Everyone knows Emmett Kelly as sad-faced Weary Willie, the circus clown who entertained millions during his quarter-century under the big top. Almost unknown is the fact that Kelly worked as an animator before running off to join the circus.
Emmett Leo Kelly was born on Dec. 9, 1898, in Sedan, Kansas, and grew up on a Missouri farm. A largely self-taught artist, Kelly went to work for the Adagram Film Company in Kansas City as a cartoonist sometime around 1920. A decade before Weary Willie came along, Kelly brought his first clown character to life on paper for what some have claimed was an advertisement for a bread company. In 1921, Kelly joined Howe's Great London Circus. A decade later, his career as a clown took off when he assumed the identity of Weary Willie. Kelly remained in that role for most of his life. Incidentally, Walt Disney worked for an outfit called the Kansas City Film Ad Company around 1920. The Adagram Film Company may well have been the same firm that employed Walt Disney. In any case, it seems likely that the two young cartoonists ran into each other in that small world of 1920.
Time was when circuses made their winter home in Peru, Indiana. Kelly was among many circus performers to call the Hoosier State home. During the 1920s, he worked in Indianapolis and other towns in Indiana. After his death, on Mar. 28, 1979, in Sarasota, Florida, he was buried in another northern Indiana city, Lafayette, next to his mother and sister.
Text copyright 2011 by Terence E. Hanley