Weary Willie and the Three Kellys

Posted: March 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

My next film will feature two new characters, both of whom will be clowns.  I’ve since done a lot of research on clowns; the history of clowning and  famous clowns.   I looked at pictures of clowns, photographs and drawings of clowns, even old commercials from back before Coulraphobia was invented and it was okay to show clowns on tv.  One day, I came across this painting:

There was no mention of the artist’s name and I had as of yet assumed that he had painted his own original character simply called, “The Sad Clown”.

A little searching however told me that the artist’s name was Barry Leighton Jones and the clown depicted was none other than the famous Emmett Kelly as his alter-ego, “Weary Willie.”

The story of Emmett Kelly and how his clown creation was able to consume the lives of three generations of performers is a tragic and fascinating one, and so I thought I’d write briefly about it here:

Emmett Kelly began his career as a trapeze artist in the early 1920s.  While working in a circus, he met and married Eva Moore, another trapeze artist.  The two became a double act known as the Aerial Kellys.   During this time, Emmett also occasionally performed as an unnamed  whiteface clown.

Eva became pregnant, and it became clear that  Kelly was going to have to find another way to support them.  He tried to increase their income with the creation of a new clown  based on some cartoon drawings he’d done while working in an art firm ten years earlier.

 However, the boss clown found this new character too “scruffy” and “dirty” for a circus show. It wasn’t until the Great Depression brought images of tramps and hobos to the forefront that Kelly was able to showcase Weary Willie, the sad clown.

Willie was a clown unlike any other people had seen before.  He wasn’t dressed in spangles and he didn’t caper about in a painted smile.    He didn’t play jokes intentionally and he certainly didn’t laugh.  He was sad, but also sympathetic and lovable.  People identified with Willie and his troubles on a level they  simply couldn’t with the other brightly colored clowns.  Willie was also a silent clown, a choice which brought the audience even closer as they could lend their own voices to the sad, unlucky figure.

His act was also revolutionary.  Not satisfied with marching in the parade or doing the shows that the other clowns did, Willie would take to wandering in and out of other performers’ acts.  During an intense tightrope act, for example, Willie would come out and hang his laundry on the rope.  Other performers saw the genius in this and asked Willie to wander into their own acts.  Willie would clean the stage between acts, or even wander through the audience, improvising as he went.  The normal rules of clowning and the circus did not apply to him.

Nor was the circus able to hold him for long.  Willie soon became a performer in his own right.  He appeared on variety shows, commercials and in nightclubs.  He became the mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers n 1956.  By then, he was easily the world’s most famous clown.

In 1950, Emmett Kelly was offered the role of a killer clown in The Fat Man. He accepted, but claims that Willie took over his body one night and begged him not to do it, not to let Willie become a killer.

“Willie seemed to be pleading with me,” Kelly wrote in his book. “He was lying in his trunk up in the Roosevelt Hotel, and while it may seem that all there was to Willie was a threadbare suit, a putty nose, some greasepaint, a busted derby and a pair of big, flapping shoes, I knew Willie had a heart, too. We were one and the same and I felt like I’d be a heel if I sold him out and made a real bum of him even in the crazy land of make-believe.”

Kelly instead did the movie in whiteface as an entirely different character.  For the moment, Willie’s reputation was saved.

By 1960, the torch had been passed to Emmett Kelly Jr., who brought Willie to a whole new audience and quickly became one of the most famous pantomime  clowns in history.  However, as with Emmett Kelly Sr., the personality of the clown seemed to take over, and eventually Emmett Kelly Jr.’s wife also sued for divorce, stating that living with Kelly was like living “with Jekyll and Hyde.”

The divorce was not yet settled when Kelly’s own son, Paul, got his leg sliced off by a train.  Kelly rushed home from touring to see his son, but only stayed for a little while before getting back on the road.  He blamed his absence on Willie, claiming that the clown had itchy feet.

In 1975, Paul began touring with his father’s circus. He became fascinated by the character of Willie and how beloved a figure his father and grandfather had become.  He became prop boss of the circus and would sneak out to watch his father perform as Willie.  He soon became convinced that Willie was his destiny, just as he had been for his father and grandfather.

One night, the clown came to Paul in a dream.  His father would be retiring soon, and Willie  begged Paul not to let him die.  The very next day, Paul changed his name to Emmett Kelly III, a name Willie could relate to.

Emmett Kelly Jr. retired and Paul became the third Emmett Kelly and the next Weary Willie.  He decided to go to California and make a name for himself.  He stayed with his sister while he looked for work.  He became very close with a friend of his sister’s named Janie Creel.  They spent a good deal of time together.

