The Woman in the Crystal Ball: Celebrating Leota Toombs

The Woman in the Crystal Ball: Celebrating Leota Toombs

Have you ever come across a face that you’re sure you recognize, but can’t remember from where? This is the experience many have when they see legendary artist and Imagineer, Leota Toombs. Because although Leota made an indelible mark on The Walt Disney Company through her work in the Ink and Paint Department, and later the Animation Department and WED Enterprises, you probably know her best as Madame Leota: the spooky floating head in the “Haunted Mansion” ride.

Let’s take a look at the incredible life and career of Disney Legend Leota Toombs.

Ink and Paint Department

Like many of the most influential women of Disney, Leota Toombs got her start in the Ink and Paint Department. This critical division of Disney was composed entirely of women, whose sole job was to transfer the animators’ drawings onto celluloid sheets using pen and ink. This work required a high level of efficiency and precision, something Leota and her colleagues had in spades.

Leota began her career in the Ink and Paint department in 1940 but was only there for a few years; she was destined for bigger and better things.

Animation Department

The Animation Department at Disney was typically reserved for men at this point. Leota’s immense talent could not be ignored, however, despite the problematic practices of the 1940s. She became one of Disney’s first female animators and would soon be working on integral projects and even finding love; Leota married Harvey Toombs, a fellow Disney animator, in 1947. Her maiden name was Wharton.

Leota took some time away from Disney’s Animation department after a few years to focus on raising her and Harvey’s two young children. Toombs was far from done at Disney, though.

WED Enterprises

Leota Toombs’s creative juices were always flowing. She returned to Disney in 1962, joining WED Enterprises (which would become Walt Disney Imagineering) as one of their first female Imagineers. She arrived at the perfect time, as the company was in the midst of developing several major Disneyland attractions in preparation for the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair.

These World’s Fair attractions that Leota played a key role in designing and modeling included “It’s a Small World” and “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” which are both still active in Disneyland. Her stellar work continued after this seminal event in Disney’s history. Toombs would soon work on the “Country Bear Jamboree,” the “Enchanted Tiki Room,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean,” which are also still huge draws in Disneyland.

Yet STILL, this is not what people know Leota Toombs best for…

The Haunted Mansion

Leota Toombs’s spooky likeness is a key element to the “Haunted Mansion” ride, which happened to open on her 44th birthday. You can also hear her voice when the “Little Leota” character arrives, who tells you to “hurry back” near the end of the ride. Toombs’s daughter, Kim Irvine, who was trained as an Imagineer by her mother and is currently Disneyland’s art director, tells the story of how Leota was chosen for this role:

When Yale Gracey was experimenting with ideas for a gypsy in a crystal ball, he asked Leota if she would mind posing for the head...Blaine [Gibson] made a life mask of her face and Yale, Wathel (Rogers) and the rest of the team filmed her, crazy makeup and all. I still remember when she wore it home that night! Then they created the ‘Little Leota’ bride at the end of the ride. Since that figure is small, they wanted a high voice, so they kept mom's voice because she sounded like a little girl.

“Madame Leota” in the “Haunted Mansion” ride is surely what people will recognize and remember Leota Toombs for the most, though her influence extends far beyond this ride. She moved to Florida in 1970 to join the Imagineering team helping bring Walt Disney World to life, and would return to California in ’79 to train Disney figure-finishers and artisans.

Leota Toombs passed away in 1991 and was named a Disney Legend in 2009. Her singular creativity, craftsmanship, and yes, her face and voice(!), make her a key component in Disney’s development throughout the 20th century.


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