• Ted Stillwell: Emmett Kelly, the sad-faced clown

  • Emmett Kelly was one of our parents’ most beloved clowns. He was born in Sedan, Kan., back in 1898, but spent most of his childhood growing up in the Ozark town of Houston, Mo., down in Texas County.

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  • Emmett Kelly was one of our parents’ most beloved clowns. He was born in Sedan, Kan., back in 1898, but spent most of his childhood growing up in the Ozark town of Houston, Mo., down in Texas County.
    You could say he was born to be a clown, because he had that particular sense of humor. As a teenager, he gained a reputation for his “chalk talks,” where he would tell amusing stories while drawing caricatures before his audience.
    As a young man, Kelly dreamed of becoming a cartoonist, and in 1919 his aspirations brought him up and out of the Ozarks to our neck of the woods. He landed a job in Kansas City, where he worked as a painter for the Western Show Property’s Exchange. They sent him on up the river to paint a merry-go-round for Ziegler’s United Shows Circus at their Weston, Mo., headquarters. That gave him the circus fever and for a brief period of time, Kelly operated one of its midway sideshows.
    One of the circus acts that intrigued Kelly the most were the girls on the flying trapeze, so he practiced a high wire act, one foot off of the floor in his boardinghouse room. His natural talent and determination soon landed him a job with the John Robinson Circus, where he worked on the trapeze and sometimes filled in as a clown. Sure enough, he met and married a trapeze sweetheart named Eva Moore in 1923. Together they developed an act and successfully toured throughout the Midwest and across the Deep South.
    The Great Depression of the 1930s closed down many amusement parks and circus operations, because people just didn’t have the dime for admission anymore. In an effort to find work though, Kelly broke with tradition, and instead of a normal white-faced happy clown with a great big smile, he developed his famous clown character, known as “Weary Willie,” an unshaven, sad faced, Depression era hobo, and landed a full time job touring with the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.
    Eva divorced him in 1935, which saddened him deeply, and Kelly no longer had to act at being sad; the sadness came quite naturally for him. As his personal life grew increasingly unhappy, “Weary Willie’s” popularity gained more momentum. Shortly after the beginning of World War II, Kelly had joined the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, and he remained with them for the next 14 years.
    Breaking with tradition again, Kelly took his “Weary Willie” act outside of the ring and mingled with the audience during show time and adding a pantomime routine caused the crowds to simply go wild. Kelly also appeared on Broadway and in the movies, including a self-portrayal in Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Greatest Show on Earth” in 1952.
    Kelly finally found personal happiness again in 1955, when another pretty acrobat named Elvira Gephardt walked into his life and married him. During his retirement years, he worked many different venues, including a stint as the mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Emmett Kelly died at the age of 80 of a heart attack on March 28, 1979, at his home in Sarasota, Fla.
    Page 2 of 2 - An Emmett Kelly Museum is located in Sedan, Kan., and his boyhood town of Houston named a park in his honor, and up until 2008, hosted an annual Emmett Kelly Clown Festival, which attracted clowns from across the region. He was an inaugural inductee to the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1989, and 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 of him is on permanent display in the rotunda of the Missouri State Capitol.
    Reference: Marking Missouri History, Missouri State Historical Society.
    In cooperation with the Examiner, Ted W. Stillwell is available to speak before any club, church, civic, senior, or school groups.
    To reach Ted W. Stillwell, send an email to teddystillwell@yahoo.com or call him at 816-252-9909.

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