FROM 2007
talks about Disneyland's opening day
and employee's skepticism

by Scott Wolf

Harriet Burns - Disney's first Imagineer

I just love doing interviews with the wonderful talents that have worked for Disney, but Harriet is a particular delight to talk with. I immediately liked her the first time I spoke to her, and every time we ever spoke after that, after she asked has my boys are, she always had some wonderful stories about working for Disney.

It's almost hard to know what she did for Disney because she did so much, but certainly not what you would expect from a lady in the 1950s. She did everything from painting sets for the "Mickey Mouse Club" to literally building Sleeping Beauty Castle for Disneyland.

Who couldn't be impressed with this lady who, with Fred Joerger and Wathel Rogers, were Walt Disney's first three Imagineers? Harriet was even in the meeting when the term Audio Animatronics was coined. I know you'll enjoy my interviews with this incredible lady!

Scott Wolf: Were you at Disneyland on opening day?

HB: Oh yes. Oh, the crunch. Oh my gosh. We were all assigned different places... each person at the studio. They didn’t want everyone in the same area. They thought we’d be spaced out and sort of be “hosting” in different areas. But, it was just so crunched. They had counterfeit tickets and there was just this mob of people and it felt like 110 degrees. The asphalt was melting, every woman wore heels and my heels would sink into the asphalt. It was a miserable hot day.

We never even tried to get over to the picnic area where they were serving cold drinks and ice cream. I couldn’t even get to where I was assigned, my husband and Pam (her daughter) and I.

People would say like, “Elizabeth Taylor is over there.” Or they’d mention some movie star of the time like “So and so is over by the island” but by the time anybody could get over there they’d be gone.

And the day before it opened Fred & Wathel went down… Walt said there was a gap in Tomorrowland, I mean where nothing was. He said, “Take some models down there and just put them in as fillers.” And Fred came back and he said, “Oh my gosh, that place can’t open tomorrow. There’s rebar in the street and there’s rolls of wire and lumber and stuff all over the place.” He said poor Bill Evans hasn’t even planted stuff yet. “It’s just awful,” he said, “I don’t see how it can open.” Well, of course they worked all night and did it.

SW: Were you there that night?

HB: No, not that night. I was there for the opening, then Walt made his speeches and all the ribbons were cut and all of (Art) Linkletter’s stuff. It was quite dramatic.

SW: Did you see when he made the opening day speech?

HB: Yes, but it was at a distance. I don’t think he was nervous. He was very confident. Always confident. He would tell us, “If it doesn’t work, then we’ll do…” so and so. And you could always sell t shirts or toothbrushes or something with Mickey on it and you’d be okay.

SW: What did you think about Disneyland?

HB: Well, I thought it was a great idea but I didn’t know if people would go that far myself. When we first heard about it, all the animator guys were coming down, talking to us. Some would say, “Oh, isn’t it wonderful? It’s going to be terrific.” And others would say, “Who’s going to drive that far?”

SW: Even in the company they weren’t sure?

Harriet Burns interviewHB: Oh no. Oh no.

A lot of people didn’t know much about it. It was pretty mysterious. At first, Ken Anderson said that Walt came in one day and said, “Ken, I’m going to put you in this room and we’re going to lock it, and I want you to do this…” and so forth. And he did that with other major art directors. Ken did a lot of Fantasyland stuff, Mr. Toad’s ride and things like that. He had him designing those things. So people were doing these things not knowing that anybody else was on this besides them. Then Walt put it all together and boom, there was a park designed.

Photo provided by Walt Disney Imagineering.
More from Harriet:
Some great stories from Harriet
Pirates of the Caribbean and Walt's last days
Creating the robins for "Mary Poppins"
Working on Disneyland's original submarines

See other interviews

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