James McIntyre ( -Aug. 18, 1937) and Tom Heath ( -Aug. 19, 1938) created the tramp clown characterization in 1874. They portrayed African Americans made homeless by the Civil War. They based their characters on blackface minstrel clowns which is the origin of the white mouth used by tramp clowns. They studied African American culture attempting to accurately portray it. McIntyre is credited with introducing an African American dance called the Buck and Wing to the American stage. The dance later became known as tap dancing.
The development of the tramp clown owes much of its inspiration to English actor Charlie Chaplin. During his career, Chaplin played the part of the "Little Tramp" in many motion pictures.
Emmet Kelly Sr.(1898-1979), was the most well-known of the tramp clowns of the circus. His character, Weary Willy, was the perpetual underdog, who never gave up. Kelley was born in Sedan, Kansas. His first career was in cartooning. His circus career, which spanned 55 years, began as a trapeze performer with the Howes Great London Circus. When he went into clowning he portrayed Weary Willy, a cartoon character he had drawn years earlier as a cartoonist. He worked with Hagenbeck & Wallace, Sells-Floto, Cole Bros. and London's Mill Circus. In 1942 he joined Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus, where he appeared until 1956. While there, he appeared in the movie The Greatest Show on Earth. His most famous routine was sweeping the spotlight. Following the departure from the circus, he worked in night clubs, indoor circuses, trade shows and resorts.
Emmet Kelly performed for the royalty of his era; Queen Elizabeth, Winston Churchill and Harry Truman. Kelly also appeared in Broadway plays, on TV and in the movies. In 1956 he clowned with the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team.
In 1957 he joined the Shrine Circus. He settled in Florida and continued appearing in commercials and on special shows until he was eighty. He died on March 28, 1979. He was buried in LaFayette, Indiana in a site near his mother.