lovelace Day is designed to honor women excelling in technology, and when I’d read about her accomplishments, somehow it always seemed that wardrobe came to the forefront. Not the audio-animatronics wardrobe, but Burns’ wardrobe itself. For example, the Disney Legends site reminds us that “while she worked padded-shoulder to shoulder with men in the model shop, wielding saws, lathes and sanders, she was still the best-dressed employee in the department.” In fact, all this focus on her wardrobe made it easy for me to somehow think of her as not-that-technical as I’d perused various Disney sites; were it not for an email from Len Testa I might not have thought to dig deeper.
Honestly, I get the fact that when a woman is one of the first in a given field, it’s easy to focus on those girly issues. Is there a ladies room in the workplace? Will the guys still get to tell bawdy jokes? Can she really lift that model? I still remember how the guys in my eighth-grade electric shop class freaked out when I first walked in the room.
I’m more interested in Harriet Burns’ technical work than her fashion statements, or her ability to tell a dirty joke (though I’m sure I would have appreciated all three, had I been fortunate enough to know her). And I’m glad to know that she created the model for one of my favorite Disney parks icons, the Matterhorn. From Jim Hill Media:
For the 1959 expansion, Harriet built a series of conceptual models of the Matterhorn. Though the Walt Disney Company claims that the Matterhorn is a 1/100th scale replica of the actual Matterhorn, Harriet often told me, that wasn’t exactly the case. Though she used photos from postcards and from National Geographic as a guide, she only modeled the upper third of the Disneyland mountain after the real Matterhorn. And even there, she accentuated the tilt of the mountain’s iconic chimney because she felt it looked better. The bottom two-thirds were designed by Harriet and the project’s art director, Vic Green, to better accommodate the bobsled ride.
Burns’ technical work is present throughout Disneyland: In the Tiki Room, in Pirates of the Caribbean, in the Haunted Mansion, just to name a few. And where did she get her start with the Disney company? Working as a prop and set designer for the Mickey Mouse Club.
If you’re interested in learning more about Burns I’d suggest checking out Window to the Magic episode 227, which has a fantastic tribute to her, including interviews with her colleagues Rolly Crump, Bob Gurr, and Blaine Gibson, as well as her daughter, Pam Burns-Clair. Her daughter has also recently published a book, Walt Disney’s First Lady of Imagineering, Harriet Burns.