Wheeler the Clown Wheeler the CLOWN               Presents A CLOWN Biography:


Emmett "Weary Willie" Sr.

Kelly, Sr.

"Weary Willie"

1898 Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr. was born in Sedan, Kansas. His given name was Emmett Leo Kelly. 
1904 Emmett received the first spanking he could remember, for climbing a telephone pole and sitting on the crossbeam until his terrified mother and neighbors got him to climb halfway back down so that he could be "rescued." According to Emmett Sr. (in his autobiography, Clown), the pole was much higher than the tent in which he later performed his first aerial act.
1917 Emmett left home to live in Kansas City, where he worked a variety of jobs for the next year or so.
1918 Emmett Sr. took a job painting carnival kewpie dolls for Western Show Property Exchange. He earned six cents for smaller dolls and eight cents for larger ones. The next year he painted dolls that had balls thrown at them on the midway.
1919 Young Emmett Kelly Sr.Emmett Sr. began purchasing props for his planned chalk talk stage act, including designing an easel out then hiring a plumber to build an it out of brass. Also that year, he entered an amateur theatre contest and won  first prize ($3). He used the prize money to purchase a used trapeze bar and crane from the new owner of the Western Show Property exchange, Doc Grubbs. Also that year, Emmett Sr. went to work for his first show, Zieger's United Shows, painting the merry-go-round. Later he  was put in charge of a sideshow act called Spidora. Emmett Sr. left the show after discovering a louse on his neck one day.
1920 Young Emmett Kelly Sr.Cartoon Weary WillieA talented cartoonist, Emmett Sr. went to work for Adv. Film Company, and first sketched a sad tramp clown who would become his beloved Weary Willie character. According to one source he created the character for a bread commercial. In his autobiography, Emmett Sr. himself says that at the time he saw himself either as a trapeze artist or a cartoonist, and had no idea that he would someday be a full-time circus clown. the time he was working for the Adfilm Company (Note: the company also employed Walt Disney at the time.)
1922 Emmett Kelly Sr. joined his first circus, Howe's London Circus, doing various artistic odd jobs, like painting kewpie dolls and circus wagons.
1923 Emmett Sr. and Eva KellyEmmett Kelly Sr. in whitefaceEmmett Kelly Sr. married Eva Moore, and teamed with the Moore sisters in their aerialist act (in addition to working part-time as a clown).
1924 Emmett Sr. and Eva Kelly had their first child, future clown Emmett Jr. He was born on the closing day of the John Robinson Circus.
Emmett Kelly Sr. in whitefaceWeary Willie Sr.Emmett Sr. attempted to introduce his Weary Willie character (left) to the circus public that year. The boss clown turned him down, saying that Weary Willie was "too dirty" for the show, so Emmett Sr. had to continue to perform in whiteface. (right)
1932 Cartoon Weary Willie Emmett Sr. began to tour nightclubs, using both his talents as a clown and an artist to give chalk talks as Weary Willie.
1933 Emmett Sr. first performed in the circus as the tramp clown character Weary Willie, at Weary Willie Sr.the the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. By proving how popular his character was and how Weary Willie enhanced other acts, he was allowed to stay in costume and character throughout the circus performance, even to mix with serious acts (i.e. hanging wash on the slack wire and being chased out of the ring, etc.).


Emmett Sr. and Eva Kelly The former Eva Kelly Emmett  Sr. and Eva were divorced, in large part over Emmett's preference for clowning over their aerialist act. They each took custody of one of their two sons; Emmett Jr. becoming the responsibility of his father. (Due to the nomadic life of a circus performer, Emmett Jr. lived most of his school years with Emmett Sr.'s parents.) Eva later would marry another clown, and Emmett Sr.'s best friend, JoJo Lewis.
1937 Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly, Sr. Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr. appeared at the New York Hippodrome. Audiences loved the silent tramp clown.
1940 Eva Moore Kelly LewisJoJo LewisEva Moore Kelly, remarried . Her new husband was Emmett's best friend, clown JoJo Lewis. (pictures courtesy of  Joey Kelly, Emmett's grandson)
1941 Emmett Kelly Sr. joined Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Baily Circus. He had turned down offers to join this circus on two other Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr.occasions. After proving that the audience would love it, he became one of the only clowns allowed to remain in a single character and costume throughout the show and allowed to wander through the audience and to interrupt other circus acts with his comic routines (with certain agreed upon exceptions according to Emmett in his autobiography Clown). In fact, several performers requested Emmett's "interruptions" because they felt it enhanced their acts.
1944 Young Emmett Kelly Sr. Emmett Sr. remarried. His new wife was eighteen year old Mildred Richey, an understudy in one of the other circus acts. Mildred left him in less than a year.
The Big Top caught fire during a matinee performance of the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Hartford, Connecticut, Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr.resulting in 167 deaths (mostly women and children) and over 487 injuries; many of the deaths and injuries were caused by being trampled by the panicked crowd. A picture taken of Weary Willie (Emmett  Kelly Sr.) carrying a water bucket appeared in newspapers throughout the world, and led to locals calling the tragic Hartford Fire the Day the Clowns Cried. (click here to read a more detailed account including information provided in part by the daughter of one of the nurses of the injured and dying)
1949 In Sarasota, Florida, Cecil B. DeMille began production of the film The Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr.Greatest Show on Earth, featuring real circus performers and acts from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Emmett Sr. was a featured actor in the movie, having one silent act and one spoken line. ("What? Parade?")
1951 Emmett Kelly Sr. in The Fat Man Emmett, Sr. co-starred as the villian in the movie The Fat Man, playing Ed Deets, a murderer hiding behind a clown face. He refused to stain the image of his Weary Willie character with such a role, so the producers allowed him to play the part as a whiteface clown (left).
1952 Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr.Cecil B. Demille's circus epic, The Greatest Show on Earth, in which Emmett Sr. was a featured circus performer, was James Stewart as Buttons the Clownreleased to theatres and won the coveted Academy award for best picture that year. The epic co-starred Jimmy Stewart as Buttons the Clown.
1956 Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr.Emmett Sr. left the circus to work as the mascot of baseball's Brooklyn Dodgers, still as his Weary Willie character. His departure was at least in part due to support of a union strike of the circus's non performing personnel.
1957 Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr.Emmett Sr. went to work for the Shrine Circus, as his now famous Weary Willie character.
1960 Weary Willie Jr.Emmett Kelly Jr. first performed as a clown, in the Circus Festival in Peru, Indiana, also as Weary Willie. Some sources say it was with Dad's blessing, but according to most reports, Emmett Sr. did not approve; he felt too close of a bond with the character he had created.
1978 Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr.Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr. retired from circus life.
1979 Weary Willie Sr.Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr. died in Sarasota, Florida. He died in classic "Weary Willie" style, suffering a heart attack while taking out the trash.
1989 Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly, Sr.was among the first group of Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr.Clown Hall of Fame inductees. He and fellow tramp Otto Griebling had died before being given that honor and sadly commenting on his deceased friends and fellow inductees, Lou Jacobs said, "It looks like I'm the Last Of The Mohicans."
1994 Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly Sr.Emmett Kelly Sr. as an aerialist Clown and aerialist Emmett "Weary Willie" Kelly, Sr. was posthumously inducted into the Circus Hall of Fame.

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     This Page was updated on: 08/12/2004