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Sedan
Honors
a
Favorite
Son

 

 Few  towns  would  be  proud  of  having  a
native son who is a tramp. Sedan, a pretty
little spot in the hills of southeastern Kansas,
is so proud of a tramp named Willie that it
advertises him on a billboard at the outskirts
of town.
  Willie, of course, is a very special  fellow.
He is the wistful, lovable alter ego of Emmett
Kelly,  Sr.,  the  noted  circus  clown.
  "Sedan Birthplace of Emmett Kelly World
Famous Clown,"  boast the big sign that
greets visitors to the town.  To  be  sure  no
driver misses the measage, the sign carries a
large picture of Emmett Kelly in his make-up
as  the  sad  and  tattered  Willie  who  has
brought  laughter  to  millions  of  people,
around  the  world.
  In June of this year, Sedan went further in
honoring  its  famous  son.  It  opened  the
Emmett Kelly Museum, near US-166 and
Main Street in the center of town. Thge
museum contain much circus memorabilia,
and naturally features the unshaven, unhap-
py face of Willie.
  Willie himself was not born in Sedan, but
in Kansas City, a half centry ago, on the
drawing board of a young cartoonist,
Emmett Kelly. Even then Kelly was drifting
into his lifelong love affair with the Big Top.
Emmett himself was born December 9, 1898,
in a house in Sedan owned by the Missouri-
Pacific Railroad, for which his father worked
as a section foreman.
  He was named for the great Irish patriot,
Robert Emmett. Later, in school, his class-
matescalled him "The Irish Potater," and
later simply "Tater."
  "It made me sore," he confesses,
although he is proud of his half-Irish
ancestry. His father cme from County Cork,
Ireland, when he was 21 to seek his fortune
in America. Eventually, the blue-eyed Irish
working man came west and joined the
railroaders who, because of lingering
"trouble with the Indians, " usually carried
rifles when they worked on the tracks.
  He still was far from rich, when in his
40's, the elder Kelly met a pretty Bohemian
girl, daughter of boardinghouse owners in a

  town in southwestern Kansas. She was only
18, and her parents opposed the romance, so
they eloped and came to Sedan. There
Emmett and his sister, Sylvia were born,
and there the Kellys stayed untill Emmett
was about seven. He has vivid memories of
his brief years there, which he tells in his
autobiography, "Clown.:
  "One of my early recollections, no doubt
forecsting my wanderlust,: he wrote, :is of
being hauled out from under a string of
greight cars after I had climbed our fence and
run the short distance to the railroad siding. I
did this several times, and some-
how I escaped being run over when the cars
were switcjed because a railroad man al-
ways found me and put me back in our yard."
  Though the section boss made only one
dollar a day, is wasn't long before he and his
young wife saved enough to move out of the
railroad house, into a two-story frame house
of their own.
  "our house had lilac trees in the yard and
there was a cowshed where my mother kept a
Jersey. So we had plenty of milk and butter
and chickens of our own and a little garden.
Mother worked hard from morning until
night and sold most of the milk, butter and


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

eggs."
  Both the parents were hard workers, and
Kelly today cannot feel comfortble when he
is idle. It was hard and stubborn work that
brought him to the top of his profession. At
the same time, his parents encouraged his
creative talents. When he was a teen-ager,
his mother painstakingly paid, one dollar at a
time, for a $25 correspondence course in
cartooning which started him on the path to
fame.
  It may be hind sight, but most of his
memories of Sedan seem connected with his
later career in the circus:
  " I remember well the band concerts every
Saturday night in the public square in Sedan,
but the last time I was there the bandstand
was gone and nothing but a flagpole stood in
its place. Sylvia and I ran away a few times to
the concerts when our folks were too busy tor
too tired to take us, and while we generally
were punished, I seem to remember it was
worth it. I always loved misic of the
band, amd even now when the great circus
bandmaster, Merle Evens, leads his boys
into a break-neck gallop I get bubbles in
my blood."
  Another memory: "I was five when I got
the first spanking I remember. I had climbrf
a telephone pole and sat on the cross beams,
which was no doubt my first rehearsal for the
circus trapeze work I did much later. It was a 
lot higher than the tent where I did my first
aerial work and of course it terrified my
mother and the neighbors-and me, too.
when they started to kick up a fuss. I did
manage to climb about halfway down before
they rescued me."
  It was a long and twisting path that led
Kelly to create and bring to life the sad little
tramp. It wasn't in his dreams as a boy in
Sedan, or later as a Missouri farm boy. "My
ambition as a kid and as a young man and,
even now, has been to be an artist."
  From the farm, he went to Kansas City, to
make a career in cartooning. Jobs were
scarce, and he turned to painting of ant kind.
One day he got a  job painting the
merry-go-round for a small carnival. The

Reproduced from KANSAS,
Third Issue 1967 with
Permission of
Kansas Economic Developement
Commission.

Emmett Kelly Museum
Sedan, Kansas 67361
EKM ©2003

owner pressed Emmett to come along and
 operate one of the side shows. From
carnivals it was a step-but not an easy
one-to circuses. Between jobs with carni-
vals, one winter in Kansas City, he found a
temporary job with an advertising firk
company.
  "And there in that little plant was where
my tramp clown character was born. He
came gradually, as a forlorn and melancholy
little hobo who always got the short end of
the stick and never lost hope and just kept on
trying."
  Willie seems like a rel personality to
Kelly.
  "It may seem that all there was to 'Willie'
was a threadbare suit and a putty nose and
some grease paint and a busted derby and a
pair of big flapping shoes. i know that
'Willie' had a heart, too."
  That heart caused Kelly a lot of agony
when he had his first glittering chance to star
in a movie (he finally made three). The film
people wanted him, in his Willie personality,
to play a clown who murdered.
  " 'Willie' seemed to say: 'Emmett,
don't do this to me! I am a tramp, but I'm not
a bad guy and I don't want to harm anybody.
Good tramps don't harm anybody. And I love
children. Don't do it!' "
  Emmett didn't. The movie people relent-
ed and let him don entirely different clown
make-up for the role. And Willie has gone
unhindered on his innocent way, a good
tramp who loves people, and lives only to
make them laugh and forget their troubles.
  It's no wonder Sedan is so proud of it's
connection with Emmett Kelly, Sr., and
Willie the tramp.
  Kelly and his third wife, Evie Gebhardt,
who performed with her sisters for Ringling
Circus, had two daughters, Monika, a
Hollywood starlet and Stasia, who was with
the Ice Capades untill her father's death.
  He died March 28, 1979 in Sarasota, Fla.
His funeral was held on March 31, 1979 in
Sarasota, Fla. He was buried in the Kelly
family plot at Lafayette, Ind.


 
 

EMMETT KELLY MUSEUM
 204 E MAIN ST - SEDAN, Kansas  6736-11629
United States
Phone 620-725-3470


EMMETT KELLY MUSEUM
© 2003 - 2004
All rights reserved