“I guess I’m his best friend, and his mother, and a little bit of everything to that boy,” Creel said. “He’s the most wonderful man I ever met. He’d give a friend the shirt off his back. When I needed help, he was always right there.”

Creel said Kelly told her all he ever wanted was the love and attention he never got at home. Through Willie, he got the love and attention he longed for.  Creel had children of her own, and Kelly would put on private clown shows for them. It was during some of these shows that she noted another personality that seemed to take hold of Kelly from time to time.  She even had a special name for him.

“I called him Paw-Paw because he had two personalities. There wasn’t just one Paw; there’s two of ’em.  So he was Paw-Paw.

“The first Paw was sweet and loveable and nice to everyone and everything.  But the second Paw was ornery and mean. He was sitting in the chair when I seen that look cross his face. The second Paw would have a long, sharp face. Even the skin would change to hard and rough. And his voice would change to old nasty Paw. I’d go over and tap him on the shoulder and say, ‘Paw-Paw, I don’t like the second Paw. Bring the first Paw back!’ And he’d go off in a corner and say, ‘Willie, you have to leave now,’ then he’d be all better.”

As the shows continued, Creele noticed that Kelly’s transformations were going further.  He was actually becoming his grandfather in voice and personality, even adopting the same gestures and facial expressions.

“Paw-Paw used to tell me the thing he wanted to do more than anything else in the world was to keep his grandfather alive through Willie.”

But while being Willie was liberating for Kelly, who was normally nervous, uptight and constricted, it was also scary.

“Sometime I felt as through Willie is taking over my body,” he once said. “Just as he did my father and grandfather.”

He continued to perform, and eventually earned enough money to get his own apartment.  It was a two bedroom flat.  When people asked him why he needed two bedrooms, he’d simply say,  “One for me, and one for Willie.”

Kelly became obsessed with the idea of being bigger and better than his father and grandfather.  At the same time, he desperately wanted to escape their fates.  He was visibly grappling with Willy, who he now saw as a real person, but could see no way out of his situation that wouldn’t kill his career and his dearest friend with it.

“I do a lot of thinking about my other self, the little hobo.  I start feeling sorry for the poor little guy: seems more like he is somebody I know instead of just me working for a living. I’m really getting so I feel like two people — me and the little tramp. And, so help me, I’m beginning to like the little guy better than I like myself! And I kind of hope he feels the same way about me…”

On Nov. 4, 1979, a body was found in the backseat of a car parked in downtown San Diego.  The police identified the body as that of a man named Brent David Bailey.  He appeared to have been beaten to death.   Bailey had been sharing a room with Kelly and three other renters.  All four men were there when the police showed up, but only Kelly seemed to know anything about Baily.

“Bailey was here about 7 p.m. He came to my room and we had a chat, then he left. He didn’t seem worried or upset about anything. I don’t know where he went.”

Those who knew Kelly would say later that he was not the type to commit murder.  He had nothing to gain and far too much to lose.  Willie was different.  He stayed out late.  He hung out in bars and drank to excess and had by now developed a drug habit.  For a while, he was able to keep this a secret, even from Kelly.

On Nov. 16, the body of Rev. Henry Kuizenga, a retired minister turned writer, was found in his home.  He also appeared to have been beaten to death.  The minister’s empty wallet lay on the floor, near a conspicuously empty tv stand.

After searching the house, the police went to a local bar the minister was said to frequent.  They flased his picture to the bartender, who remembered him:

“Yeah, older guy. Said he was a writer. Nice guy. He spent most of the night talking to a kid, a regular, about 22. He said he was the grandson of that famous clown…what’s his name… Emmett Kelly. He might be related. He talks a lot about the circus. He has no left leg. Said he lost it in a train accident when he was little. Pretty weird kid, if you ask me. He said he lived with a guy named Willie.”

The police decided to pay one more visit to the circus clown.

But when they arrived, he wasn’t home.  They instead questioned his neighbors:

“The guy spends a lot of time getting stoned and watching his new TV,” said one neighbor. “Don’t ask me where he got the money for a color TV when he asked me for a loan of $2 the day before he came home with it.”

The police searched the room and found a Quasar TV set, a watch, and identification papers from the wallet of the slain  minister. Ten days later they found Kelly and arrested him.

Kelly admitted to going on two or three acid trips a week, both before and after the murders.  He used amphetamines, marijuana, acid, cocaine and various other pills.  He also drank.  He claimed to have as many as ten drinks a night.  He blamed all this on his accomplice, who he said introduced him to drugs and a life of crime.  This was news to the  police, and  they questioned him for the accomplice’s name.  Kelly eventually gave it:

“It was Weary Willie.  His mad lust for fame and fortune brought out the Bad Paw.”

