Emmett Leo Kelly, Sr. is best known as the world-famous clown, Weary Willie and was born December 9, 1898, in Sedan, Kansas. The son of immigrants, Thomas Kelly and Mollie Schimick, Emmett was named after the Irish patriot Robert Emmett and along with his sister Sylvia, grew up in rural Houston, Missouri.

 

Emmett had a knack for drawing and his mother enrolled him in a correspondence school for cartooning where he learned to give chalk talks by creating chalk drawings and turning them into various characters and cartoons. He left home in 1919 for Kansas City with a portfolio of his drawings intending to become a political cartoonist. When that didn't happen, he paid the bills working at a creamery unloading milk cans and painting faces on kewpie dolls before joining a carnival painting their wagons and exposing him to life on the road and sparking his interest in the circus.

 

Weary Willie, or Willie as he was affectionately known, first appeared on Emmett’s drawing board while working as a cartoonist for Adagram, a commercial film company, in the early 1920s. But the world of the circus called and Emmett bought a trapeze and self-taught himself to fly through the air with the greatest of ease. He met his first wife, Eva Moore and they formed a trapeze act, performing with Sells-Floto and the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.

 

The Kelly’s had two sons, Emmett, Jr. and Patrick, but he and Eva divorced in 1935 and Emmett started to pursue his growing passion for clowning and bring his character to life. In 1942, Kelly hit the big time when he joined the Greatest Show on Earth, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus. Willie was the first clown Ringling allowed to freelance, wandering through the show without joining in any gags or skits. He mingled with the crowds, joined in other performer's bits and would often be caught mimicking their routines, to the delight of audiences. Willie never spoke and his silly antics often backfired, enchanting the crowds who empathized with his character. He lent comic relief to dramatic acts by hanging his laundry on a low tightrope or sitting on the edge of the ring and eating his lunch.

 

Kelly’s great gift went far beyond a convincing performance as a down-and-out sad-faced clown. He’s best known for sweeping up a spotlight only to be startled by its reappearance, but eventually sweeping it into a smaller and smaller pool and putting it in his pocket or sweeping it under a rug. He left Ringling in 1956, as did many others, during a union strike and never returned to the circus as a full-time performer.

 

Emmett’s life after the circus included feature films, a stint on Broadway, working with Red Skelton at Lake Tahoe and numerous television guest appearances with luminaries like Ed Sullivan, Carol Burnett, and Bette Midler. In 1951, he made his motion-picture debut in The Fat Man, playing villainous ex-con Ed Deets and then played himself—or rather his alter-ego Willie—in the 1952 film, "The Greatest Show on Earth." Willie became the “mascot” for the Brooklyn Dodgers, better known as “da bums” prior to their move to Los Angeles to become the LA Dodgers in 1957. Emmett, as Willie, was hired by Coca-Cola, Endust, Union Carbide, Bell Telephone, B.F. Goodrich and many others to pitch their products and bring Willie's character into millions of households across America.

 

Willie hobnobbed with kings and queens, the rich and the famous while performing in burlesque houses and royal palaces and making himself at home everywhere he went.

 

In 1955, Emmett married Elvira “Evi” Gebhardt, who he called the love of his life, and raised their two daughters, Stasia and Monika in Sarasota, Florida.

 

Emmett continued to work until his death from a heart attack on March 28, 1979, at his home in Sarasota.  

Smithsonian Institution National Portrait Gallery Portrait by   Donald Rust  1981
Smithsonian Institution
National Portrait Gallery
Portrait by  
Donald Rust 
1981