Weary Willie Day is celebrated on December 9 every year in the U.S. as a recognition of the art of clowning, but with a twist. Weary Willie, as the name suggests, is a clown who wears his smile upside down and the day is a tribute to the character popularised by circus performer Emmett Kelly during the Great Depression of the 1930s.
History of Weary Willie Day
Kelly, who created the Weary Willie character, was born in 1898 and started his career as a trapeze artist and cartoonist. When he started ‘clowning about’, he performed as the traditional white-faced, happy-go-lucky clown. He came upon the idea to create a contrasting, sad clown as early as the 1920s but it was difficult to sell management on his idea.
The Great Depression that began in the U.S. in 1929 saw an increase in the number of migrant workers forced to travel to earn a living. These workers, termed ‘hobos’, became the inspiration for Kelly to revisit his unpopular idea. Given the changed circumstances that had made his idea more acceptable and relevant, management finally gave the go-ahead and Weary Willie was born.
The character really captured the zeitgeist and became the most recognizable clown figure in the U.S. at the time. Weary Willie was not completely made up in white paint like other clowns and did not wear brightly-colored clothing. He looked more like an out-of-work tramp with an upside-down smile plastered on his painted mouth, and this made people feel better about themselves and uplifted their mood.
While the first occurrence of this holiday is not clear, the day coincides with the birthday of Kelly, who was inducted into the International Clown Hall of Fame in 1989 and the International Circus Hall of Fame in 1994. The model of the sad clown continues to remind us to take life’s troubles with a pinch of salt.
Weary Willie Day timeline
Emmett Kelly is born to an Irish railroad worker on December 9 in Sedan, Kansas.
The first alternative to the happy-faced clown bursts onto the scene this year.
Kelly rides the wave of his popularity to work in the Ringling Brothers & Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Kelly becomes the inaugural inductee into the International Clown Hall of Fame in Wisconsin.
Weary Willie Day FAQs
When was Weary Willie Day first celebrated?
There is no official record for this but it is celebrated on the birthday of its creator Kelly.
Can you only play a sad clown?
There are no hard and fast rules, and you can use the occasion to play whatever kind of clown floats your boat.
Is Weary Willie Day celebrated in other countries?
While both the character and performer are American in this case, many countries observe Clown Day in general.
How To Celebrate Weary Willie Day
Take a tragicomic selfie
Today, put a twist on your best pout as a tribute to Weary Willie and pose like it hurts. For the best results, try amusing snapchat filters but take the sad, sulking face seriously.
Dress up as a clown
If you want to kick up the celebrations a notch, get creative with a Weary Willie costume. Grease your shirt and find a convincing pair of torn jeans. Ruffle your hair and smudge your face paint.
Visit the International Halls of Fame
If you’re really in the mood for serious fun, travel to Wisconsin to visit the International Clown Hall of Fame or to Indiana, which houses the International Circus Hall of Fame, or even to the Emmett Kelly Museum in his birthplace of Sedan, Kansas.
5 Interesting Facts About Emmett Kelly
Kelly witnessed a circus fire
He was present at the infamous Hartford Circus fire of July 6, 1944, where 167 people died.
Kelly appeared in an award-winning film
“The Greatest Show on Earth” won the 1952 Academy Award for Best Picture and was set in the Ringling Brothers’ Circus that Kelly worked for.
Kelly’s son played the character
Emmett Kelly Jr. kept the character of Weary Willie alive until his death in 2003.
There is a park in his name
Kelly grew up in Houston, Missouri, which named a park in his honor.
There’s also a festival in his name
Until 2008, the same town hosted a clown festival named in his honor, and which attracted performers from across the region.
Why We Love Weary Willie Day
It breaks stereotypes
Although the figure of the sad clown is well known, it still subverts expectations of and from a clown. It offers us an alternative to rose-tinted glasses and goofy antics.
It is a reminder to enjoy life
Just like Depression-era audiences liked to watch Weary Willie because it made them re-evaluate the hopelessness of their own circumstances, Weary Willie Day reminds us of all the things that we need to be grateful for.
It is an excuse to put on a costume
Of course, a great way to celebrate the day is to turn into a clown ourselves. It is a chance for us to get creative with our own unique interpretation of our clown personality and to manifest it through make-up and clothes.
Weary Willie Day dates