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Weary Willie and Freddie the Freeloader are just two of many famous happy hobo and sad tramp clowns.  Both Willie and Freddy are hobo clowns but with opposite personalities.  Weary Willie is a sad, down in the dumps tramp clown and Freddy is an optimistic, happy hobo clown.

What’s the difference between a hobo and a tramp?

According to Wikipedia, a hobo is a migrant, often impoverished, worker. A tramp will work only when forced to and a bum doesn’t work at all.

Weary Willie

Emmett Kelly, Sr. was one of the most well-known clowns of the circus.  His character, Weary Willie, was initially rejected by the circus as too depressing for the audience but once the Great Depression hit, real-life tramps became a common sight in everyday life and so found a place in the circus. Weary Willie was a sad hobo, modeled after a tramp.  Emmett Kelly, Sr. started his circus career as an aerialist but was eventually able to perform as Weary Willie full time.  He joined the Ringling Brother Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1942 where he worked for 14 seasons.  His most famous circus act was “sweeping the spotlight”.  After the circus, he began to perform on Broadway and in movies.

A Clip of Weary Willie Sweeping the Spotlight

Here’s a clip of Emmett Kelly sweeping up the spotlight.  Emmett Kelly, Jr. took over the Weary Willie character from his father so I’m not sure if this is Senior or Junior but I’m guessing Senior.

Emmett Kelly Has a Museum Too!

The Emmett Kelly Museum is located in Sedan, Kansas, where he was born.  (It’s almost directly north of Tulsa, OK in case you’re wondering.) Might be worth a visit next time you’re driving across south Kansas! (Do other people do that – just drive across Kansas to see what’s out there, or it that just me?)

black and white photo of emmett kelly as weary willie, resting sadly on a pile of wagon wheels
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Emmett Kelly as Weary Willie

Freddie the Freeloader

Red Skelton’s most famous character was Freddie the Freeloader.  In contrast to Weary Willie, Freddie was a perpetually upbeat, happy clown. (Kind of like me!)  He was generous to those he met and always willing to share his meager possessions.  Need a place to stay, and Freddie’d pull up an extra bathtub for you to sleep in alongside him in his broken-down shack.

mickey rooney and red skelton as freddie the freeloader in a skit
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Mickey Rooney and Red Skelton (as Freddie the Freeloader) performing in 1962.

A short clip of Freddie the Freeloader planning his Christmas vacation at the local jail

A Visit to the Red Skelton Museum

Both of these clowns, Weary Willie and Freeloader Freddie, were before my time but I had at least heard of Red Skelton thanks to my mom.  I was familiar with his Pledge of Allegiance act but that was all I really knew about him. 

Fast forward this summer and our latest road trip.  I had planned to drive through Vincennes, Indiana along the way.  There isn’t a lot to see in Vincennes but it is the location of Grouseland which is the home of President William Henry Harrison and the George Rogers Clark National Historic Park.  I figured we would stop at one or both on our way through.  The night before I found a flyer in the hotel lobby (you’ve seen those displays by the entrance right, with flyers for area attractions?) for the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy.  I decided to let the kids pick our stop in Vincennes and they chose the Red Skelton Museum. 

Apparently, American comedy seemed more interesting than “random historic park we’ve never heard of”.  Go figure.

standing outside the red skelton museum of american comedy
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Bring on the comedy! Ready to learn who this Red Skelton guy is at the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy…

What I Learned About Red Skelton from His Museum

Through the museum displays, I learned that Red was born here in Vincennes, Indiana, and came from a poor family of four kids raised by his widow mother.  At the young age of 10, he discovered his life’s calling – to perform and bring laughter to people.  He left home immediately to perform in vaudeville, burlesque, and medicine shows.  At age 24 he debuted on radio and on Broadway and at age 38 he transitioned into television and then movies.

Red’s career spanned many years and throughout it all he found constant joy in bringing laughter to others. The Red Skelton Show was consistently top-rated throughout its 20-year run and earned Red 3 Emmy Awards.

Off-stage, Red was a prolific writer, artist, and musical composer.  He never forgot his roots in Vincennes and spoke fondly of the place his whole life.

