Harriet Burns, first female Imagineer, dies at 79

Began work at Walt Disney Imagineering in 1955

Harriet Burns, the first woman hired by Walt Disney Imagineering in a creative capacity, died Friday at USC University Hospital in Los Angeles of complications from heart surgery. She was 79.

Burns, who became an Imagineer in the mid 1950s, helped design and build prototypes for theme park attractions as well as products featured at the New York World's Fair of 1964. She worked for Disney for 31 years and in 2000 was honored as a Disney Legend, which "acknowledges and honors the many individuals whose imagination, talents and dreams have created the Disney magic."

In 1955, the San Antonio native began at Walt Disney Prods. on the TV series "The Mickey Mouse Club," where she was a prop and set designer. She shared space with Fred Joerger, a model builder for WED Enterprises (now Walt Disney Imagineering), who was working on models for Disneyland, and she became an Imagineer soon afterward.

Burns worked with men in the model shop, wielding saws, lathes and sanders. "It was the 1950s," she said. "I wore color-coordinated dresses, high heels and gloves to work. Girls didn't wear slacks back then, although I carried a pair in a little sack, just in case I had to climb into high places."

Before Disneyland opened in 1955, Burns helped create the original model for Sleeping Beauty Castle. For the first major expansion of the Anaheim park in 1959, she created models of the Matterhorn as a one-one hundredth scale replica of the Swiss mountain and painted underwater figures and set pieces for the Submarine Voyage. She worked as a figure finisher for Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room, applying individual feathers to the birds.

For the 1964 World's Fair, she helped on the attractions Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln and the Carousel of Progress.

On occasion, when Walt Disney would introduce new theme park attractions to TV audiences, Burns would appear on segments of "Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color."

An active member of the arts and music community in Santa Barbara, Burns is survived by daughter Pam Clair and her family of Sonoma, Calif., goddaughter Joanne Campbell and her family of Austin, Texas; and two sisters, Wilma Draves of Sedona, Ariz., and Suzie Mostoller of Dewey, Ariz.

A memorial service is planned for Aug. 20, which would have been her 80th birthday, at All Saints Episcopal Church in Montecito, Calif., followed by a reception at the Biltmore in Santa Barbara.