By 1960, Disneyland had five years of success under its belt, and Knott's Berry Farm - long successful in its own right - began to borrow a few pages from the other Walter's playbook. For instance, Knott's added highly themed rides, like the Calico Mine Train.
But Russell Knott -- son of Walter Knott -- wondered how they could they create popular characters that appealed to the public in the same way as Disneyland's mascot, Mickey Mouse? Knott's first attempt at a friendly cartoon host came in the form of Whittles, a happy, scruffy, stubby old miner.
Whittles was designed by young Laguna Beach artist Pete Winter, a former Air Force jet pilot who had also drawn for Dell comics and for a syndicated comic strip called The Toodles. Whittles made his first appearance (along with his trusty burro) in the pages of Howdy Partner, a handbook for Knott's employees.
Soon, Whittles migrated to other park ephemera, including ticket books, maps, and brochures given out to guests. It seems he was met with a pretty positive reaction. For over a decade he appeared only in two-dimensional form, pointing at important bits of text and making various welcoming gestures.
But in the early 1970s, someone at Knott's decided it would be a good idea to turn Whittles in to a three-dimensional walk-around character. Again, the parallels to Disneyland were hard to ignore.
The first to portray the cartoon miner was Knott's employee Diana Kirchen (now Kelly), who first donned Whittles' enormous head and little boots in April 1973. (The photo above shows Diana on a recent visit to the Orange County Archives.) Diana already worked in entertainment at Knott's and had performed there as a character from H.R. Pufnstuf the previous year. She also portrayed Annie Oakley, was the DJ at Knott's first disco (at the Airfield Eatery in 1976), and was the first Halloween Haunt witch in 1973.
(Diana has posted some memories of the mid-1970s "Knott's gang" in the form of a YouTube video. It's appropriately set to disco that samples heavily from old Western film scores.)
The photo above shows Diana as Whittles in April 1973, along with a fellow employee. As you can see, the costume was not nearly as endearing as many of Disneyland's walk-around characters. In fact, some children found this neckless, hydrocephalic Gabby Hayes more than a little disturbing. Eventually, a new and improved costume was created.
Here, Diana (as Annie Oakley) stands next to a performer in the second Whittles costume. It was better, and looked more like the cartoon character, but never did become a popular fixture in the park. On many days, Whittles would stand near Knott's front gate, waving to guests. Sadly, not many wanted their pictures taken with him. Eventually he was pulled from the park.
In later years, Knott's found other ways to fill the giant-headed character gap -- First with characters from their Beary Tales dark ride, and later by licensing Snoopy and the other Peanuts characters.
But shed a tear for Whittles - the scroungy little miner who just didn't work in three dimensions.