Red Skelton life timeline display at museum
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Red Skelton led a full life of performing, starting at the young age of 10.
Red Skelton life timeline part 2 - showing his entertainment career
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A continued look at Red Skelton’s long performance career.

See Red Skelton’s Many Costumes on Display at the Museum

freddie the freeloader costume on display at Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy.
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Many of Red’s most popular characters are on display at the museum including Freddie the Freeloader.
red skelton makeup case at the red skelton museum of american comedy
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Tools of the trade – a clown’s makeup is a key ingredient of their character. Freddie the Freeloader had a fairly simple look using charcoal and “clown white”.

Red Skelton’s Philosophy of Life is on Display at the Museum

laughter is the daily bread the feeds the soul -Red Skelton quote hanging at museum
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“Laughter is the daily bread that feeds the soul.” Red Skelton
Laughter is a key ingredient in a healthy life.

The museum offers insight into Red’s life and career but it is also an excellent showcase of what television and radio entertainment looked like in the 1930’s and through the years following.  I’m young enough that the popularity of variety shows were waning by the time I was a kid but I do remember watching the Hee-Haw Show and the Carol Burnett Show and even the Muppet Show.  Thanks to YouTube, you can watch clips from old shows anytime. If you need a good belly laugh, I recommend Carol Burnett!  They just don’t make television (or entertainers) like they used to.

red skelton quote- I'm nuts and I know it
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“I’m nuts and I know it. But so long as I make ’em laugh, they aint’ going to lock me up.” Red Skelton
It’s true – laughter is very powerful.

Read more about Red Skelton

He really had a long and very interesting career. Here’s a book all about him.

Visiting the Red Skelton Museum Might Make You Want to Become a Clown Too!

Feeling inspired to be a clown, too?  Want to bring joy and laughter to people around you?  Sure, why not!

Go To Clown College

It’s a real thing!  My daughter, Bella, has even met someone who attended.  He taught her how to balance a feather on her nose and a broomstick on her finger!

The Clown College was started in 1968 by Irvin Feld, a co-owner of Ringling Brother Barnum and Bailey Circus. It was designed as a way to bring new talent into the field of clowning while also serving as an extended audition to work for his circus.  The Clown College is free to attend.  The goal of the students was to earn a 2-year contract with Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey.

Unfortunately for all you aspiring clowns out there, the Clown College closed in 1997.  Fortunately for you aspiring clowns, there are many other clown schools all around.  A quick Google search should bring up a few results.

Famous Clowns tutorial series

The Famous Clowns website includes tons of historical information about clowns over the years but it also has several articles/tutorials about how to become a clown.

Join the Club

Clowns International started in 1947 as the International Circus Clowns Club.

Clowns Without Borders is an organization that brings laughter to those in need around the world.  Clowns without Borders makes me think of Doctors without Borders.  Putting doctors and clowns together reminds me of Patch Adams, who believes laughter and healing are intertwined. (Did you ever watch the movie about him, starring Robin Williams?)  What’s not to like about humanitarian clowning?

Don’t forget to register your face!

Okay, I couldn’t actually find any information that says you have to register your clown face and name.  However, it is an unspoken rule that a clown may not copy any other clown’s (painted) face or name.  One way to prevent this from happening was to paint your official clown face onto an egg and then sending the egg to the Clown Egg Registry which is currently located at the Clowns Gallery Museum in England.  There, you have now claimed your clown-ness.

If By Chance Some Day You’re Not Feeling Well And You Should Remember Some Silly Thing I’ve Said Or Done And It Brings Back A Smile To Your Face Or A Chuckle To Your Heart, Then My Purpose As Your Clown Has Been Fulfilled. 

Red Skelton

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A highlight of any visit to Vincennes, IN is the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy

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A highlight of any visit to Vincennes, Indiana, is the Red Skelton Museum of American Comedy. Dig deep into the days of vaudeville and early variety television shows featuring many characters created by Red Skelton.  "Laughter is the daily bread that feeds the soul." Red Skelton was a very talented and influential comedic entertainer! via @behindeveryday
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