Entertainer. Born: December 9, 1898, Sedan, Kansas. Died: March 28, 1979, Sarasota, Florida.
Emmett Kelly was born December 9, 1898, in Sedan, the son of an Irish railroad worker. At an early age his mother enrolled him in a correspondence school for cartooning. When finished, he learned to give chalk talks and began entertaining at schools. In 1919, Kelly left his drug store job in Houston, Missouri, and headed for Kansas City with a portfolio of drawings. Turned down at the Kansas City Star, he started working at a creamery company unloading milk cans and cutting butter. One job followed another until he was asked by a carnival to join them as a painter. This again sparked an early interest in the circus life.
"Weary Willie" appeared on his drawing board while he was working for a commercial film company in the early 1920s. It was during the 1920s that Kelly turned to the circus life fulltime. It was not until 1937, however, that "Weary Willie" made his debut. He was then with the Gertram Mills Circus and the appearance broke with the traditional clown-look of white face, red spots on each cheek, peaked hat and ballooning suit. Kelly would call this break his proudest achievement in show business.
Kelly worked with many different circuses throughout his career but settled at Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey in 1942. Here he remained until 1956 when the circus closed.
Following the Ringling Brothers experience, Kelly's professional life included movies, nightclub circuit, circus performances, and television. He had become the most famous clown in the world. Willie had visited burlesque houses and royal palaces and made himself at home in both.
Kelly died March 28, 1979, in his home at Sarasota, Florida.
Entry: Kelly, Emmett
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: December 2004
Date Modified: December 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.