Emmett Kelly

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Emmett Kelly
Emmett Kelly 1953 (cropped).jpg
Kelly ca. 1953
Emmett Leo Kelly

(1898-12-09)December 9, 1898
DiedMarch 28, 1979(1979-03-28) (aged 80)
Resting placeRest Haven Memorial Park, Lafayette, Indiana
Other namesWeary Willie
OccupationCircus clown
Eva Mae Moore
(m. 1923)

Elvira Gebhardt
(m. 1955;his death 1979)
Children4, including Emmett Leo Kelly Jr., Patrick, Stasia & Monika

Emmett Leo Kelly (December 9, 1898 March 28, 1979) was an American circus performer, who created the memorable clown figure "Weary Willie", based on the hobos of the Depression era.

Clown A comic performer often for childrens entertainment

A clown is a comic performer who employs slapstick or similar types of physical comedy, often in a mime style.

Hobo migratory worker or homeless vagabond

A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, especially one who is impoverished. The term originated in the Western—probably Northwestern—United States around 1890. Unlike a "tramp", who works only when forced to, and a "bum", who does not work at all, a "hobo" is a traveling worker.

Great Depression 20th-century worldwide economic depression

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; in most countries it started in 1929 and lasted until the late-1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how intensely the world's economy can decline.



Kelly was born in Kansas, the son of Irish parents both involved in the railroad business. As a child, he developed a love for the circus and cartooning. In the early 1920s, he began his career as a trapeze artist. By 1923, Emmett Kelly was working his trapeze act with John Robinson's circus when he met and married Eva Mae Moore (6 June 1903–10 March 1991), another circus trapeze artist. They later performed together as the "Aerial Kellys" with Emmett still performing occasionally as a whiteface clown.

Trapeze aerial circus or gymnastics apparatus

A trapeze is a short horizontal bar hung by ropes or metal straps from a support. It can also be known as a aerial hoop, or fabric known as an aerial silk. It is an aerial apparatus commonly found in circus performances. Trapeze acts may be static, spinning, swinging or flying, and may be performed solo, double, triple or as a group act.

Kelly had initially developed his character "Weary Willie" around 1920 from sketches he'd made, but circus officials rejected the idea of a "hobo" clown as inappropriate. For his first decade in the circus, he alternated between trapeze artist and a conventional whiteface clown. With the onset of the Depression, hobos and tramps had become a regular sight to Americans and Kelly was at last able to gain approval for "Weary Willie".

"Weary Willie" was a tragic figure: a clown, who could usually be seen sweeping up the circus rings after the other performers. He tried but failed to sweep up the pool of light of a spotlight. His routine was revolutionary at the time: traditionally, clowns wore white face and performed slapstick stunts intended to make people laugh. Kelly did perform stunts tooone of his most famous acts was trying to crack a peanut with a sledgehammerbut as a tramp, he also appealed to the sympathy of his audience.

Tragedy form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences

Tragedy is a form of drama based on human suffering that invokes an accompanying catharsis or pleasure in audiences. While many cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, the term tragedy often refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of Western civilisation. That tradition has been multiple and discontinuous, yet the term has often been used to invoke a powerful effect of cultural identity and historical continuity—"the Greeks and the Elizabethans, in one cultural form; Hellenes and Christians, in a common activity," as Raymond Williams puts it.

Peanut A legume cultivated for its seeds

The peanut, also known as the groundnut, goober, or monkey nut (UK), and taxonomically classified as Arachis hypogaea, is a legume crop grown mainly for its edible seeds. It is widely grown in the tropics and subtropics, being important to both small and large commercial producers. It is classified as both a grain legume and, due to its high oil content, an oil crop. World annual production of shelled peanuts was 44 million tonnes in 2016, led by China with 38% of the world total. Atypically among legume crop plants, peanut pods develop underground (geocarpy) rather than aboveground. With this characteristic in mind, the botanist Linnaeus named the species hypogaea, which means "under the earth."

