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The Happiest Place Online: Share in the Memories and Secrets of Disney History


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The Women of WED

Today I have decided to write about those who have given Disney Parks a feminine touch, the original ladies of WED Enterprises.  This is a really special topic to me because one day I hope to be an Imagineer and knowing that it is such a male dominated industry can be intimidating at times.  Reading about these three women: Harriet Burns, Alice Davis, and Leota Toombs, has helped me realize that dreams really do come true.

Harriet Burns

As the first woman hired by WED Enterprises, Harriet showed her fellow male co-workers that she was no one to be looked down upon.  Her creative skill was adored by Walt himself and Marty Sklar even claimed that she was Walt’s favorite. Burns earned her BA from South Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and then studied advanced design at the University of New Mexico.  Before Disney she worked on designing sets for television shows as well as live shows such as The Dunes in Las Vegas. She also got a bit of experience working in a theme park called Santa’s Village in Lake Arrowhead.

When she started working for Disney she was first a prop and set painter for the Mickey Mouse Club show.  She went on to help design miniature prototypes of Disneyland attractions alongside Fred Joerger.  These models include: Sleeping Beauty Castle, The Matterhorn Bobsleds, New Orleans Square, Haunted Mansion, and the Plaza Inn Restaurant.

Here’s Burns in one of her many appearances on the Wonderful World of Color TV Series showing a model of the Plaza Inn.

Harriet was known around WED as the “best dressed” says Marty Sklar (who has been an Imagineer from the beginning and now holds the position of Executive Vice President of Disney Parks).  She always wore her heels, gloves, and color coordinated dresses to work, with an extra pair of pants in her bag just in case she had to climb up to high places that day.  Some of her most popular work featured in Disneyland entails the miniature sets that make up Storybookland Canal Boats and The Submarine Voyage.  She also designed the birds in the Enchanted Tiki Room feather by feather.  For the 1964 World’s Fair almost everything was worked on by Mrs. Burns, still in those heels I presume.

I love the scarves. My grandmother still ties one around her neck just like this everyday.

 

Oh, and another important note… In 1986 Harriet became the first woman with a window on Main Street and in 2000 she was named a Disney Legend by the Walt Disney Company.
All research on Hariett Burns (as well as photos) came from DesigningDisney.comVariety.com, andJimHillMedia.com

Alice Davis

Always a talented artist, young Alice got herself a scholarship to study at Chouinard Art Institute, where she meat her future husband, Disney animator, Marc Davis. Originally she wanted to study animation, but since that had a two year waiting list she decided instead on pursuing costume design. Before working for Disney she had designed women’s lingerie.  Her first job for Disney came from Marc Davis who needed someone to create a costume for their figure model of Aurora while making the movie Sleeping Beauty.  It was during this project that Marc and Alice grew very close and ended up getting married in June 1956.

One of the many Christmas cards drawn up by Alice’s husband and Disney animator, Marc Davis

Here’s a photo of Alice with another famous Disney face, Mary Blair.
When the 1964 New York World’s Fair came around Walt asked Alice to help with its a small world.  She collaborated with Mary Blair on around 150 costumes for all the audio animatronic children on the attraction (like the one pictured above). Later, she also worked on creating the costumes for all the characters on The Pirates of the Caribbean, which were originally drawn up by her hubby, Marc Davis.  She also chipped in with the General Electric attractions: Carousel of Progress and Flight to the Moon.
Alice was named a Disney Legend in 2000 and received her window on Main Street right next to Marc’s on May 10, 2012.
My Alice Davis information and photos came from D23.comMousePlanet.com, and the Disney Parks Official Blog.

Leota Toombs

Leota Thomas, (maiden name Thomas) started her career at Disney when she was hired as a Paint and Ink girl at the studio, which is where she met her animator husband, Harvey Toombs.  After marrying in 1947 she left the company for a while to raise her (and Harvey’s) children,  Launie and Kim.  Eventually she did return in 1962… just in time to be another woman helping with the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  She played a central role in helping with its a small world, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, and the Ford Magic Skyway.

