Col. Corn and Little Vittles
Runner-Up 2020 EOA April Fools' Day Contest
Col. Corn and Little Vittles was a ventriloquist act and brainchild of Jasper Oscar Watts of Hogeye (Washington County). The act was popular in the South during the 1930s and 1940s.
Born in Hogeye on January 19, 1905, Jasper Watts was the fifth of eight children of Jerome and Emma Watts. Watts attended a local medicine show as a teenager and became fascinated with a ventriloquist who was part of the act. Because the family scarcely had money to feed and clothe their children, Watts resorted to creating his first ventriloquist “dummy” from a tree limb with a pinecone “head” affixed to it. He called his act “Pete and Pinetop” and began mastering the art of throwing his voice he learned from a mail-order manual.
He had his first public performance when he was a teenager. One Saturday morning, Watts ventured with “Pinetop” on the family mule to the Fayetteville (Washington County) square when it was bustling with people conducting business at the town’s center. Already 6’3″ and still growing, he stood on a street corner and began his act, which only served to confuse the townspeople, who didn’t understand why this towering young man was waving a stick around while speaking in different voices. A Fayetteville police officer deemed him “a vagrant and public nuisance” and sent him back home to Hogeye.
Undeterred, Watts quickly realized a proper ventriloquist dummy was in order. He found a doll with a missing arm—again, a twig would come in handy, this time serving as the limb’s substitution—and he cut out the mouth and a hole in the back of the doll’s head. With the use of a spoon, Watts could make the mouth move up and down. He continued to perform shows for family and friends until a neighbor, who was a carpenter, took pity on him and crafted body parts, including a movable mouth. Now with a remarkably professional ventriloquist dummy, Watts settled on an act name of “Col. Corn and Little Vittles.” He would use the same dummy for the rest of his career.
As word got out, Watts began performing for local civic organizations, church dinners, and school groups, securing enough money to buy professional performance clothes. Watts, as he did throughout his career, dressed in a white suit and black string necktie while a shoeless Little Vittles sported a toothless grin, an orange hat in the shape of a carrot top, a checkered shirt, and overalls bearing a corncob patch. “Col. Harland Sanders would become a fan of the act and don strikingly similar attire to Watts’s as founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken, though Sanders maintained it was purely coincidental,” according to historian Michael Dougan.
In 1926, the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville launched radio station KUOA and Watts was invited to perform. He was an instant hit and returned many times, capturing the attention of Bob Larkan, leader of the group Fiddlin’ Bob Larkan & His Music Makers. Larkan, who was from Hazen (Prairie County), won a fiddle contest on KUOA and was popular on area radio stations, including KFKB in Milford, Kansas, owned by quack doctor John R. Brinkley. Through Larkan, Watts began performing on KFKB until Brinkley was forced off the air and moved his radio operations to Mexico with radio station XER, where Watts and Larkan continued to perform. This led Watts to perform on another Mexican station, XENT, owned by another infamous quack, Dr. Norman Baker.
Both stations, known as “border blasters,” were strong enough to capture a large population of the United States, which heard Watts introduce each of his shows by asking Little Vittles, “Ah say, watcha got cookin’?” Little Vittles, whose last name was “Schmittles,” would reply, “Little vittles for the little Schmittles!” Their catchphrases became so popular that audience members would often shout out the words, drowning out Col. Corn and his dummy. Their popularity resulted in Watts recording a novelty song called “Watcha Got Cookin’?” on Okeh Records backed by Larkan’s band, which featured the chorus, “Put them vittles on the griddles and feed up all the little Schmittles…”
In 1938, the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville invited Col. Corn and Little Vittles for a performance, which caused Watts much anxiety. To calm his nerves, Watts reportedly arrived intoxicated to the Ryman Auditorium, where the Grand Ole Opry was broadcast. While backstage, Watts accidentally dropped Little Vittles, damaging the dummy’s mechanisms. When he took the stage, Little Vittles mouth wouldn’t open, and Watts panicked. He tried to force the mouth to budge to the point that the dummy’s head fell off, and Watts was unable to re-attach it. Frustrated, Watts continued the rest of the routine with a headless Little Vittles while the radio audience was unaware what was going on—until they read about it in the newspaper. He was never invited back to the Opry.
Watts’s career couldn’t recover from the publicly humiliating experience. Bookings for shows dramatically declined and Watts returned to the Ozarks in defeat. Baker felt sorry for him and provided Watts room and board at the Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs (Carroll County), which Baker had converted into a hospital, with the condition that Watts sober up and entertain the cancer patients that Baker claimed he could cure. Watts was able to fulfill both promises.
When Baker was convicted of mail fraud related to his bogus cancer cure claims, Watts moved back to the family farm in Hogeye, doing farm work for most of the rest of his life, though he was able to revive his act during the summer months as a performer at Dogpatch USA amusement park near Jasper (Newton County) before dying from natural causes in 1983.
For additional information:
Carson, Dax. “Little Vittles Statue Erected in Hogeye.” Northwest Arkansas Times, February 22, 1988, p. 1.
Dougan, Michael B. Col. Corn vs. Col. Sanders: The Trial that Should Have Been. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994.
Sandra Cox Birchfield
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