August 14, 2001 11:00 pm
Joey Kelly performs at Riveria Tuesday. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).
Joey Kelly performs at Riveria Tuesday. (The Observer/PHIL BULLOCK).

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Emmett Kelly, the legendary circus clown, thrilled audiences in the United States for decades by chasing an elusive spotlight on stage.

On Tuesday, Emmett Kellys grandson, Joey Kelly, found himself not chasing, but in the spotlight during a visit to

La Grande.

Joey Kelly showed up in La Grande as a clown to promote the upcoming Carson & Barnes Circus.

Kelly thrilled children during appearances at Riveria and Willow elementary schools where youngsters had gathered for a summer lunch program. Kelly also entertained adults during a 20-minute presentation at the La Grande Rotary Club at noon.

Clowning comes easy for me. I was always the class clown, Kelly said.

He has not always been a full-time clown though. Kelly worked as an accountant for 30 years in Albuquerque, N.M., before retiring in March to join the circus.

Kelly was frustrated working as an accountant because he could not express his creativity.

I felt like I was locked in a cage. ... If I had known I would have this much fun (working as a clown), I would have retired earlier, Kelly said.

He likes performing for children the best.

I enjoy laughing with kids, he said. They still have innocence. They look at you with deer-struck eyes.

He said that his famous grandfather, who died in 1979, helped him get started in clowning.

He opened doors for me, Joey Kelly said.

Emmett became famous during the Depression era by playing a character known as Weary Willie, a mournful clown who not only chased spotlights but cleaned the ring with a frayed broom.

People who couldnt get work during the Depression identified with him, Joey Kelly said.

He does not imitate the acts of his famous grandfather or his father, who is also a clown.

Clowns should be themselves, said Kelly, who has performed as a clown for much of his life.

Kellys act includes skits involving hypnosis and an invisible lion. He never tires of making people smile.

Laughter is truly the best medicine, Kelly said.

He said he is proof of that, noting that he rarely gets sick. Kelly said that catching a cold is one of the worst things that can happen to clowns since it makes their makeup run.

Kelly, who works as a clown eight months a year, lives in a recreational vehicle that he drives throughout the country. He comes to a town a few days before the Carson & Barnes Circus arrives and then moves on to another town. The circus will appear at the Union County Airport on Pierce Lane Sunday at 1:30 and 4:30 p.m. It also is appearing in Baker City on Saturday.

Kelly already has experienced priceless moments during his appearances for Carson & Barnes. One of his favorites was at a day care center in Brownsville, Texas. A girl who was 3 1/2-years-old started crying when she saw Kelly in his clown costume.

A 5-year-old girl wrapped her arms around the younger child to comfort her.

Its OK. Hes a good clown, the older girl said.