Emmett Leo Kelly was a circus performer and one of the greatest American circus clowns of the 20th century. He created the character “Weary Willie,” the sad hobo clown, dressed in tattered clothes.
Born in Sedan, in 1898, on December 9th, Emmett Leo Kelly was the son of an Irish railroad worker. When Emmett was young, he went to a school for cartooning and later began entertaining as an actor in schools. When Kelly was a teenager, he moved to Kansas City and tried to find work as an artist. After several rejections from different companies, Kelly was asked if he wanted to join a carnival.
He was working as a trapeze artist when, in 1923, he met his wife Eva Moore who was also in the same act. Later, they performed together, and called themselves the “Aerial Kellys.” During that period, Emmett also occasionally performed as a whiteface clown and wished to clown full time in his hobo persona, for which he had made many sketches when working as a cartoonist ten years prior. Weary Willie was a sad figure, and he was usually seen sweeping circus rings after other performances.
Like the usual clowns of that time who made the audience laugh, Willie was able to make people happy, but he also appealed to their sensitive side. One of his most famous performances was when he was trying to crack a peanut with a sledgehammer. His role was revolutionary because it was based upon the tramps of the Depression Era.
Emmett performed with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus between 1942 and 1956. He became very famous because of his act and later had some film roles, including the movie The Greatest Show on Earth from 1952, directed by Cecil B. DeMille, where he appears as his Weary Willie persona.
Kelly was called to be a Mystery Guest on the show What’s My Line? where he answered to the audience with grunts instead of ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ At the end of the show, Arlene Francis, the panelist of the broadcast, said that Emmett answered like that because when he was in the role of Weary Willie, he was not allowed to speak.
Two years before Kelly retired from his regular circus work, he wrote an autobiography called Clown. Emmett died on March 28, 1979, of a heart attack when he was 80 years old. He was buried in Lafayette’s Rest Haven Memorial Park in Indiana. His son, Emmett Kelly, Jr also performed in his father’s role as Weary Willie, but he was less sad.
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Today, there is a museum in his father’s honor which is located in Sedan, Kansas. Emmett Kelly was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1989 and 1994, into the International Circus Hall of Fame.