From the Archives: Monika Kelly Recalls her Late Father, the Beloved Clown and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Legend, Emmett Kelly Sr.
Here’s a sentimental piece about a daughter’s love for her world famous father, the late Ringling Brothers clown Emmett Kelly Sr. Monika Kelly ended up in my hometown of Omaha, where her husband Rick Andrew is from, and I sat down with her one day to get her golden-hued recollections of her father. I barely recall her father’s late in life appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s-1970s, but his heyday was long before that. He truly was an icon in an era before that term was overused. Monika was a fierce protector of her father’s legacy and she was involved in some testy dealings to ensure his memory was properly honored. I lost track of her after doing this story but I believe she went on to found the Emmett Kelly Museum in her father’s birthplace of Sedan, Kansas.
Emmett Kelly Sr. as his signature character, Weary Willie
From the Archives: Monika Kelly Recalls her Late Father, the Beloved Clown and Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus Legend, Emmett Kelly Sr.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in the Omaha Metro Update
Unlike some celebrity children who as adults unburden a torrent of pent-up hostilities toward a famous parent, Monika Kelly has only loving, adoring memories of her late father – the great American circus clown, Emmett Kelly Sr.
If you recall the Ed Sullivan Show than you surely saw Kelly made up as his signature alter-ego – Weary Willie. Invariably the sad-faced hobo appearde with broom in hand on a darkened stage, where he was followed by a spotlight he swept down to size but never quite made disappear.
Like her old man before her, Monika Kelly is a greasepaint trouper. Although not a clown by trade, she is a professional actress with off-Broadway, regional and dinner theater stage credits. She also does many radio and television commericials and industrial film work. She and her husband, Rick Andrew, a native Omahan, have lived in the metro four-and-a-half years.
“It’s in my blood,” is how she explains her show biz calling.
Many people who learn she is related to the legendary clown assume she is a granddaughter. At 32, it doesn’t seem possible she can be the daughter of a man whose entertainment career begain in the 1920s and lasted until his death in 1979 at age 80.
It turns out she is one of two children by Kelly’s third and last marriage, whose knot was tied when he was nearly 60. He married Evi Gebhardt, a German acrobat and fellow Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus performer several years his junior. They remained inseparable until his death and Evi still lives at their Sarasota, Fla. home.
As a young man Kelly and his first wife Eva Moore, whom he later divorced, had two sons, including the still active clown, Emmet Kelly Jr. A second marriage ended in divorce after only a few weeks.
“What he used to say over and over was that his life really began when he met Evi. They had 23 years together, and I had him for 21,” said Kelly, who was very close to her father. Recently, she reminisced about him and what it was like growing up a star’s child. She said after years of rootlessness her father found domestic bliss with Evi. “He bought his first home with her. She was everything to him. His companion. His bookkeeper. She was up there with the spotlight operator during shows because unless Dad could see her little blond head he’d get nervous and wouldn’t go on. In the routine the spot had to be down to the inch and she know it from head to toe, backwards and forwards.”
Evi quit performing – she was part of the Four Whirlwinds tumbling act – when she was pregnant with Monika’s older sister, Stasia, who lives in Atlanta. The Kelly girls often visit their mother in Florida.
“He loved it,” Kelly said of her father’s mascot work. “He was always a great sports fan. He made a lot of friends with the players.”
“A lot of circus people live there,” she said. “It used to be in Sarasota you’d drive down the street and see rigging up in people’s backyards. And it still is to a point, but the circus crowd is more out in the country now. In Sarasota all our friends were circus people and they’d sit around and swap stories. There’d be a knock at the door and it’d be Karl Wallenda or somebody coming by,” she said, referring to the late patriarch of the world famous trapeze clan. “We’re still very close with Helen and Ricky Wallenda.
“We’re very close with Lou Jacobs, who in my opinion is the most wonderful living clown. You know the face – it’s the logo for Ringling Brothers. He’s 86 or 87 now. He’s the last of that breed.”
Clyde Beatty, Emmett Kelly, Stasia Kelly, Bill Pringle, Evie Kelly and Monika Kelly
Although Emmett Kelly retired from Ringling Brothers by the time his daughters were born, he still performed special dates with The Greatest Show on Earth, the Shrine Circus and other big top companies.
“I still have a lot of memories of being on the circus lot,” Monika said. Like the times she and Stasia hid under the bed of Clyde Beatty, the renowned lion and tiger tamer. “We’d watch his big black boots come in,” she recalled fondly.
And she speaks nostalgically of the circus’ familial camaraderie. “Everyone talked about everybody else. It is its own little world. It used to be more so when they were under canvas and traveled together. They piled onto the train and went from town to town. Now, everyone has his own mobile home or RV and they just meet at their destination.”
