In 1964, Walt Disney’s world was expanding.
There was the California-based company’s participation in the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, which featured four Disney-created attractions. And unbeknownst to people outside of his inner circle, Disney’s lieutenants were scooping up thousands of acres of property in central Florida in hopes of building an experimental community of tomorrow.
In Disneyland itself, a new themed land was in the works, to be called New Orleans Square, which would celebrate the fabulous Crescent City. Walt always had a special affection for New Orleans; it was the place, after all, where he purchased a mechanical bird in an antiques shop which ultimately gave him the spark that helped ignite Audio-Animatronics technology.
With so much going on around the country, Walt thought it best to purchase his own airplane. So in the spring of 1964, the company bought a Grumman Gulfstream 1, which seated 15 and could get Walt and his entourage across country more comfortably and efficiently.
Imagine having the opportunity to fly on that Disney plane, along with Walt and his wife Lillian, Walt’s brother Roy and his wife Edna, and any number of Disney Legends-in-waiting. Oh, to be a fly on the cabin wall!
That’s just what happened to Tania Norris, who was hired by WED Enterprises [the forerunner of Walt Disney Imagineering] in 1963 to handle the interior designs for New Orleans Square and the Haunted Mansion.
“I was invited to travel to New Orleans with a large group of people,” Tania said of the 1964 cross-country trip on the fabled Disney aircraft. “There was Walt and Lilly, Edna and Roy Disney, Bob and Sharon Brown [Walt’s daughter], John Hench, Herbie [Ryman] and I think Claude Coats was there, as well as Bill Evans, the landscaper.
“I was asked to be in New Orleans to find antiques that would be displayed in New Orleans Square, as well as items like little bits of iron and railing that we could replicate. We were in New Orleans maybe four days. At one point, Walt asked me to find a bowling trophy, so I hunted through the antique shops and came up with several things that related to bowling, which I very proudly showed him. But I was told it was the wrong type of bowling. There was a bowling green that was across from the Studio that Walt sponsored. So I had to go back and find a bowling trophy for lawn bowling, not one for a bowling alley.”
From New Orleans, the plane flew to central Florida, where Walt Disney World was still very much in the planning stage. In fact, at that point in time, the so-called Florida Project was known to only a handful of people in Walt’s inner circle.
“At that point, it was just a hole in the ground,” Tania said. “We dropped off Bill Evans there. He had started a tree farm. He had spotted trees from various countries that he felt would do well in Florida. So there was the tree farm and a lot of holes and that was about it.”
From Florida, the plane flew to New York City, where the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair had just opened.
“We visited the four Disney projects there and we had VIP treatment everywhere we went,” Tania said. “Walt treated me so courteously. I had not been out of California since moving there, so he made it a point, when we’d have breakfast, lunch or dinner, it would always be at a different place, so I would get a flavor of what else was there.
“He insisted that the limo drivers take a different route each time we were going somewhere, so I would see all of New York. Through it all, though, I was never allowed to have a drink [even though she was 27 at the time].”
During her days at WED, she grew to admire Walt Disney, the man.
“He would come up to the office and he’d say, ‘What are you spending my money on today?’ and I’d tell him and he’d smile and walk away. He was always very, very nice to me.”
Tania Norris was hired by WED Enterprises in 1963, at a time when women holding prominent positions in corporate America were few and far between.
Tania was born in Scotland and “decided at the age of 8 that I wanted to become an interior designer, so I did my training in London and went to architectural school at night to learn how to read architectural plans and such.”
Her family moved to England and then to southern Rhodesia when she was 18. Shortly after marrying a fellow Scot, he was offered a job in southern California to be vice president of a company, so the two took up residence in the Golden State.
Tania landed a job at a decorating shop on Melrose Avenue, where she flourished. “I met a number of antique dealers and one of them had a friend who was one of the icons at Disney, Dorothea Redmond. Dorothea had told my friend about this particular job, it was for an interior designer to work on New Orleans Square at Disneyland, so I applied for the job.”
The day before her interview, Tania and her husband decided it might be a good idea to visit Disneyland for the first time. “We went down Main Street and we went into Tomorrowland, Fantasyland and wandered around. We had lunch and went home. The next day, during the interview, I could say ‘Yes, I’ve been to Disneyland.’
