Saturday, March 21, 2009

Knott's Berry Farm's Whittles

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.

UPDATE: Against all odds, a new and improved version of Whittles returned as a walk-around character (an on various merchandise) for Knott's Berry Farm's centennial celebration in 2020/2021. 


Capt. Tomorrow said...


By chance do you know if any merchandise was sold that featured Whittles?

Matterhorn1959 said...

Hey Chris- fantastic post and great history. Thanks for sharing. I remember the gunfighters but do not remember Whittles. I was probably one of the guests who just walked by and did not stop.

outsidetheberm said...

Don't mean to step on CJ's toes, but to answer Capt. Tomorrow - Yes, there was merchandise offered that featured Whittles.

Nice post, Chris.

Chris Jepsen said...

Although I don't have any Whittles merchandise, I'm sure Ken is right.

Diana K. Kelly. Ph.D. said...

Hi Chris -- Thanks for your tribute to Whittles -- and it was great to visit with you at the OC Archives!

To answer the question -- yes, there were a few items of "Whittles" merchandise. I have a Whittles statue coinbank sitting here on my desk. However, mostly the Whittles character appeared in print in ads, on ride tickets, on signs, etc.

For a bit more info on Whittles, here's a link to a Ghost Town Entertainment website we're developing:

When the website is fully developed I'll let you know!

Diana (Kirchen) Kelly
(aka first Whittles, first Haunt witch, 2nd Annie Oakley, first Disco DJ, etc.....)

Capt. Tomorrow said...

Holy gold panning, Batman! I do believe I've seen a Whittles coin bank at the local anitque mall, but thought it was just another piece of Arizona tourist crap. To the collectiblemobile!

Chris Merritt said...

Heya Chris! Russell Knott told me that he was responsible for the "rubberhead" walk around of Whittles, and that after some time (although he never mentioned a revised, cuter version) he had them pull it, as it was just scaring the children too much (his words - not mine)!

lagunadeb said...

I visited Knotts Berry Farm my entire childhood and took my kids there in the 1980's and I have no memory of Whittles.

J max said...

I also have a Whittles coin bank. Was kind of surprised to find out how rare it actually is.