Monika and Stasia did some circus work when they were young. “They’d stick us on an elephant to give us something to do,” she said. “I do have a natural talent in that I’m very, very limber. I never pursued a circus career because I was very good as an actress and just okay at whatever little craft I learned in the circus. I left it to the pros.”
By the early ’60s Emmett Kelly was an American icon. His fame had been enhanced by roles on Broadway and in the 1952 Cecil B. DeMille feature, The Greatest Show on Earth. His biggest success, however, came not under the big top but at Nevada casinos, where he became a major attraction at Harrahs, the Nugget and other night spots.
“He was making a transition at the time to nightclubs and TV shows – Ed Sullivan and all that sort of thing,” Monika said.
Besides his beloved pantomime bits with the broom and spotlight, a cabbage head and other props, the classic clown quick-sketched cartoons, a device he had used since his earliest stage appearances back in the Midwest (Kelly was born and reared in Kansas.
“Most people think I’m a circus brat, but I’m really not. I’m more of nightclub brat. From the time I was 6 till I was 18 we were playing clubs in the summers in Lake Tahoe and Reno,” Kelly said. “It was a new beginning for Daddy. That’s when he starting making big bucks and his whole life changed financially. It was a time when club dates were really hopping. Daddy worked with Red Skelton, Sammie Davis Jr. – I have great memories of that man – Dean Martin, the Smothers Brothers. I remember Jack Benny very well.”
She and Stasia didn’t make a big fuss about hobnobbing with celebrities because the stars were simply part of their extended family.
“Lawrence Welk was so kind to us as little girls. He was a real nice man. And we got to know Liberace fairly well. Our parents made Stasia play her accordian for him. She was so mad,” said Kelly, laughing at the memory. “When you’re brought up around that you don’t think of it as being odd or unusual. You don’t think of them as stars really. They were just fellow performers.
“Show business is real friendly and everyone is pretty respectful of one another. And Dad was very different and unusual in that he was a clown, so he didn’t cause anyone competition. He was very well liked in the business by what he called “the big shots.”
As for those performers the Kellys didn’t care for – the ones with an attitude problem – they shut the dressing room door to avoid them.
Kelly saw her father perform many times, usually with her sister and mother beside her. She especially cherishes those times.
“I alwys got very excited and so did my sister. It was the way they would announce him, with respect, whether it was a circus he was featuring in or at Harrahs Club with the big shots. As a little girl growing up it was a wonderful thing. And I don’t think it has anything to do with show business per se. Think if you went someplace where everybody was real respectful to your pop or they’d give him an award.. It’d send chills up any kid’s back. It was a proud thing and a neat feeling I always liked.
“And I liked that he’d always come by our table. Before the show he’d wend his way through the audience, never speaking, because he never spoke in costume. He’d come over to our table and just look at us, and we’d crack up. My sister and I would go, ‘Daddy’s here,’ and Mom would whisper, ‘Emmett.’ But nobody knew we were his family. Everybody would be staring at us, and Dad just kept looking.”
Rendering of Emmett Kelly by Robert Merz
Kelly said that conspiratorial ritual with her father lasted until she was 18, about the time her father cut back his live performances. On each summer trek to Nevada the entire family remained together as long as the gigs lasted, disrupting the girls’ school attendance. “We’d start school in Lake Tahoe and get transferred when Daddy would go down to Reno and, oh, we hated that because we’d have to start school again. Then we’d come back to Sarasota and have to start again. We’d be so far behind and there was the new-girl syndrome. It was kind of hard,” she explained. “Our parents took pity on us when in the third or fourth grade they started sending us home ahead of them, where a women named Miss Nick, who was like a second mother to us, took care of us.”
Monika said her father’s fame also brought her and Stasia a status they would have gladly done without. “Well, you know how it is when you’re a kid, when you get special reatment you want to die. What we used to hate is that we never had to wait in lines. We’d be whisked into places. We’d do anything if we could just stand like everyone else and wait for two hours to see a show. And now that we’re grown up we say, ‘Get this line out of my way,’” she exclaimed, laughing at the new perspective a few years brings.
The slight embarassment of attendant fame is about the closest thing to a childhood trauma Kelly experienced. But what kind of father was Emmet Kelly? After all, he was elderly when his daughters came of age and he had grown estranged from his sons by his first marriage.
“He was a real normal, fun dad,” she said. “He was there. I had a blessed situation in that both parents were home. And when they did go to work, we went with them. Even though he was older he’d put us up on his shoulders when we were babies and walk around the neighborhood. And we used to make him crawl around on his hands and knees and ride him like a horse, and the man was in his 70s.”