Kelly refused to talk with detectives, but agreed to speak with a court-appointed psychologist.  They soon discovered that Kelly and Willie were one and the same.  He was diagnosed with a split personality, and on January 4, 1980 the psychologist testified at a preliminary hearing that during their interview, Kelly had admitted that Willie had tried to smother Brent Bailey.  When that didn’t work, Kelly said that Willie had asked him to club Bailey to death.  He and Willie then drove the body to downtown San Diego and abandoned it.

Kelly also admitted to meeting with the minister.  They had met in the bar while Kelly was on an acid trip.  He followed the minister home and killed him in his bed.  He took the contents of the minister’s wallet, but claimed that stealing the watch and the tv set was Willie’s idea.

Kelly was impassive during the two-day preliminary hearing.  He stared at the floor or the polished table top as he listened to a parade of witnesses testify that he was crazy.  Occasionally his eyes flicked to the courtroom door, as if he expected Willie to show up at some point and take the blame.

He awaited trial in the Vista North County Jail.  Janie Creele visited him there, and it was during one of these visits that he passed along a poem he had written:


“That’s Paw-Paw telling me he’s going to kill himself in prison,”  Creele later said,  “and for me not to be sorry for him.”

On Aug. 18, 1980 Kelly admitted his guilt in Superior Court in Vista, California. On Sept. 16th, he was sentenced to a maximum sentence of 25 years to life for each of the first-degree murders.

After the trial, Kelly’s older sister spoke with reporters outside the courthouse.

“For someone who was so messed up about himself, he had more sensitivity about reaching out to others more than anyone I know. But he didn’t realize how long it took his father and grandfather before they finally made it big. Paul expected to make it right now, and when he didn’t he became bitter. The thing is, if he would have stuck it out for 15 years, he could have been the best of them all. I’ve seen his grandfather perform and his father perform and they were both truly great. But Paul could have been the best of them all.”

25 years earlier, Emmett Kelly Sr. had received a phone call while doing a show.  It was well known that, when performing as Willie, Kelly never broke character.  He never spoke and above all, he never smiled.  This was something about which  Kelly was adamant.    However, onlookers watched as Kelly listened on the phone and a joyous smile spread across his face.  A young photographer captured the moment and soon the picture went around the globe.  It was the first and only time Weary Willie ever smiled.

The phone call was from the hospital.   Kelly had just learned that he was a father.

  1. Steve Woodburn says:

    I found your blog by chance and you have obviously done a great deal of research on the Kelly family and “Willie.” I am married to Emmett, Senior’s daughter who is the reason Emmett was smiling in the photo you mentioned in your last few sentences. That picture was taken in Atlanta in November 1955 by Frank Beatty, a young UPI photographer, and as you mentioned is the only photo of Emmett ever smiling in character. He was dressed in character for a show with Ringling Brothers, where he worked at the time. I can’t vouch for Junior or his son Paul, but can tell you that Emmett never wore his costume other than when he was performing. Especially not during sex. While Junior and Paul may have been obsessed with Willie, Emmett was not and was a most gracious and humble man. He never wanted Junior to perform as Willie and only gave in late in his life (he never retired) because he didn’t feel it would be right to sue his own son to stop him. He and Junior didn’t speak the last 20 year’s of Emmett’s life because of this disagreement and my wife and her sister never met Junior and never had any desire to.

    I’ve been working on a play for many years on Emmett and it is finally set to debut in early 2014 in Sarasota, Emmett’s hometown and former winter home of Ringling Brother’s. We’re very excited and hope this will be a renaissance for Emmett who as you said, was and still is the world’ most famous clown.

  2. Dear Mr. Woodburn,

    Thanks for the reply and the correction. This is what I get for believing everything I read on the internet.
    I’m glad you were able to come and set me straight. From all other accounts I had deduced that Emmett Senior was hard-working and professional in all aspects of his career. These other bits about the sex and the obsession didn’t seem to fit, and it made me sad. There are lots of stories about Emmett Jr. and Paul Kelly floating around, and I’m guessing people have either mixed them up or tried to shovel some of that drama onto Emmett Kelly Senior and the original Willie for dramatic effect, like in this story, “The Clown Who AteThree Men.”:


    I’m happy to hear(especially from you, no less!)that Emmett Senior was nothing more or less than a loving father and a dedicated performer. This makes me want to learn even more about him! Be assured that I will go back and edit this blog entry so that it paints him in a better light.

    Finally, I am very interested in this play you mention! What is the title? When in 2014 will it debut? Is there a website where readers can get more information and updates? I’d very much like to know more about it and give my readers(all 4 of them, haha) a chance to know more as well! Please keep me posted!

    Thanks again!


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