When Emmett Kelly, Jr. was born on November 13, 1923 in Dyersburg, Tennessee, it was the closing-day performance for the John Robinson Circus; the circus which employed his father to entertain young and old alike as the clown/mime "Weary Willie". For the first few years of his life, young Emmett traveled with his parents on the circus circuit becoming a veteran of life on the road.
When he became old enough to attend school, Kelly was sent to live with his grandparents for a more stable environment. And, when school was out for the summer, he returned to his parents and the circus. When Emmett finished school, World War II was being fought. At the age of 18 Kelly enlisted in the U.S. Navy and spent almost three years in the Pacific participating in major operations in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Although he was raised "under the Big Top", he chose to pursue a career as an automotive mechanic and railroad switch tender after the war ended.
Fifteen years later, Kelly answered the call of circus life and clowning when he debuted at the 1960 Circus Festival in Peru, Indiana. There, for the first time, encouraged and trained by his father, he donned the "Weary Willie" costume and make-up and portrayed the lovable mime.
For the next four years, Emmett completed his informal apprenticeship under the watchful eye of not only his father, but also their manager, Leonard Green. Emmett toured the hinterland with a daredevil auto show "Austin's Motor Derby" frequently traveling through the night and arriving just hours before the next show would begin. In 1963 Emmett was the featured performer of the Hagen-Wallace Circus as it criss-crossed the United States.
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 BoardRoom and wowed them with his mime performance. He was immediately signed up 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, that they asked him to become a touring Ambassador of Goodwill for them. This relationship 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.
Countless men, women, and children, including Jacqueline Kennedy, had their photographs taken with Kelly at both The Fair and at appearances nationwide.
Emmett Kelly, Jr.'s superb reputation for performance integrity and his commitment to charity work and hospital visits made him much in demand. By 1972, Kelly and his manager Leonard Green made the dream of the Emmett Kelly, Jr. Circus a reality. The Circus toured hundreds of cities and towns in America and performed twice at The White House -- the only circus to be so honored! The success of the traveling Circus led to television specials broadcast live from Las Vegas and featuring such stars as Anthony Newley, Loretta Swit, and Phyllis Diller.
In every performance, Emmett Kellly, Jr. presented the famous "Sweeping the Spotlight" routine which has become a pantomime classic.
Emmett Kelly, Jr. performed in public appearances nationwide until his death in 2006, at the age of 83. He spent approximately six months a year on tour throughout the country to promote various lines of merchandise, which bear his name and likeness.
Throughout his life, Emmett Kelly, Jr. donated his time to a number of charitable causes including The Make A Wish Foundation, The American Cancer Society, Save The Children Foundation, and FACES--The National Association for the Craniofacially Handicapped.
In his spare time, Kelly was an avid model train collector and racecar enthusiast. But his first love was always portraying the lovable character that millions of people have come to adore.