Family circus rolls into Columbia

Friday, September 28, 2007 | 6:36 p.m. CDT; updated 3:54 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — A natural crowd pleaser, Joey Kelly inherited the ability to make children of all ages see and feel the circus come to life. Kelly, 57, grew up in Peru, Indiana, which is called the circus capital of the world.

Kelly and his family made their debut at the 20th Anniversary Emmett Kelly Festival in May 2007 and began traveling in their motor home to perform and keep the memory of the circus alive.

If you go


WHAT: Children’s book reading by family members of the Joey Kelly Circus WHEN: 2 to 2:45 p.m. Sunday WHERE: Columbia Public Library ADMISSION: Free


WHAT: The Joey Kelly Circus will perform and the Academy Award winning movie “The Greatest Show on Earth” will be shown. WHEN: Doors open at 6 p.m. Sunday. The Joey Kelly Circus performs at 6:30. Movie begins at 7 p.m. WHERE: The Blue Note ADMISSION: Free tickets are available at all Daniel Boone Regional Library Facilities and the Blue Note.

“The circus is for all ages, all decades and all generations,” Kelly said after performing earlier this month in Ashland in conjunction with the One Read Program, sponsored by the Daniel Boone Regional Library. This year’s book, “Water for Elephants,” revolves around circus life during the 1930s, a story similar to the history and heritage of circus clown Kelly, a retired accountant who lives in St. Louis.

“The book is about the circus, so it was only natural to ask ‘the first family of clowns’ to share their love of the circus,” said Kris Farris, public relations coordinator for Daniel Boone Regional Library.

All avid readers, the family was willing to participate in One Read events throughout the month of September. “The library is the gateway to imagination,” Kelly said.

Grandson of “America’s favorite clown,” Emmett Kelly, Kelly fits right into the family with his painted face and red nose.

“My grandfather set the standard,” Kelly said. “He was an original, and I consider myself an original as well.”

Emmett Kelly, a native of Houston, Mo. was born in 1898 and developed his character, “Weary Willie,” during the onset of the Great Depression while working with an ad agency. He was a sad-faced, lovable clown who received favorable reviews. He also taught himself the art of the trapeze, though he never performed while in clown attire.

Emmett Kelly worked for numerous circuses, including Cole Brothers Circus, Bertam Mills at the London Olympia Circus and 14 seasons with Ringling Brothers’ Barnum and Bailey Circus.

“His clown gags contained no speech and seldom worked to his favor, thereby endearing him to the public,” Kelly said.

Emmett Kelly jumped into other parts of the entertainment industry by appearing in theater, commercials and the Academy Award winning movie, “The Greatest Show on Earth.” After his death in 1979, he was inducted into the Clown Hall of Fame in 1989.

“His memory lives on in the hearts and minds of children of all ages, and I am proud to be the grandson of Emmett Kelly,” Kelly said.

The Joey Kelly Circus will be in Columbia on Sunday for two One Read Events. They will clown around and read one of their favorite children’s books beginning at 2 p.m. at the Columbia Public Library. Sunday evening the family will perform at the Blue Note at 6:30 before the movie “The Greatest Show on Earth” is shown.

Following in the footsteps of his father, Emmett Kelly Jr., and his grandfather, Joey Kelly was born into the life of the circus. He was first dressed up as a clown when he was 11, and has been attached ever since. He has been involved with several circuses, including the Dawn Brothers circus and the Peru Circus.

Being a clown ties the three generations together, but Joey Kelly is the only one who has performed on the trapeze while in character. Performing in high school, the trapeze was his speciality, but for the most part, he has been a clown.

“When my father and grandfather were in the circus business, they would just stand around and clown,” Kelly said. “But now there are a lot more elements brought out.”

The Joey Kelly Circus is made up of the entire family; each member has his or her own role.

Joey Kelly’s wife, Lindy Kelly, has been involved in circus life since they were married in January 2005. She is also a retired accountant and now performs with Joey as ring mistress, although she never expected to find herself in the center ring with a whistle and a red nose.

Their children, Bethany, 16, and Nathan, 13, are part of the circus as well. Bethany is an accomplished gymnast and has been perfecting her aerial silks routine while Nathan shows off his juggling and magic skills during performances.

The family circus doesn’t end with their children. Penny, a Pomeranian with hair trimmed to resemble a baby lion, is the Kelly’s dog. She wins over the crowd by jumping through hoops and walking on her front and hind legs.

Joey Kelly shares the love of the circus with his family and friends and enjoys hearing stories about his father and grandfather and their impact on others. “Laughter truly is the best medicine,” he said.

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