She said he never put on his clown face at home. “That was strictly business.” But he did bring a touch of the circus to family celebrations. “He got a huge parachute somewhere and for birthday parties he’d stake it like a circus tent in the backyard. We had a trampoline, too. He did everything a good dad would do. Now that I’m older I see friends who have all kinds of problems to work out with their parents. And I have to say I don’t have a darn thing wrong with my childhood because they were always there for us.”
She also dispels any notion that her father’s sad-sack stage persona reflected a tortured soul underneath. “He wasn’t hiding a dark thing under there. He was normal. He had loads of friends and liked a good cold beer.”
But there is one unsavory chapter in Kelly-lore that has had Monika’s family at odds with her half-brother, Emmett Kelly Jr., for a generation. The feud stems from Jr. performing the character of Willie without the approval of his father, who reportedly abhored his son’s characterization. The feud continues today, with the family alleging Emmett Kelly Sr.’s memory is tarnished by what they consider the son’s trivialized version of Willie.
The ill feelings came to a public head in 1975 when Sr. vented his disgust in the press and threatened legal action. It seems clowns have a copyright on their make-up. In the end, however, he dropped the idea of the suit. But the bitterness remained.
Monika Kelly, who’s never met her half-brother, calls his performance “a caricature” of her father’s. She is a fervent legacy-keeper wanting to preserve her father’s memory even if the family rift makes for a public sideshow. While she concedes Kelly Jr. has the legal right to perform his act, she is offended that he does so without their father’s blessing.
“It’s so sad to see something so original just trashed. What bothers me is that people don’t know the difference. They see Kelly Jr. and think, Oh, there’s Emmett Kelly.”
She complains that her family has found it difficult to find distributors of merchandise bearing the likeness of Kelly Sr. because Jr. has “flooded” the market with his own figurines and store owners are just as “confused” as the public.
Emmett Kelly Museum in his hometown of Sedan, Kansas
A less noisy squabble is brewing in Sarasota, where the Ringling Brothers Museum has removed an exhibit of Emmett Kelly Sr.’s original costume over the objections of his family. Monika Kelly said her mother is trying to obtain the costume donated to the museum, adding, that “it’s quite a process to get it back.” As for herself, Monika said, “I’d just like to see people enjoy it.”
A memorial to Kelly does stand at the Circus Hall of Fame in Sarasota.
The costume is the one and only one Emmett Sr. wore. “It never really had been laundered,” said Monika. “My mother did the best she could mending it. It had a smell all unto its own. It smelled like the circus.”
Monika and her family are adament about such things because they know the costume and make-up were as much a part of Emmett Kelly as his skin.
“He referred to Willie as the fifth member of our family,” she said. “He had a black suitcase where he stored the outfit. At the airport he always checked that suitcase and worried it might get lost. Then he’d see it and go, ‘Oh, here he comes’ – he always called it ‘him.’ Once, Mom and Dad were in some city for a show and the airline lost their luggage. They got in their hotel and it still hadn’t arrived. They heard a commotion outside and looked out the window to see a procession of police cars, with lights flashing and sirens blaring, pull up-front below. Dad thought something was wrong. It turned out to be a police escort for his costume, and he couldn’t believe it. From then on they broke Willie in half: Mom carried one half and Dad the other under their seats.”
Did her father encourage her entry into show business? “Absolutely. He was supportive of whatever we wanted to do with our lives.” Kelly studied acting at New York’s prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse under Sanford Meisner. She calls it “a tough school, not for the faint of heart.” Her work there won her a coveted scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London. ”It was such an honor to get. I remember Dad being so proud when I called on the phone to tell him the news.”
She lived in Los Angeles eight years waiting for a big break that never materialized. “I can’t tell you how many close calls I had. Being Emmett Kelly’s daughter opened a few doors for me when I first moved there but I said, ‘Don’t help me because I’m so-and-so’s daughter, help me because I’m good, I’m trained.’”
Fed up with the lack of work in L.A. she moved with her husband to Omaha, where she’s been busier, including a role at the Firehouse Theatre. Although she said Omaha’s been good to her she’d like to work more. To help make ends meet she works a day job at Absolutely Fresh Seafood Co. “I have a good boss. He lets me go any time I have an audition.”
She’s toyed with the idea of presenting a slide-lecture program on her father and she hinted there may be a follow up book to his 1954 autobiography, Clown. “There are some projects in the works, but I don’t want to jinx anything by being more specific.”
With her chutzpah, it’s a safe bet the Kelly legend will remain intact.
- A Review of “Sad-Face Clown: Emmett Kelly” (iloveclowns.wordpress.com)