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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.

Emmett Kelly
Emmett Kelly 1953 (cropped).jpg
Kelly ca. 1953
Born
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
Spouse(s)
Eva Mae Moore
(m. 1923)

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

Contents

CareerEdit

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.

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 too—one of his most famous acts was trying to crack a peanut with a sledgehammer—but as a tramp, he also appealed to the sympathy of his audience.

 
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.

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]

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]

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

Hartford circus fireEdit

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]

DeathEdit

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]

LegacyEdit

 
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]

ReferencesEdit

  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. ^ a b c "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. ^ a b c "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 Fire—A 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

External linksEdit