Kelly and Chana Eden on set in Wind Across the Everglades Chana Eden and Emmett Kelly on the set of "Wind Across the Everglades," Everglades National Park.jpg
Kelly and Chana Eden on set in Wind Across the Everglades

Starting in 1942, Kelly performed with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he was a major attraction. He also landed a number of Broadway and film roles, including appearing as himself in his "Willie" persona in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). He also appeared in the Bertram Mills Circus.

Broadway theatre class of professional theater presented in New York City, New York, USA

Broadway theatre, commonly known as Broadway, refers to the theatrical performances presented in the 41 professional theatres, each with 500 or more seats located in the Theater District and Lincoln Center along Broadway, in Midtown Manhattan, New York City. Along with London's West End theatre, Broadway theatre is widely considered to represent the highest level of commercial theatre in the English-speaking world.

Cecil B. DeMille American film director

Cecil Blount DeMille was an American filmmaker. Between 1914 and 1958, he made a total of 70 features, both silent and sound films. He is acknowledged as a founding father of the cinema of the United States and the most commercially successful producer-director in film history. His films were distinguished by their epic scale and by his cinematic showmanship. He made silent films of every genre: social dramas, comedies, Westerns, farces, morality plays, and historical pageants.

<i>The Greatest Show on Earth</i> (film) 1952 film by Cecil B. DeMille

The Greatest Show on Earth is a 1952 American drama film produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille, shot in Technicolor, and released by Paramount Pictures. Set in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the film stars Betty Hutton and Cornel Wilde as trapeze artists competing for the center ring, and Charlton Heston as the circus manager running the show. James Stewart also stars in a supporting role as a mysterious clown who never removes his make-up, even between shows, while Dorothy Lamour and Gloria Grahame also play supporting roles.

Kelly spent his final season before retiring from the circus (1956) working as the mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers. For the last two decades of his life, he continued to make appearances on game shows and in TV commercials.

In 1956, he starred in a dramatic role, a TV adaptation of the story of Wilhelm Voigt, the "Captain From Kopenick," who masqueraded as a Prussian officer in 1906. It was broadcast as part of the Telephone Time anthology series. [1]

Wilhelm Voigt German impostor

Friedrich Wilhelm Voigt was a German impostor who, in 1906, masqueraded as a Prussian military officer, rounded up a number of soldiers under his "command", and "confiscated" more than 4,000 marks from a municipal treasury. Although he served two years in prison, he became a folk hero as The Captain of Köpenick and was pardoned by Kaiser Wilhelm II.

<i>Telephone Time</i> television series

Telephone Time is an American anthology drama series that aired on CBS in 1956, and on ABC from 1957 to 1958. The series features plays by John Nesbitt who hosted the first season. Frank C. Baxter hosted the 1957 and 1958 seasons. The program was directed by Arthur Hiller, Robert Florey, and Lewis Allen (director). A total of 81 episodes aired from April 1956 to March 1957 on CBS and from April 1957 to April 1958 on the American Broadcasting Company (ABC).

Kelly was a Mystery Guest on the March 11, 1956, broadcast of What's My Line? and answered the panelists' questions with grunts rather than speaking yes or no. When the round was over, panelist Arlene Francis mentioned that Kelly was not allowed to speak while in makeup.[ citation needed ]

Arlene Francis American actress, radio and television talk show host, and game show panelist

Arlene Francis was an American actress, radio and television talk show host, and game show panelist. She is known for her long-standing role as a panelist on the television game show What's My Line?, on which she regularly appeared for 25 years, from 1950–1975 on both the network and syndicated versions of the show.

Kelly portrayed the character "Bigamy Bob" in the film Wind Across the Everglades (1958). He starred in the 1967 musicalm The Clown and the Kids, which was shot and produced in Bulgaria. [2]

Hartford circus fire

On July 6, 1944, Kelly was preparing to perform in a matinee show of the Ringling Brothers circus for an audience of 6,000 [3] in Hartford, Connecticut. 20 minutes into the show, the circus tent, which had been waterproofed with paraffin wax and gasoline, caught fire. [4] Kelly was among those who acted quickly to help extinguish the fire, and then he helped panicked audience members—mostly women and children, due to World War II—to swiftly exit the tent. [5] Officially, 168 people died in the fire, and 682 people were injured. [3] The cause of the fire has yet to be determined. [3]

