Tiny Tim: King for a Day

Three enthusiastic flourishes on the ukulele for Johan Von Sydow’s new documentary Tiny Tim: King for a Day.

As I wrote here in my earlier biographical tribute, I am a major league Tiny Tim fan, as a premiere vaudeville revivalist and as one of the most outre ’60s variety show freaks. He’s the guy who made a name for himself singing Tin Pan Alley covers to his own ukulele accompaniment, sung in a falsetto register, with a stage presence that was one part hippie and one part bag lady. Tiny Tim’s repertoire was divided between weird old classics like “Tiptoe Through the Tulips (a Top 20 hit), the old Shirley Temple number “On the Good Ship Lollipop” and the exuberant “Livin’ in the Sunlight, Lovin’ in the Moonlight” (revived decades later on SpongeBob SquarePants), as well as then-contemporary pop classics like Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You, Babe” (on which he performed both parts), and the Doors’ “People Are Strange”. The film will serve as a terrific introduction for young people to this unique entertainer’s life and art. But for those of us who were there (i.e. watching TV from 1968 through the ’70s) it serves to fill us in on the rest of the story. And there is much to tell.

The subtitle of the film comes from a Sam Lewis song, one of hundreds of old standards Tiny Tim covered, and one with poignant meaning given the arc of Tiny Tim’s life. He was at the top of show business for a few short years, but then…his day was over. And there was a long, sad slide. The film fills us in on this period, as well as the early years of struggle. None of it, either the uphill or the downhill parts of the journey, is at all surprising, but there is something satisfying about it all being brought out and articulated. When you have witnessed something crazy, it’s always reassuring to have others report that they witnessed it, too. Not that I intend that, as plenty might, from a place of judgment. The exact opposite is more the case. Tiny Tim was a hero. For when you are as different as he was, you are hated, and it takes a certain amount of bravery just to get up in the morning. It’s well known that as a performer he was someone audiences either loved or reviled. But as a child in the 1930s and ’40s, by most of the people in his life he was rrankly marginalized. That gender ambiguity many now cherish had always been part of his personality. He seems to have been bisexual. Yet the issue wasn’t just that he was queer, but also that he was, in the word of his cousin: “weird”. God pity the weird in our country, in all countries. Picked on, beat up, laughed at. In performance, people threw things at him. It needs to be said: only STUPID people would throw things at Tiny Tim. He was OBJECTIVELY an excellent performer, in terms of skill, and talent, and emotional connection. Only a halfwit would be unable to look past his uniqueness and simply loathe him on the basis of his personality and how he looked. But of course, society is rife with halfwits.

It was just his good luck to come along during a brief, glorious period of creative flowering in America. So he went from busking, to perfoming in a freak show, to coffee houses, to television, and for a dizzying three or four years he was constantly on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in, The Tonight Show, and the talk and variety shows of Jackie Gleason, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, David Frost, Mike Douglas, etc. In some cases he was realizing lifelong dreams, as when he was on The Ed Sullivan Show, or when his hero Bing Crosby introduced him on The Hollywood Palace. The movie is a smorgasbord of all these amazing moments, including the pinnacle of his career, when he married his 17 year old girlfriend Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show. the second most watched event in TV history after the moon landing, garnering a jaw dropping 87% share in its time slot.

We won’t gloss over the fact that Miss Vicki was 17. The movie well establishes that Tiny Tim was a pretty kinky dude (you may want to unhear some of it), and there is some intimation of, if not pedophilia, some behavior and inclinations that might have been pedophile-adjacent. It’s not proven, and only one participant (one alleged “friend” named Johnny Pineapple) makes the assertion, but this of course was an era when swarms of drugged teenaged groupies gave themselves to rock stars enthusiastically. If such a thing happened, it was less surprising in and of itself than that it happened to TINY TIM.

Equally interesting and very much relevant to his sex life, is his lifelong religious devotion. Tiny Tim’s real name was Hebert Khoury; like Danny Thomas, he was a Lebanese Christian. He kept a journal throughout his life, in which he wrote frequently about his struggles with sex. These passages in the film are read by none other than Weird Al Yankovic, so straight and laudably subdued that I forgot that it was him until the movie was over. At any rate, Tiny Tim was in constant touch with the Almighty judging by these writings, and the film contains the amazing quote: “God told me to sing the sissy way”. The film would be worth the price of admission for that quote alone. The journal captures many other valuable moments from his life, such as his first mention in the pages of the Village Voice. Trust me: no aspiring performer ever forgets his first mention in the Village Voice. (Mine came out of the pen of Laurie Stone. Because of that, she can do anything she likes to me. She can drive over me in a Mack Truck and my takeaway would still be “Laurie Stone plugged me in the Village Voice“).

At his peak, Tiny Tim played joints ranging from Albert Hall to the Hog Farm to the Isle of Wight Festival to Caesar’s Palace (on a bill with the magician Blackstone Jr). On the way down, he did everything to keep his career alive. In 1979 he released a gas crisis rewrite of his most popular song entitled “Tip Toe to the Gas Pumps”. On one of his last Carson spots he did a version of Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?”. He dabbled in disco and techno pop. He played circuses; he performed at Australia’s Luna Park; he was in the 1987 horror film Blood Harvest. He appeared on WWE wrestling. By the ’90s, he was back to playing the kinds of tiny venues he started in. (A friend of mine performed on a bill with him during that period and reported that it was quite depressing). One of the most indellible moments of the film is actual video of Tiny Tim collapsing from a heart attack live on stage in 1996. Two months later, he collapsed while performing yet again. That time it killed him.

The film contains choice interviews with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary; the late Jonas Mekas of Antholology Film Archives, Wavy Gravy, Tommy James of the Shondells, George Schlatter (producer of Laugh-In), music producer Richard Perry, author Will Friedwald, his ex-wives, his daughter, and other relatives and friends. D.A. Pennebaker talks of a circus themed film he and Bob Dylan had planned that would have featured Tiny TIm as a ringmaster. The movie is full to the rafters with fun nuggets of that sort.

Tiny Tim: King for a Day is in theatres now, and available for streaming here. For more info the official website is here. And for lots more of my own thoughts on Tiny Tim, see my original post here.