FROM 2007
talks about creating the robins for "Mary Poppins"

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: I know you created the robins that Mary Poppins sings with during “Spoonful of Sugar” but I’ve been told that there’s an interesting story about that.

HB: Yes, the robin is a federally protected bird and you can’t get robin skin. When we were going to do the robins for “Mary Poppins” Walt said, “I’ll have to write to Washington D.C. and ask permission to get a robin skin,” because they’re federally protected.

So they wrote Washington and they didn’t hear, and didn’t hear, so then he said, “Well, write again, the movie’s half shot. We’ve got to hurry this up.” They wrote again and they didn’t hear and he said, “Look, we’ve got to do something.”

Well, one of our fellows had came from the natural history museum and he said there’s drawers of bird skins there and we could get one of those… we could make a deal with them probably. So they did, they gave them so many Disneyland tickets and stuff, so they gave me a robin skin, but it was an old robin skin from 1893 and it was packed in arsenic.

You see, they had to pack them in arsenic to keep the bugs out of them because moths and larva and all sorts of stuff get in there and eat the skin and stuff.

I had to have real feathers for the wings and tail. I made the rest of it synthetically, but this is a close up that’s blown up on the screen… it’s big. You have to see real feathers, and so I had to get those feathers.

Well, we finally got those feathers, but, it was packed in the arsenic so I had to work with this yucky old arsenic-covered bird skin. In the long run I had to do five of them. We always did duplicates and there was a nest where she looked out the window and there’s a nest of robins and one comes and flies onto her finger.

When it was on her finger she wore a ring and the ring had a brace up the bottom to where the little claws would fit over her finger. That’s how it was supported on her hand but you couldn’t see that.

Walt would come in when I was working on it and he loved to show it off to like the head of Monsanto or whoever he was escorting around. He would put the ring on and he would talk to the robin.

I had a brain which is about sixteen inches cubed. Of course, in that day we were so crude… that was right after Audio Animatronics had started, and I had little knobs on there that said, “turn head,” “open beak,” “tweet,” “flip tail,” and “flip wings” and so forth, so I would make it do all these things while Walt was talking to it and talking to whoever, like any celebrity. So it was fun for him to play with his toy because he was responsible for everything.

SW: Did the arsenic smell?

HB: No, it didn’t smell. Of course, I had to vacuum it out and everything. I wanted to get the arsenic off, and I did, but it was yucky to work with. I wasn’t thrilled about having arsenic on my “old lace.” (we laugh)

SW: Those birds ended up in the “Carousel of Progress” attraction, right?

HB: Yes, and then I don’t know what happened to them after that.

More from Harriet:
Some great stories from Harriet
Disneyland's opening day and employee's skepticism
Pirates of the Caribbean and Walt's last days
Working on Disneyland's original submarines

See other interviews

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