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BetteBack: Emmett Kelly Clowns For Bette Midler

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Wearie Willie clowns for Bette Midler
Special to The Herald-Post
Saturday, December 3,1977

BURBANK, Calif. — Mention the name Emmett Kelly and chances are three images come to mind immediately — clown, broom, spotlight.

Kelly, of course, is the famous circus clown, who created the character of Wearie Willie, known all over the world for his specialty of sweeping up a spotlight.

He’ll be doing just that, again, in a poignant scene with Bette Midler when he makes a guest appearance on “The Bette Midler Special,” to be colorcast on the NBC Television Network Wednesday, 9-10 p.m.

“It came about by accident,” said Kelly of his signature sketch. “The lightmen in the circus used to like to tease the clown, while they were setting up their lights. I played around with them and the thing grew out of that — I pretended that the light bugged me. I tried to get away from it but they wouldn’t let me. Finally I swept the light under a rug.”

Kelly has been doing the act for 35 years now, ever since 1942.

“Prior to that I did a trapeze act,” he said. “I quit the trapeze and thought up this idea.”

The idea for the character of Wearie Willie actually came earlier. “I started out as a cartoonist and conceived this
character for an animator,” he said.

This was in 1920. He joined the circus as a clown in 1921. A sportswriter, Hype Igho, saw him in 1937 and called him “Wearie Willie.”

“Mr. Igho,” I asked, “is that a copyrighted name? If not, I’ll use it.”

Kelly has been “Wearie Willie” ever since.

Wearie Willie never talks.

“I tried talking, but it fell flat every time,” said Kelly. “Willie is supposed to be wistful and people should feel sorry for him.”

He recalled the first time his mother came to the circus and saw him.

“1 went up to her and didn’t say a word. She started to talk and I just took my broom and swept.” Afterwards he asked her what she thought of him.

Said his mother: “You looked like you didn’t have an ounce of brains.”

“That’s good!” Kelly replied.

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2 thoughts on “BetteBack: Emmett Kelly Clowns For Bette Midler

  1. I’m Emmett’s son-in-law and just yesterday a friend and I were talking about Bette and this show in regards to a one-man play I’ve written about Emmett. I’ve included a moment in the play when he talks about being on this show and how “Willie”, his alter-ego, fell hard for Bette when she sang “Hello in There” to him. The fact you wrote about this yestereday while my friend and I were trying to figure out a way to get in touch with Bette so I could send her a copy of the play is what I call a “Godwink.” Thank you for remembering Emmett/Willie and your tribute to Bette on this site.

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