Emmett Kelly, Jr.

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Emmett Kelly, Jr.
Emmett Kelly, Jr. at the New York World's fair in 1964.
Born Emmett Leo Kelly, Jr.
(1923-11-13)November 13, 1923
Dyersburg, Tennessee
Died November 29, 2006(2006-11-29) (aged 83)
Sierra Vista, Arizona
Other names Weary Willie
Occupation Circus Clown
Parents Emmett Kelly (1898-1979)

Emmett Leo Kelly, Jr. (November 13, 1923 - November 29, 2006) was one of the "World's Most Famous Clowns". He was the son of Emmett Kelly, Sr., who was also a legendary circus clown. Emmett, Jr. successfully carried on his father's character "Weary Willie," famous for sweeping away the spotlight.

Early life[edit]

Emmett Kelly, Jr. was born in Dyersburg, Tennessee on the day the John Robinson Circus, his father's employer, was doing its last show. Emmett, Jr. spent his first few years traveling with his parents. When he reached school age he still traveled with his family during the summer and lived with his grandparents when school was in session. He finished school during World War II, and joined the Navy at age 18 and spent approximately three years in the Pacific participating in major operations in Iwo Jima and Okinawa.[1] Despite being raised around the circus, Emmett, Jr. pursued a career in the railroad business after the war, becoming a switch tender and also a mechanic.


It was not until 1960 (four years after his father retired from performing) when Emmett, Jr., who had never been encouraged by his father, debuted himself as "Weary Willie" at the Circus Festival in Peru, Indiana. He was guided by their manager, Leonard Green, for the next four years. He toured a daredevil auto show called "Austin's Motor Derby" during the night and would arrive just hours before the next show. In 1963, Emmett was the featured performer of the Hagen-Wallace Circus as they traveled nationwide. The elder Kelly was not happy with his son's decision to play an almost identical character, although the latter claimed his version of Weary Willie was less sad, and the two were estranged for years.

In 1964, Eastman Kodak was looking for a suitable representative to appear at the company's Pavilion during the New York World's Fair. Emmett Kelly, Jr. met Eastman Kodak executives in their board room and impressed them with his mime performance. He was immediately signed and became one of the top attractions during the World's Fair two-year run. Kodak was so pleased and impressed by Emmett's success during The Fair, they asked him to become their touring Ambassador of Goodwill. This lasted for over four years during which Emmett visited thousands of towns and hospitals. It was during this six-year period that Emmett, Jr. became America's most photographed and recognized clown. He spent approximately six months a year on tour throughout the country to promote various lines of merchandise, which bear his name and likeness.[2]

While traveling to a Kodak performance in San Diego, California, Emmett drove to Tombstone, Arizona on a sightseeing detour. He said he had four days to get to San Diego and he was well ahead of schedule so he wanted to see Tombstone. He fell in love with the town and decided to retire there. Emmett would snowbird each year in Tombstone until he moved there in 1980. It was then that he joined the Arizona Rangers and the Tombstone Company.[3]

In 1972 Emmett, Jr., with help from his manager, established his own circus which toured nationally and was the only circus to perform at the White House, not just once but twice—once in 1972 and again in 1973 during the annual White House Easter Egg Roll.[4] Throughout his life, Emmett Kelly, Jr. donated his time to several charities including The Make A Wish Foundation, The American Cancer Society, Save The Children Foundation, and FACES—The National Association for the Craniofacially Handicapped and was honored by Presidents, First Ladies, Kings and Queens, and numerous heads of state.[3][5] A weekend event in Tombstone, Arizona was named after him. Emmett Kelly, Jr. Days, which is held in November, includes clown school and other events. It is done to raise funds for a scholarship for a Tombstone High School graduate. Kelly continued to perform until he retired from clowning on his 81st birthday in 2004 and “passed the nose” to “Emmett Kelly, Jr. the Second,” Mr. David Town that August.

On his last birthday he requested to retrieve his Ranger Badge. He died 16 days later. The badge was presented to his daughter by LTC Lathan Varnado, State Adjutant. In a gold framed case, Mrs. Kelly-Knapp was presented an Arizona Ranger Patch flanked on the left by a Ranger Badge and a Ranger Belt Buckle on the right. Also lying on the field of blue felt was a plaque inscribed “Emmett Kelly, Jr., Arizona Rangers, Tombstone Company, 1982, Badge # 405.” [3]

Since he worked for the railroad, Emmett's hobbies outside of the circus included collecting model trains which later inspired him to create the Emmett Kelly, Jr. Circus Train collection. He was also a race car enthusiast.


Emmett Kelly, Jr died from pneumonia on Wednesday November 29, 2006 in Sierra Vista, Arizona at the Sierra Vista Regional Health Center which is near his home in Tombstone, Arizona, according to his daughter. Emmett’s family, friends, and The Arizona Rangers were at his bedside when, at 3:05 p.m. (MST), he took his final breath.[3] He was survived by two other daughters and three sons. He was 83.[6]

He was buried with full military honors provided by a Navy Color Guard. The sounds of Taps echoed among a daunting silence, and the Rangers, standing at attention, offered their final salute.[3] He is buried in Southern Arizona Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Sierra Vista, Cochise County, Arizona.

Personal life[edit]

After his discharge from the military, he married and raised five children. He worked at a variety of jobs, in various locations, before settling down in Peru, Ind. He worked as a brakeman with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, struggling on $134 every two weeks.

Emmett continued touring, despite his wife's pleas. Their marriage eventually ended in a divorce in the '60s. His wife said that his character Willie had taken over her husband. Not long after he went on the road with Willie, his son, Paul Anthony Kelly, lost a leg in a train accident. Emmett, Jr. heard of the accident and came home, but after a brief visit departed, saying “Willie’s got itchy feet.”

After high school, Paul Kelly went on tour with his father as his prop boss. In 1977 the then twenty-year-old Paul served some time in prison. It was there one night, while sleeping, that Willie came to him in a dream. His father would soon retire, and Willie told him, "Don’t let me die." He awoke in the morning determined to be the third Weary Willie and started calling himself Emmett Kelly III, a name Willie could relate to. On December 3, 1979 Paul Kelly was charged and subsequently convicted of the murder of Brent David Bailey and Henry Kuizenga.[7][8]


  1. ^ Emmett Kelly, Jr.
  2. ^ Emmett Kelly Jr
  3. ^ a b c d e Calendar
  4. ^ World's Most Famous Clown Character Emmett Kelly, Jr. Joins the Circus for MDI Lottery Promotions. | Marketing & Advertising > Marketing & Advertising Overview from AllBusiness.com
  5. ^ Emmett Kelly Jr
  6. ^ Associated Press (2006-12-04). "Emmett Kelly Jr., Clown, Dies at 83". New York: The New York Times. 
  7. ^ Milwaukee Journal (Google Scan); December 3, 1979. Retrieved June 7, 2013.
  8. ^ Coulrophobia & The Trickster

External links[edit]