From 1988 through 2008, the Emmett Kelly Clown Festival took place on the first Friday and Saturday of May in downtown Houston.
Named after the town’s most famous citizen ever, the event featured live music and other entertainment, along with vendors, food and lots of colorful clowns.
Kelly was born in Kansas in 1898. His father was Irish and his mother was a native of Bohemia.
The senior Kelly came to the U.S. when he was a young man and was a railroad worker in Kansas when he purchased an 80-acre farm four miles east of Houston. The Kelly family moved here when Emmett was 6 years old, and later added another 80 acres.
Kelly attended the Ozark School near the farm and became interested in cartooning. His mother encouraged him, and he took a correspondence course.
When he was 19, Kelly left Houston for Kansas City to seek work. Before leaving home, he had gained a reputation as an entertainer with his “chalk talk” act at local church socials and pie suppers.
The Old Settlers Reunion’s free acts committee remembered Kelly and offered him pay to return home the next summer to perform. It was his first professional appearance.
Kelly later became widely renowned as “Weary Willie,” one of the world’s most famous clowns. He went on to work for years with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and made appearances all over the U.S. and overseas.
In October 1975, the City of Houston named its new park after Kelly, and he returned for a dedication event, speaking to a big crowd, doing media interviews and generally enjoying being the celebrity he had become. Mayor David Impey read a proclamation from Gov. Christopher “Kit” Bond declaring the day “Emmett Kelly Day” across the state. Impey also gave Kelly a “key to the city.”
“You’ve already got the key to our hearts,” Impey said.
Kelly spent a few days in Houston at the time, and visited with various groups of people and students of all ages. He even received a standing ovation at an assembly in the new high school gym.
Before he left, Kelly called the experience “indescribable.”
“Please tell everyone that words cannot express my feelings and appreciation for everything that happened during the past few days,” he said. “Just to say thank you would not be enough.”
In March of 1979, Kelly died at his home in Sarasota, Fla., where he had lived many years.