“I had two interviews, the first was with Bob Brown, who was Walt’s son-in-law, and John Hench. Then, Emile Kuri from the Studio joined the group. I only had three pieces of paper that were recommendations from the places I’d worked. Other young men that were coming in for interviews drove up in fancy sports cars with fancy portfolios and I thought, ‘There go my chances.’ The following day, I got a call from them asking me when I could start. That was in 1963.”
When Tania was hired, there were about 30 WED cast members, but only four were women. “In the model room, there were four women who were there for many years and they were very important workers.” Among them were Harriet Burns, Katrina Van Tassel and Leota [Lee] Toombs. “Even though I was hired to work on New Orleans Square, if anything else came up, I’d work on that, too. For instance, I worked on the Plaza Inn on Main Street.”
The issue of being a woman in a male-dominated industry did prove to be problematic at times for Tania.
“When we were doing a project, we would sometimes do a full mock-up. There were times when I would have an idea about something and Bob Brown or John Hench or whoever else was in charge would either disagree or just ignore me. It was important enough to me that I would say to them, ‘Will you ask Walt about so-and-so?’ But they never did. And there were occasions when I really felt strongly about something and wanted to present it to Walt, but they would suddenly disappear.”
One of those occasions involved Club 33 in 1964. At the New York World’s Fair, Walt had noticed how many of the corporate sponsors had built special rooms within their pavilions to entertain VIPs. Club 33 came about out of Walt’s desire to have such a VIP srea at Disneyland where he could entertain special guests.
When Tania saw the original sketches for Club 33, she took note of a big problem: The ladies’ room was miniscule.
“I told Walt that the ladies’ room was too small. If you have two fat [ladies] in there at the same time, they’d never be able to move. So he looked at the plans and said, ‘You’re right. We’ll just chop the manager’s office in half.’ And that’s why the bathroom is the size it is today at Club 33.
“There was another time during work on the Mr. Lincoln project and I was needed to make a suggestion, and again, everybody just disappeared. It was like magic. I was left talking to Walt by myself.”
On New Orleans Square, Tania “worked closely with both Herbie Ryman and Dorothea Redmond. Between them, they did most of the sketches for the area, both exterior and interior … Herbie more exterior and Dorothea more interior. You would be talking and describing something and all of a sudden, your idea would be on paper, like magic. They were so expert and so wonderful.” New Orleans Square opened in 1966, a few months before Walt’s death.
“My title was interior designer, so that involved all the Disney projects apart from the films. I worked on the Expo 67 in Montreal. I worked on some of the original concepts in Florida … whatever came along, I was the interior person. So it was fabrics, wallpapers, colors, some of it I designed myself. I did the wallpaper in the Haunted Mansion [I’m not sure if it’s still there because I haven’t visited it in a long time]. I found the furnishings … getting everything pulled together and coordinating it. Bob Brown was my immediate boss and John Hench was the chief designer.
“The furnishings were all purchased, either in shops or from companies. What was made at the Disney Studio consisted of draperies or fitted upholsteries. I would say most of it was draperies. That’s where Emile Kuri came in, although he laid claim to a lot of projects he never really did.”
It was during this time that Tania forged a friendship with Herb Ryman that would last until his death in 1989.
“Herbie was an art director. He might be given a project that I might not know about for maybe another year. He would be one of the designers for it. When that was done, it went to one of the architects and then I would get involved, talking about the interiors and what was needed there. There were story boards that would be put together for every project. They would have Herbie’s drawings, they would have Dorothea’s renderings, which we would discuss. I’d even make story board suggestions for fabrics or even light fixtures, whatever it was that was needed for the project. A lot of that is done on computers nowadays.”
Once her work on New Orleans Square was completed, she shifted to the nearby Haunted Mansion, which opened in 1969. The Haunted Mansion “was a lot of fun,” Tania said, “because it has all that garbage in it. We’d go to garage sales and we’d pick up junk like you’d have in your attic that was of no real value, but when it was placed in the Haunted Mansion, it looked just great, with a few cobwebs added.”
It was among the last Disney projects she worked on. “I left WED in 1970,” she said, but not before compiling some wonderful memories and making several lifelong friendships.
More on that, as well as Tania’s work on the restoration of the Queen Mary ocean liner, her love of roses and her relationship with Herbie Ryman, in the next installment of Still Goofy about Disney.