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.
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.
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.
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
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.