Kelly's actions that day were immortalized by audience member Ralph Emerson, who took a photograph of Kelly rushing toward the burning tent in his full clown make-up and costume, carrying a single bucket of water. [5] The photograph was published in Life magazine on July 17, 1944. [6] According to eyewitnesses, it was one of few times in which he was seen crying. [7]

The fire affected Kelly deeply and for the remainder of his life; according to his grandson, Joey Kelly, he "rarely spoke of the fire to anyone other than family." [5]


Emmett Kelly died of a heart attack while taking out garbage on March 28, 1979, at his home in Sarasota, Florida. He is buried in the Rest Haven Memorial Park, in Lafayette, Indiana. [8]


Kelly in a bubble bath (photo by Joseph Janney Steinmetz) Ringling Circus clown Emmett Kelly in a bubble bath Sarasota, Florida.jpg
Kelly in a bubble bath (photo by Joseph Janney Steinmetz)

Kelly's son, Emmett Kelly Jr., did a similar "Weary Willie" character; the two were estranged for many years as a result. [9] Kelly Jr. said that his version of Willie was "less sad", but seemed quite similar to most observers.[ who? ] Kelly Jr. died in 2006. [10]

Kelly's boyhood town of Houston, Missouri, named Emmett Kelly Park in his honor and used to host an annual Emmett Kelly Clown Festival, which attracted clowns from across the region including Kelly's grandson Joey Kelly, who returned every year to perform as a special guest. According to Joey Kelly's website, the festival ended its 21-year run in May 2008. [11]

Kelly's "Weary Willie" inspired New York sports cartoonist Willard Mullin to sketch a version of him to represent the Brooklyn Dodgers as "Dem Bums" during the 1930s. The caricature, which was drawn to speak an exaggerated Brooklynese, caught on with Dodger fans and Mullin was subsequently hired to illustrate the covers of team yearbooks with variations of the "Brooklyn Bum".

The Emmett Kelly Museum is located in Sedan, Kansas.

Kelly was an inaugural inductee to the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1989. He was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame in 1994. In 1998, Kelly was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians, and a bronze bust depicting him is on permanent display in the rotunda of the Missouri State Capitol. In the silent feature film Silent Times , directed by Christopher Annino and written by Geoff Blanchette, the persona of Enzio Marchello was influenced in part by Kelly. [12] [ better source needed ]

According to the documentary Halloween Unmasked, the choice for the mask of the film's fictional serial killer Michael Myers was down to two: a modified Captain Kirk mask and an Emmett Kelly mask. While the Emmett Kelly mask was unsettling and eerie, it did not quite evoke the creepy feeling they were going for. The Kirk mask did, resulting in the crew selecting it for the film.[ citation needed ]

However, in the opening scene to The Dark Knight , Heath Ledger's Joker character is seen waiting to cross a busy Gotham City street holding an Emmet Kelly mask, which he is later seen wearing during a bank robbery.[ citation needed ]

Related Research Articles

Circus commonly a travelling company of performers

A circus is a company of performers who put on diverse entertainment shows that may include clowns, acrobats, trained animals, trapeze acts, musicians, dancers, hoopers, tightrope walkers, jugglers, magicians, unicyclists, as well as other object manipulation and stunt-oriented artists. The term circus also describes the performance which has followed various formats through its 250-year modern history. Philip Astley is credited with being the father of the modern circus when he opened the first circus in 1768 in England. A skilled equestrian, Astley demonstrated trick riding, riding in a circle rather than a straight line as his rivals did, and thus chanced on the format which was later named a "circus". In 1770 he hired acrobats, tightrope walkers, jugglers and a clown to fill in the pauses between acts. Performances developed significantly through the next fifty years, with large-scale theatrical battle reenactments becoming a significant feature. The traditional format, whereby a ringmaster introduces a varied selection of acts that mostly perform choreographed acts to traditional music, developed in the latter part of the 19th century and continued almost universally to be the main style of circus up until the 1970s.

