I was initially looking for pictures of her at work, but I had to concede to myself that, no, it’s only right to use the animatronic version of her. Because for decades before I knew she was a real person, I was well familiar with Madame Leota, Head in a Crystal Ball. (Her voice is Eleanor Audley, who I will get to at some point.) She’s also the figure at the very end, as you’re (at Disneyland) rising out of the depths into the sunlight, the one who tells you, this time in Toombs’ own voice, to hurry back. Anthony Pizzo, who has once again helpfully provided a Disney Parks image for me, has a great family story about his aunt Mary Beth mishearing that phrase.
But, yes, Leota Toombs Thomas could indeed have had other images here today. Images of her actual work. And while in theory that could have included her only IMDb credit, as an unnamed character in the obscure ’80s film Not Since Casanova, I’d never even heard of it before and suspect strongly it is not worth my time to track down. No, I mean her actual valuable work for the Disneyland park, the reason she’s memorialized as both Madame Leota and Little Leota in the first place.
She was, originally, one of the women of the Ink and Paint Department. She was transferred to the Animation Department, where she met head animator Harvey Toombs. I can’t find a list of the things she worked on for the Disney Studios, but his career is fairly impressive and I should get to him at some point, too. (He worked on the animated Gulliver’s Travels in 1939 before moving to Disney and working on a number of shorts and features starting with Pinocchio and ending with The Jungle Book.) And Leota quit work to become a stay-at-home parent to children Launie and Kim.
Then, in 1962, she returned to Disney at what was at the time WED Enterprises. They were building up to the World’s Fair, and she was one of the people who shaped the Disney contributions to that. And then, with the transfer back to Anaheim, she and several others went to work on what would become New Orleans Square, among other areas of the park. In fact, a fair number of those were women. In many ways, these women have long been the backbone of the Disney aesthetic. Beyond the Mansion, Toombs worked on Pirates, the Tiki Room, and the Country Bears, and that’s just as a start.
And, yes, one day, fellow Imagineer Yale Gracey wanted to have a head in a crystal ball. He thought that her head looked about right, so he tested it. For fifty years now, park visitors have seen her face. They’ve known her name, some of them—though not nearly enough. And, yes, there is a certain appropriateness to her having the married name of Toombs. If you planned it, it would be worthy of an eyeroll, but when it just happens, it will become—and here’s your word for the day—an aptronym. Though I’ll confess that I do wonder if she was given the job on the Mansion in part because of the name, instead of working on a different attraction. Later, daughter Kim Irvine became an Imagineeer, and when they were designing the Nightmare Before Christmas holiday overlay, they asked her to create the parts they needed for Leota for it. And they discovered that her face and her mother’s were enough alike so that they didn’t need to change much at all. Which must have felt nice for her.