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Emmett Kelly

best known as "Weary Willie"

painting of Emmett Kelly as Weary Willie
Emmett Kelly as Weary Willy

Emmett Leo Kelly was born in Sedan, Kansas, on December 9, 1898. His father worked for the railroad, and his mother ran the family-owned boarding house. He grew up on a farm in rural Missouri. After working at a variety of jobs, Kelly became a cartoonist for a silent film company in Kansas City. It was while working at this job that he first drew the tramp clown character that he would later portray.

Kelly had dreamed of joining the circus since he was a young boy, and as a young man he decided to make that dream a reality by purchasing a trapeze and learning how to become a circus aerialist. His first performing circus job was as a trapeze artist with Howe's Great London Circus; he also doubled as a white-face clown.

In 1923, while working his trapeze act with John Robinson's circus, Kelly met and married Eva Moore, another trapeze artist. The couple often performed together as the "Aerial Kellys," with Emmett still occasionally appearing as a white-face clown. In 1924, Eva became pregnant and Emmett tried to increase his salary by developing a new clown character for the show based on his Weary Willy sketches, but the boss clown did not believe the tramp character was appropriate for the circus so Emmett continued with his trapeze act and white-face clown character.

The Great Depression Era made the appearance of tramps and hobos acceptable to American audiences, and in 1933 Kelly made his first appeared as Weary Willie, the clown character he would portray the rest of his life. Leaving John Robinson's circus, Kelly worked at Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, joined the Cole Brothers & Clyde Beatty Circus in 1935, and joined the Mills Circus in England in the late 1930's. It was while with the Mills Circus that he first came to the attention of John Ringling North, who, in 1942, signed Kelly for the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.

As Weary Willie, Kelly did not join the huge spectacle numbers at the conclusion of each performance, but instead wandered into other performers' acts, strung up laundry on a low acrobatic wire, dusted off animals, and worked the stands. He also performed in the ring in his own acts, including his famous "sweeping the spotlight" routine.

Weary Willie sweeping an aisle during a performance
Weary Willie sweeping the aisles

Weary Willie sweeping an umpire sweeping home plate
Weary Willie sweeping umpire

Kelly remained with Ringling Brothers for fourteen seasons, taking the 1956 season off to perform as the "mascot" for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He was also active on Broadway (including Please Keep Off the Grass) and in movies (including the circus classic The Greatest Show on Earth and Fellini's classic The Clowns). Beginning in 1957, he worked with the Shrine Circus and made personal appearances worldwide.

Emmett Leo Kelly died in Sarasota, Florida, on March 28, 1979; he is buried in the Kelly family plot at Lafayette, Indiana. He was inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame in 1989.

Emmett Kelly Museum website:

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The Robinson Library >> Circuses, Spectacles, Etc.

This page was last updated on 12/09/2018.