Today is the birthday of Emmett Kelly (1898-1979), whose Weary Willie character was probably the best known (or best recognized) circus clown of the 20th century. Kelly started out as a trapeze artist with the John Robinson circus in 1923; by 1931 he was a full time clown. He b egan as a white face clown, but gradually developed his familiar hobo character Weary Willie over time, a Chaplinesque creation that spoke to the mood of the nation during the Depression.
From 1942 to 1956 he was the star clown of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus. He was one of the few sawdust clowns to be so popular with audiences that he broke through to other media: he was in Cecil B. Demille’s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952), he was mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers (1956), and he did lots of television and this is how he became a household word. Everyone remembers his favorite bit of sweeping up after the show (and stubbornly trying to sweep up the pool of light from a spotlight). And think about it: how many circus clowns were ever on the Carol Burnett Show?
There is more to the Emmett Kelly story. Succeeding generations became his successors. And if you weren’t frightened of clowns before, this tale may alter your opinion. For Kelly’s grandson, Weary Willie the Third, if you will, became something of a fledgling serial killer. But The Skeleton Key Chronicles tells it better than I could. Anything I would add would just be redundant. Read the fascinating and grim story here.
For more on clown and slapstick history don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To find out more about show biz past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.