In Tombstone, memories of a famed clown who was sad, not ‘creepy’

(Illustration by Mikayla Mace / Arizona Sonora News)
(Illustration by Mikayla Mace / Arizona Sonora News)

 

By KYLE KOCHEVAR

Arizona Sonora News

We’ve had a lot of “creepy clown” news since the end of summer. In a craze spreading through the country, pranksters and hooligans wearing leering white-face clown costumes were popping out of the woods to scare school children and created a wave of social-media hysteria that wasn’t the least bit funny — including in southern Arizona.

But there was news of another kind of clown in this region late last month.

In Tombstone, November 29 marked the 10th anniversary of the death of one of the town’s most famous residents: Emmett Kelly Jr., who had retired there.  While Tombstone is best known for the 1883 shootout at the O.K. Corral, Emmett Kelly Jr. was the opposite of what made Tombstone famous.

He was a clown –and for a time he was the most famous clown in the world. Kelly performed in his father’s footsteps as a “sad-faced” clown — a non-threatening sad-sack who delighted adults and had children children squealing with laughter instead of fright.

Born in the early 20th Century, Kelly joined the Navy at eighteen and fought in the Pacific during the Second World War. He inherited clowning: His father, Emmett Kelly Sr., was the most famous clown in the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus from 1941 to 1956. The senior Kelly introduced a morose, hapless hobo clown, based on stereotypes of a Depression-era tramp, known as “Weary Willie,” a character adopted and modified by the son after the father retired.

Despite growing up around the circus, Emmett Jr. did not jump right in. Four years after his father retired, Emmett Jr. followed in his footsteps and joined the circus at the 1960 Circus Festival in Peru, Indiana, and as homage to his father donned the raggedy “Weary Willie” costume and face makeup that his father made famous.

“Peru is known as the circus capital of the world,” said Dean Dougherty, a resident of Tombstone who lived in town while Emmett Kelly was a neighbor. “That was where Emmett Kelly got his start.”

Peru, which calls itself Circus City, was the headquarters of major circuses, from the Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which toured from the 1893 to 1913, to the famous Ringling Brothers and its big top.

The costume that Emmett Jr. wore was a lot like his father’s, even though Kelly maintained that it was less sad. Unlike most clown costumes, which are usually designed with white face-paint and garish expression, “Weary Willie” was a tragic figure.

Emmett Jr. got his big break in the early 1960s when he was a featured attraction at the Eastman Kodak pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, where his trademark performance, copied after his father’s, was an act in which the hapless Willie used a broom to try to sweep up an elusive spotlight.

“He would sweep the spotlight until it was gone,” said Les, a Tombstone resident working at the visitors center who wouldn’t give his last name. “He had a physical act, and it was the only trick I can think of him doing.”

During his time touring for Kodak as a goodwill ambassador, he became the most recognizable clown in the country, and this is what ultimately led him to Tombstone.

While touring the country, he decided on his way to San Diego that he would stop off at Tombstone to sightsee. He fell in love with Tombstone and decided to spend the winters there while he was working. When he retired, he moved there and became Tombstone’s most famous resident.

“We actually had an Emmett Kelly Jr. Day years ago to celebrate him,” said Karl Opperman, a Tombstone resident.

Tombstone celebrated Kelly’s presence with events held in his honor of him, but he didn’t get to participate much. “Weary Willie” was weary at this point.

“They set up a tent and people would celebrate and barbecue,” Dougherty said. “But he was in his 80s at that point.”

Emmett Jr. died in 2006. He tended to be somewhat of a recluse in his later years, Opperman said. In a sense, he was the only famous character in Tombstone who did not wear a costume.

Kelly could be affable as well. Once, two children who really wanted to see Emmett Kelly Jr. went to his house. Kelly wasn’t there, and the kids started poking around by the front door when he pulled up.

(Illustration by Mikayla Mace / Arizona Sonora News)

“He seemed like a grouchy old man,” Les said. “These two kids really wanted to see him, and he ended up letting them in and showing them around. He could be a really nice guy.”

Of course, everyone knew where Kelly lived.  Ask people in Tombstone who lived there while Kelly did, and they will point to a house on a hill beyond Allen Street.

Pointing to the house, Dougherty said,  “It used to be an old mining office. His daughter used to own it, but someone else owns it now.”

While Kelly lived in Tombstone he was an avid model-train collector, and there is still a model train store in Tombstone.

“Bachmann made an Emmett Kelly train,” said the owner of Western Edge of Tombstone, the train shop on Allen Street. “It was really colorful because he was a clown.”

Emmett Kelly Jr. was also a symbol of another time. He burst onto the scene at a time when televisions were just becoming ubiquitous in the American household, and for some people the fifties represented a simpler time in America.

“All those people were really loved,” said Richard Smith, a former entertainer who now lives in Tombstone. “When I was a kid the whole family would gather around the television. It was simple, and they won our hearts.”

However, clowns in popular culture today are not what they once were. Circuses are still around, but when some people think of clowns, they generally don’t think of the sad clown with a tragic comedy act. Rather, some people tend to think about creepy clowns and many people even have a fear of clowns,  partly because of the way movies and books, like Stephen King’s It, portray them as menacing and evil.

This fear of clowns is called coulrophobia. As Linda McRobbie pointed out in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, “Not a lot of people actually suffer from a debilitating phobia of clowns; a lot more people, however, just don’t like them.” A lot of people find them creepy and this was best illustrated in the news this year.

The creepy clown craze has not just occurred in the U.S. In England, numerous incidents were reported of people being arrested after dressing up as clowns to frighten others. Creepy-clown scares were also reported in Australia and elsewhere.Local TV stations all over the U.S. have had reports about suspicious characters in creepy clown costumes; some clowns have even been arrested for either disorderly conduct, or, as is the case in some states, for wearing a mask in public.

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Download high resolution images here.

Kyle is studying history and journalism and would like to be a journalist after college. He likes to read, write and hang out with friends in his free time.

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