Hartford circus fire

The Hartford circus fire, which occurred on July 6, 1944, in Hartford, Connecticut, was one of the worst fire disasters in the history of the United States. The fire occurred during an afternoon performance of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus that was attended by 6,000 to 8,000 people. The fire killed 167 people and more than 700 were injured.

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus United States traveling circus company

Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, also known as the Ringling Bros. Circus, Ringling Bros. or simply Ringling was an American traveling circus company billed as The Greatest Show on Earth. It and its predecessor shows ran from 1871 to 2017. Known as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Combined Shows, the circus started in 1919 when the Barnum & Bailey's Greatest Show on Earth, a circus created by P. T. Barnum and James Anthony Bailey, was merged with the Ringling Bros. World's Greatest Shows. The Ringling brothers had purchased Barnum & Bailey Ltd. following Bailey's death in 1906, but ran the circuses separately until they were merged in 1919.

Willard Mullin American sports cartoonist

Willard Mullin was an American sports cartoonist. He is most famous for his creation of the "Brooklyn Bum", the personification of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team, based on circus clown Emmett Kelly's "Weary Willie" hobo persona. He was widely published: he cartooned daily for Scripps-Howard's New York World-Telegram and Sun for decades and was often published in Scripps-Howard's twenty papers, as well as in the Sporting News.

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Lou Jacobs German circus performer

Johann Ludwig Jacob, professionally known as Lou Jacobs, was a German-born American auguste clown who performed for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus for more than 60 years. He was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1989. He is credited with popularizing the clown car, which has been a staple of circus clown acts ever since. He is also often cited as the originator of the red rubber ball nose, which is used by many clowns today. He was the first living person to have his portrait appear on an American postage stamp.

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The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze song performed by Eddie Cantor

"The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze", originally published under the title "The Flying Trapeze" and also known as "The Man on the Flying Trapeze", is a 19th-century popular song about a flying trapeze circus performer, Jules Léotard. The refrain states:

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Frank Bartlet Adler, born in Clinton, Iowa, was a circus performer and entertainer known as "The King of Clowns" who performed for Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey for 20 years. He was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1989.

Emmett Leo Kelly Jr. was an American clown. He was the son of Emmett Kelly Sr., who was a legendary circus clown. Kelly Jr. copied his father's style.

Emmett is an English surname, also used as a given name. It may be connected to the given name Emma, or the place of Emmott, Lancashire, or it is connected to the Hebrew word אמת, Truth.

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  1. Tops, T.V. (22 April 1956). "Famous Clown Takes a Straight Dramatic Role". The San Bernardino County Sun. p. 22. Retrieved 13 May 2018 via Newspapers.com.
  2. Zipes, Jack; Zipes, Reviewer Series Editor Jack (2011-01-27). The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. Routledge. ISBN   9781135853952.
  3. 1 2 3 "A TRAGEDY'S LONG SHADOW - Hartford Courant". web.archive.org. 2019-01-19. Retrieved 2019-01-19.
  4. "Hartford Circus Fire, July 6, 1944, day of panic and heroes. - Hartford Courant". web.archive.org. 2018-08-11. Retrieved 2019-01-19.
  5. 1 2 3 "The Story of a Photograph from the 1944 Hartford Circus Fire". web.archive.org. 2017-04-16. Retrieved 2019-01-19.
  6. "Life Mag Jul 44 - The Hartford Circus Fire ~ July 6, 1944". web.archive.org. 2017-09-22. Retrieved 2019-01-19.
  7. "The Hartford Circus FireA Matter of Degree". Willow Brook Press. Archived from the original on 2006-12-16. Retrieved 2007-05-16.
  8. "After lifetime of laughter, clown Kelly buried in Lafayette". Journal & Courier. Retrieved 2019-01-19.
  9. "A third Emmett Kelly takes up clowning". UPI. Retrieved 2019-01-19.
  10. Press, The Associated (2006-12-04). "Emmett Kelly Jr., Clown, Dies at 83". The New York Times. ISSN   0362-4331 . Retrieved 2019-01-19.
  11. "Emmett Kelly Festival". web.archive.org. 2009-12-17. Retrieved 2019-01-19.
  12. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6058070/?ref_=nm_flmg_stn_1