Weary Willie” was a tragic figure: a clown, who could usually be seen sweeping up the circus rings after the other performers. He tried but failed to sweep up the pool of light of a spotlight. His routine was revolutionary at the time: traditionally, clowns wore white face and performed slapstick stunts intended to make people laugh. Kelly did perform stunts too—one of his most famous acts was trying to crack a peanut with a sledgehammer—but as a tramp, he also appealed to the sympathy of his audience.
From 1942–1956 Kelly performed with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, where he was a major attraction, though he took the 1956 season off to perform as the mascot for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. He also landed a number of Broadway and film roles, including appearing as himself in his “Willie” persona in Cecil B. DeMille‘s The Greatest Show on Earth (1952). He also appeared in the Bertram Mills Circus.
Kelly was a Mystery Guest on the March 11, 1956, broadcast of What’s My Line? and answered the panelists’ questions with grunts rather than speaking yes or no. When the round was over, panelist Arlene Francis mentioned that Kelly was not allowed to speak while in makeup. He also starred in the low-budget 1967 film, The Clown and the Kids, which was shot and produced in Bulgaria.
Kelly is depicted in a famous photograph, still in full clown make-up and costume, trying to extinguish the flames of the devastating Hartford Circus Fire that struck the Circus on July 6, 1944, and killed 167 people during the afternoon performance in Hartford, Connecticut. According to eyewitnesses, it was one of few times in which he was seen crying.[2
On the afternoon of July 6, 1944–just one month after D-Day–more than 8000 Hartford residents, most of them women and children, scrambled to their seats beneath the Ringling Brothers big top for an afternoon at the circus. As the audience waited for “the greatest show on earth” to begin, no one had any reason to suspect that the most destructive force in nature was bearing down on them, granting them only minutes to live.
Shortly after the matinee began, a ball of flame broke out high on the sidewall canvas. As shock turned to horror, thousands of panic-stricken people began a desperate stampede to escape the flames that flowed like a breeze across the tent top, a square mile of canvas that had been waterproofed with a pasty mixture of 1800 pounds of paraffin wax and 6000 gallons of gasoline. Hundreds swarmed the exits in a frenzy, but their path to safety was blocked by iron cage chutes filled with snarling lions and clawing panthers.
Engulfed by thunderous flame, the big top collapsed with a deafening roar, dooming those still alive inside. in less than ten minutes, America’s most horrific tragedy had claimed 168 lives and destroyed the Ringling circus, leaving a trail of deadly secrets in the smoldering rubble.