Open main menu

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
Emmett Leo Kelly

(1898-12-09)December 9, 1898
DiedMarch 28, 1979(1979-03-28) (aged 80)
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



Kelly 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.

He started working as a clown full-time in 1931, and it was only after years of attempting to persuade the management that he was able to switch from a white face clown to the hobo clown that he had sketched ten years earlier while working as a cartoonist.

"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 in a bubble bath, photograph by Joseph Janney Steinmetz

From 1942–1956 Kelly performed with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, where he was a major attraction, though he took the 1956 season off to perform as the mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. 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.

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. He also starred in the low-budget 1967 film The Clown and the Kids, which was shot and produced in Bulgaria.[2]

Kelly is depicted in a famous photograph, still in full clown make-up and costume, trying to extinguish the flames of the devastating Hartford Circus Fire that struck the Circus on July 6, 1944, and killed 167 people during the afternoon performance in Hartford, Connecticut. According to eyewitnesses, it was one of few times in which he was seen crying.[3]


Emmett Kelly died at the age of 80 of a heart attack on March 28, 1979, at his home in Sarasota, Florida. He is buried in the Rest Haven Memorial Park, in Lafayette, Indiana.[4]


Kelly's son, Emmett Kelly Jr., did a similar "Weary Willie" character; the two were estranged for many years as a result. Kelly Jr. said that his version of Willie was "less sad", but they seemed quite similar to most observers.

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 Emmett Kelly Festival in Houston, Mo ended its 21-year run in May 2008.[5]

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 is based on Kelly.[6]

According to the documentary Halloween Unmasked, the choice for the mask of the film's fictional serial killer Michael Meyers 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.

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.


  1. ^ Tops, T.V. (22 April 1956). "Famous Clown Takes a Straight Dramatic Role". The San Bernadino County Sun. p. 22. Retrieved 13 May 2018 – via
  2. ^ The Clown and the Kids on IMDb [better source needed]
  3. ^ "The Hartford Circus Fire—A Matter of Degree". Willow Brook Press. Archived from the original on 2006-12-16. Retrieved 2007-05-16.
  4. ^ Journal & Courier
  5. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on December 17, 2009. Retrieved June 16, 2010.
  6. ^

External linksEdit