After this she returned to WED to work on Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion. While working on HM colleague, Yale Gracey, had the idea of creating a disembodied talking within a crystal ball and asked Leota to pose for it… because I mean, she did have the perfect name for it after marrying Harvey.  Though she is the face of Madame Leota, her voice was provided by Elanor Audley who had the perfect menacing voice (she also played the voices of Cinderella’s stepmom and Maleficent). Leota Toombs did however provide the voice for Little Leota at the end of the ride, reminding guests to hurry back and to bring their death certificates.

Leota went back and forth working at WDI for Walt Disney World and Disneyland and went on to train many Disney figure-finishers and artisans.  Her daughter, Kim Irvine, is currently a Disney Imagineer and still remembers when her mother came home in full Madame Leota makeup after filming.  Kim provided the face of Madame Leota (with a new script) for the Nightmare Before Christmas overlay that first came to DL in 2000.  Leota Toombs was recognized as a Disney Legend in 2009.
All research and imagery on Leota Toombs came from D23.com and MagicalMouseSchoolHouse.com.

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Celebrating 45 Years of Grim Grinning Ghosts

Since this year is the 46th Anniversary of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland Park I have decided to dedicate my first blog entry to this beloved attraction.  It is a ride that has a lot of history, has been written about often, and was finished at a difficult time for the Disney Company.  While the Mansion was in progress Walt passed away never officially deciding on what direction he wanted the attraction to be finalized as. So the creation ended up being a hodge-podge of art and special effects done by some of the most brilliant minds and WED Enterprises. My research for this entry comes from DoomBuggies.comlong-forgottenhauntedmansion.bogspot.comMiceChat.com, Davelandweb.comHiddenMickeys.org,ImagineeringDisney.com, and E-Ticket Magazine.
Let’s start with the construction of the Mansion itself, from the beginning Walt had made it clear that he did not want the Mansion to look worn down or decaying from the outside as if wouldn’t fit the clean and pristine look he was going for with his theme park, making it more family-friendly.  The final design came from a sketch done by Ken Anderson based on the Shipley-Lydecker House in Baltimore, Maryland (pictured below).
And here is the sketch by Ken Anderson, the resemblance is easy to see, and the mansion that stands today is almost identical to the Shipley-Lydecker House.
Once the building was constructed this mysterious sign was put outside its iron gates, advertising space for all ghosts and restless spirits to choose the Mansion to retire.  This sign was created by Disney Legend Marty Sklar.
It was during this time that the storyline of HM had to be decided on, but after Walt’s death in December of 1966, WED members became a bit lost without his guidance.  Finally, it was Marc Davis who said he was against telling one story and instead wanted the Mansion to have “a set of experiences” with a narrative logic, a lot like what had been done in the Pirates of the Carribean attraction.  Although there is no “official” storyline there are three major parts or “Acts” like in a play as described by HGB2, author of the Long- Forgotten Haunted Mansion Blog.  These acts refer to the beginning of the ride when ghosts cannot be seen but try to “cross-over” from the other side.  The next major part is Madame Leota’s seance room where Leota summons the spirits and “opens the gates” allowing them to now be seen.  The last act is the ghosts are finally able to materialize and show who they are… and what better way to do so than to have a “swinging wake” in the graveyard.  Throughout you see a bit of charm from each Imagineer who worked on the ride, a little bit of themselves, whether the scene be creepy or silly.
While there was no storyline officially agreed on by Imagineers at the time leave it to guests and cast members to create their own! There have been many stories linking all the rooms of the mansion into a consistent plot, such as Master Gracey and Constance (the attic bride) planning to be married but a jealous Madame Leota who was also in love with Gracey killed Constance and stashed her body in the attic.  Heartbroken by the news of his soon to be wife Gracey hangs himself, as we see in the elevator.
