Emmett Kelly

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Emmett Kelly

Emmett Kelly
Emmett Kelly

Emmett Kelly, named after the famous Irish patriot Robert Emmett, was born December 9th, 1898, in Sedan, Kansas. His father, Thomas Kelly, worked in Sedan as a section foreman for the Missouri-Pacific railroad. In 1905, his family moved to Houston, Missouri where he spent his youth. Like most young boys, eager to find themselves, he left the farm after school and moved to Kansas City, where he held a variety of jobs before finding employment in an advertising agency that produced silent film and print advertisements.

While working at the ad agency, Emmett also performed his clever chalk talk presentation in various vaudeville theaters. It was during that period of his life that he developed his beloved character, Weary Willie, first in a print ad and later bringing it to life, from the pages of his chalk talks. Emmett’s first circus employment was with Doc Grubb’s Western Show, a small dog and pony show, painting side boards and carnival kewpie dolls. He later plied his artistic talents with numerous circuses as a sign painter, painting circus wagons and merry-go-rounds. With the money he saved, he bought his first trapeze rigging and taught himself the art of single trapeze and moved to Peru, Indiana, then winter quarters to five major circuses.


In 1923, while living in Peru, Emmett met and married Eva Moore, his first wife. They joined the John Robinson Circus and performed for several years as the 'Aerial Kelly’s', a lightning fast Double Trapeze Act. Intense competition during the depression era was partially responsible for the demise of his trapeze act and marriage. His marriage and trapeze career ended in 1935 during a time when his clowning career was just beginning.

Emmett Kelly performed in the rings of every circus of consequence. In 1938 he performed with Bertram Mills at the London Olympia Circus. The British people adored the sad clown from America. Upon his return to the United States, he joined another great circus of that era, the Cole Brothers Circus. Having perfected his character in Europe, the sad-faced, lovable clown was finally accepted in his homeland, receiving highly favorable reviews. He was repeatedly singled out and applauded by critics for his funny and unique pantomiming.

Emmett Kelly Circus Ring
Emmett Kelly on the Circus Ring

In 1942, Emmett joined Ringling Brothers’ Barnum & Bailey Circus. He stayed with them for fourteen seasons. He was the first clown accorded the privilege of remaining in the ring to act on his own, often interacting with other performers during their acts, by their request. He was the master of pathos and pantomime, best remembered for his sweeping up the spotlight routine. His clown gags contained no speech and seldom worked to his favor, thereby endearing him to the public.


In 1955, nearly twenty years of traveling alone, Emmett met and soon married another circus performer, Evi Gebhardt. Evi was a gorgeous, young gymnast and member of The Whirlwinds, an accomplished acrobatic act from Germany. They moved to Sarasota and for the first time in his life, Emmett purchased a house and had a home. He had finally found happiness in his mid fifties with Evi and their two children, Stasia and Monika.


In 1957, Emmett stepped out of the circus ring into a diamond. Baseball fans will remember him as the mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers, the funny clown who strolled about, performing his comedic acts of pantomimic genius. His career was not limited to the spotlight, the center ring of the circus, or on a baseball field. Emmett Kelly was an actor appearing under theatre stage lights, movies, television appearances and in numerous commercials. He worked with, was friends with, and was loved, appreciated, and admired by nearly everyone in the entertainment industry. Emmett Kelly was a King walking among Kings.


Emmett Kelly as Weary Willie
Weary Willie

In his final days Emmett was preparing a new routine for his next appearance with lifelong friend Red Skelton. He was also working on a documentary showcasing his famous routines. Emmett loved the time he spent with his wife and daughters, but he also loved to perform. “Willie and I will never retire,” he once said. Emmett Kelly never retired, he merely changed his locale. On March 28th, 1979, he and Willie left this earth, stepping into the annals of history. Entertainers and dignitaries alike expressed both praise and sadness at his departure. Red Skelton simply remarked, “I guess those in Heaven needed a laugh.”
For decades, Emmett Kelly touched the heart of America. He was adored and respected for creating an “original,” lovable character that everyone empathized with and loved. In my travels, people constantly share their stories and memories of him with me. He has been gone for several years now, but his memory lives on in the hearts and minds of “children of all ages.” I am proud to be the grandson of Emmett Kelly, “America’s favorite clown!”

I will have considerably more to say about my grandfather in an upcoming book, Emmett Kelly, “America’s Favorite Clown!” The book is currently on hold while I finish LST-783, The Rest of the Story  featuring my father's tales and those of his shipmates found some 60 years later.


 Other Circus Relatives
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Emmett Kelly Jr.    Eva Kelly Lewis     Joe Lewis    Grace, Jeanie, Mitzi

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Last modified: 06/07/12