Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Emmett Kelly (1898 – March 28, 1979), a native of Sedan, Kansas, was an American circus performer, who created the memorable clown figure "Weary Willie," based on the hobos of the Depression era. Kelly began his career as a trapeze artist. He only started working as a clown in 1931, basing his character on a sketch he had made ten years earlier. "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 from 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.
From 1942–1956 Kelly performed with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and 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 Federico Fellini's I Clowns , and the role of "Willie" in Cecil B. DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth (1952).
His son, Emmett Kelly, Jr., also did a similar "Weary Willie" character; the two were reputedly estranged for many years, partially as a result. Kelly, Jr. claimed that his version of Willie was "less sad", but they seemed quite similar to most observers.
Emmett Kelly is buried in Rest Haven Memorial Park, Lafayette, Indiana.
The Emmett Kelly Museum is located in Sedan.
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