Let’s take a moment to talk about the real man Master Gracey got his name from, a very important man in the creation of this attraction named Yale Gracey.  Yale was described by coworkers as a shy man who just wanted to tinker and create.  This shy man was also a special effects genius thanks to all the magic tricks he had studied as a kid.  Yale is responsible for the use of the Pepper’s Ghost trick that makes the ghosts in the ballroom dance.  This effect is created with mannequins and animatronics that are under the doom buggy track in front of a large piece of glass.  When a light is turned on in front of the animatronics they reflect onto the glass creating a ghostly image that appears to be on the opposite side of the glass.
For example here is what the organ player and some of the ghosts coming into the ballroom near the fireplace actually look like.  They are painted in ghostly white and pale blue colors so that they show up bright on the glass and everything else around the figure is black so that it won’t show up.  This effect can also be seen at the end of Pinnochio’s Daring Journey in Fantasyland.  Next time you see the Blue Fairy turn around to your right and see the mannequin it is created with before the light turns off!
Ghostly skulls that come out of the organ’s pipes. And yes, as many Disney fanatics already know this is the organ from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one of Disney’s most cherished live action films from the 1950’s. But it is only the console that is from the original movie, the pipes were added by WED later.  That being said the DL HM is the only one that has a real working organ.  WDW and Tokyo Disney’s HM organs are just mock ups made of plywood.
These are the figures entering the birthday/ ballroom scene from below the chandelier next to the fireplace and the old woman in her rocking chair.
Yale also helped do this trick in a saber tooth tiger exhibit at the La Brea Tar Pits.
In the very beginning there was a backstory in the works for the Haunted Mansion.  It involved a captain that drowned at sea and his wife (the attic bride) who he came back to murder and bricked up her body in the fireplace.  You can still see a ship shaped weather vane atop the mansion nodding to this original tale.  Of course the bride now has her own story where she is an axe murderer who has taken the heads off of all her ex husbands.  This update happened during DL’s 50th Anniversary.  Yale Gracey and Rolly Crump (my favorite of the original Disney Imagineers) actually created a figure of the captain who would appear soaked in salty sea water and disappear with the help of the Pepper’s Ghost effect leaving nothing but a puddle.  Then the bride’s skeletal ghost came rushing out of the fireplace toward viewers.  While all who saw this claimed it was amazing it was voted out of the ride because it was seen as too scary for a family ride.  It was decided that the ride itself should not tell a story but should rather be, as put by Marc Davis, “a set of experiences.”  This allows viewers to create their own story, putting their imaginations to use.  Many believe that in creating the sea captain’s story Imagineers had plans to tie this attraction to the  nearby Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
This brings me to the next backstory for the HM which still has potential of becoming part of the Mansion, New Orleans Square, and Tom Sawyer’s Island.  This story was created by Eddie Sotto who spent 13 years at WDI and has worked on some park favorites such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye.  Sotto’s story involved a pirate named Jean Lafitte (also at times spelled Laffite) who was a historical pirate who helped Andrew Jackson win the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, the last official battle of the War of 1812 against the British. The name Laffite may be familiar to those who spend a lot of time at the park, particularly around NOS.  When you board your boat on POTC make sure to look up and notice the sign that reads “Lafitte’s Landing.”  It was this sign that Eddie Sotto claims first gave him his idea to tie the NOS rides together.   There are certain remnants that clue regular guests in on this story as well.  Lets start with the bricked up archway found between HM and the Rivers of America.
Here we see the archway, thanks to previous posts by Long-ForgottenHauntedMansion.blogspot.com andMiceChat.com.  It looks abandoned and not well taken care of which probably confuses a lot of Disney guests.  Fact is that this archway was installed in the 1990s when DL redid the esplanade around the Rivers of America for the Fantasmic show as a reminder for Sotto in the hopes that one day the Lafitte mega-theme would become a reality.  This was to be the entry way to Lafitte’s catacombs, secret tunnels used for smuggling that would lead straight to Tom Sawyer’s Island.  In this tale Lafitte was said to be a good friend of Master Gracey and would let him use the tunnels for smuggling as well as for hiding during the War of 1812.  Gotta love Disney, always paying attention to those historical facts!  Guests would use these tunnels to get to TSI that would be taken over by pirates… as it has been.  The use of tunnels instead of the rafts would also save Disney money in the long run, though I’m not too sure how much putting in underground tunnels would cost them, but its not like they haven’t done that before. Back to the pirates on TSI, so we know that the island has already been invaded by pirates and Lafitte’s name makes another appearance.
