Emmett Kelly, the local farm boy who became the world’s most famous clown and had two city parks named for him locally during his lifetime, will be celebrated in the Emmett Kelly Clown Festival over three days this week in Houston. It’s a revival of an event that last was held in 2008 after a 21-year run.
Kelly, who was raised on a farm east of Houston, performed for the first time with a chalk talk during the 1920 edition of the Old Settlers Reunion in Houston. He earlier had departed for Kansas City to master his skills as a cartoonist.
It was the 15th annual Old Settlers Reunion, sponsored by the Houston Commercial Club and a forerunner of the Houston Area Chamber of Commerce, that brought Kelly before an audience in August. The hometown paper wrote, “Mr. Emmett Kelly, cartoonist and comedy specialist, is a Texas County boy who has studied for a successful career as an entertainer, and is returning home with things that will tickle you ‘most to death.’ Texas County boys always succeed in what they undertake, and Kelly will be no exception.” He was one of three free acts that performed during a rainy three-day event.
A career shift resulted in Kelly perfecting the art of circus clown. His character, Weary Willie, a hobo who was down on his luck, became internationally known as he became a star of film, TV and appeared before circus crowds.
By the time a Houston park was dedicated in his honor in 1956, he was famous. The Kelly family, including daughter Stasia, visited that year for the ceremony. She’ll attend this year’s event, spearheaded by the City of Houston and volunteers. She’ll speak at a dinner this evening (6 p.m. April 28) at the Houston Storm Shelter at First and Pine streets. The following evening she’ll attend the 7 p.m. showing at the Melba of the Academy Award-winning movie, “The Greatest Show on the Earth,” that included her father, who died in 1979, four years after the dedication of the second local park, which turned five acres of dilapidated housing into new green space. Chris Berry, a clown historian, will accompany her.
Many activities are planned through Saturday to honor the sad-faced clown who last performed locally during that 1956 visit that included performances at the Old Settlers Reunion and downtown Houston.
On Saturday, a 5K walk and run starts at 8 a.m. at the Lone Star Plaza in downtown Houston. Musical entertainment begins at 9 a.m. A car show and vendors are expected to fill streets. A walking parade also is planned.
Pages highlighting Kelly and the festival schedule are included in today’s edition.