The enduring image of Emmett Kelly forlornly sweeping his spotlight
into a dustpan will long be remembered by Ringling audiences everywhere.
A master of pantomime, Kelly's classic tramp clown character "Weary
Willie" could elicit huge laughs from enormous audiences with the very
slightest raise of an eyebrow.
Emmett Kelly was born in Sedan, Kansas on December 9, 1898.
His Irish-immigrant father worked the railroad and his mother ran her
family-owned boarding house. Kelly grew up on a small farm in southern
Missouri where he soon discovered that he had talent as a cartoonist. In
1920, Kelly sketched a character that would change his life. Kelly drew
the adorable, tramp clown character he would later become. It was
around this time that Kelly was bitten by the Circus bug and he worked
night and day to develop a trapeze act.
Emmett Kelly was offered his first circus job by a booking
agent for Howe's Great London Circus. The man offered Kelly the trapeze
spot with the understanding that Kelly would double as a clown in the
show. Kelly eagerly agreed. His trapeze work left much to be desired
with the Howe's show. However, over time, Kelly developed his trapeze
routine and became much more skilled. In 1923, Kelly was working his
trapeze act with John Robinson's Circus when he met and fell in love
with a woman named Eva Moore who worked a double trapeze act with her
sister. Emmett and Eva eloped later that year. The newlyweds worked hard
together and before long were featured in their own double trapeze act.
The next year, when Eva became pregnant, Kelly tried to
increase his salary by developing a new clown character in the show
based on his beloved tramp clown drawings, but the boss clown thought
Kelly's tramp was "too scruffy and dirty" for the show. Mopingly, Kelly
returned to performing his single trapeze act and doubling as a
white-faced clown. Shortly after that time, The Great Depression hit and
the appearance of tramps and hobos became more acceptable to American
audiences, so in 1933, Kelly finally made the transition and "Weary
Willie" was born.
Kelly joined Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey®
after the United States joined World War II in 1941. Unlike any other
clown before or after him, Kelly was given free reign in the Circus. He
did not wear shiny, spangled costumes like the other cast members, he
did not march in the huge Spectacle numbers, he simply wandered in and
out of the arena, through the seating area, improvising wherever he
wished. Other performers in the show saw Kelly's genius and asked him to
"wander" into their acts. In one case, during an especially dramatic
low-wire presentation, Willie wandered in as the performer prepared and
hung his laundry on the rope only to be chased off. In another act,
Willie came to the aid of a bareback performer who had missed a flip on
horseback. Willie took out his ever-present broom and swept the back of
the horse to make sure the equestrian had safe footing on his next
attempt. And just as quickly as he "wandered" into a scene, Willie
wandered out or was chased out -- leaving laughs and smiles in the wake
of his solemn gait.
Willie provided comic relief in the Circus through the end
of the 1956 season when he left his Circus career to pursue a job as the
mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers. For the next 20 years, Kelly was a
regular on television variety shows, commercials, and at nightclubs. But
Kelly always loved and cherished his time in the Circus. He wrote, "You
can troupe all over the world, and you can listen to applause in
faraway places and you can read flattering publicity from hell to
breakfast, but when you open with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey in Madison Square Garden, New York City, you have 'arrived.'"
On March 28, 1979, opening day of The 109th Edition of The Greatest Show On Earth®
at Madison Square Garden, 80-year-old Emmett Kelly suffered a heart
attack on the lawn of his home in Sarasota, Florida and died.
Emmett Kelly will always be remembered as one of the
greatest and most recognizable Circus performers of all time. His genius
and ingenuity came in the simplicity of his comedy and the honest
heartfelt sentiments he conveyed without ever uttering a single word.