Do the Imagineers have plans to use this story?  Apparently not.  All my sources say there is currently no word of this becoming anything more, but it doesn’t seem like its an idea they’re totally against.  In fact, Lafitte’s name arises several other times throughout the park.
Lafitte’s anchor has been a part of DL since its beginning and the plaque has always read the same thing.
Here’s an image of the anchor in the 1950s, its in the bottom left hand corner of the photo.
Lafitte’s name is also mentioned on a bulletin board next to where guests board the rafts to Tom Sawyer Island.  There are other little clues to this tale in the Mansion itself.  Remember when I mentioned Lafitte helping Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812, it seems (according to this tale) Lafitte got a bit of Andrew Jackson’s belongings which were given to Master Gracey and have made their way into the HM attic.
Here’s an image showing a tableau from Fort Wilderness.  I never had the pleasure of going into the fort because of the termite problems that have shut it down but my dad tells me about it all the time- as TSI was his favorite part of Disneyland as a kid. Notice the suit the seated Andrew Jackson is wearing as well as the portrait of George Washington behind him.
Now notice them again here, in the HM attic.  Pretty interesting, but more than likely just a coincidence. I like to believe that Imagineers do place things like this on purpose for the DL diehards… The people who refer to the parks as DL, DCA, WDW, and EC for example… Whether its a storyline they are going for or not, it stuff like this that Disney fanatics CRAVE! Little secrets that go unnoticed by most guests throughout the day.  When we go to the parks we want to look for new things, a new piece to the story we’ve been building in our imaginations since childhood-then we continue to post these new finds for other Disney fans to enjoy.  I spent most of any computer class growing up reading the threads on MiceChat and that’s why I decided to start Disney discussions of my own.  Imagineers have to know this is going on too, I mean with the internet today its not hard to find.  They see how people crave these stories and play with the theories subtly to satisfy us without completely changing the attraction.
Speaking of which… If any changes are in the HM’s near future it will probably be after the company sees how successful the next planned Haunted Mansion Movie will be.  It is in the process of being written by Guillermo del Torro and will focus on the popular Hat Box Ghost, who never made it into the ride.  HBG will be played by Doug Jones, who also played a character from another popular del Torro film, Hellboy. The film was supposed to be directed by del Torro but he has a lot on his plate right now and will probably end up just writing and producing it.  Personally, I cannot wait for this film and whether they spruce up HM by introducing the Hat Box Ghost or with the story of Lafitte, I’ll be happy.
One more thing I would like to mention in this extensive HM post is the sculpting work of Blaine Gibson, who created all the faces you see throughout Gracey Manor, as well as some Pirates next door.
Ever feel like you see a lot of familiar faces around Disneyland? It might be because some of the animatronics are sharing the same face… or at least the same molding that created the faces.  To the left in the image above is a ghost from the mansion that has the same face as the Auctioneer from POTC.
Here’s a face that can be seen in the Mansion’s ballroom and graveyard, its even changed genders!
And for those of you who remember the old Carousel of Progress ride, you can still see one of its characters today.  Grandma from the show still rocking in her chair can be found in the ballroom.
Well, I think I’ve said enough about this now.  Thanks for reading my first post and thanks to all the sites I stole knowledge and pictures from!  If any readers are interested in learning more facts about this attraction I highly reccommend DoomBuggies.com and Long-ForgottenHauntedMansion.blogspot.com
Also, if you found the Lafitte mega-theme interesting and want a more detailed explanation of it, check out Kevin Yee’s book:

101 Things You Never Knew About Disneyland: An Unauthorized Look At The Little Touches And Inside Jokes

 
Until next time its been a pleasure writing for you, please comment me your thoughts or any other information you would like to share about the Haunted Mansion, a truly magical attraction.