Tiny Tim -God bless him!

ALEXANDER ROSS November 1 1968

Tiny Tim -God bless him!

ALEXANDER ROSS November 1 1968

Tiny Tim -God bless him!

ALEXANDER ROSS

THE HAIR IS REAL. It hangs in moist tendrils below his shoulders, and sometimes a strand will curl around in front of his powdered face and catch between one of those famous, glistening teeth. The voice is also real. It simpers, it smirks, it fractures suddenly into ripples of girlish laughter. The manner is real, too; he minces and swishes and twitters and flutters and flirts and camps it up like some early vaudeville parody of homosexuality. His hands dangle at the ends of his wrists as though they were entirely boneless. And when he picks up his left-handed tenor ukulele and sings, as he will do at the slightest provocation, the effect is utterly uncanny. It is as though he had a wind-up Victrola concealed somewhere in his throat. The sound that emerges is not simply an imitation of the vocal styles of Gene Austin, Arthur Fields or Harry Richman. It is an entire era that springs instantly to life — a faraway time when the republic was innocent and confident and free, and there was certainty in the lives of most Americans.

No, dear reader, Tiny Tim is not a put-on. No Sunset Strip flack could have invented him. Only God, or maybe William Blake, could have created such a lamb of innocence. He is the product of his own queer vision, and of the past that nourishes him, and of America’s sad present.

It is sad, you know. I arrived in Los Angeles the day they nominated Hubert Humphrey, and the whole place stank of cynicism and defeat. You could see it in the tight faces of motorists who were trapped in freeway traffic jams. You could hear it in the voice of the German-Jewish proprietor of a little discount store who asked me, “Are you locking your doors up there in Canada yet?” You could sense it in the scared, sober faces of teenagers in army uniforms and behind the sunglasses of men and women sitting alone in darkened bars. Everywhere you could see the convention on television. In shopping plazas, people gathered to watch silently in the doorways of radio shops. In the bars, where most of the sets gave you the news in living color, there was little talk. In a screenwriter’s living room, as we watched Mayor Daley’s police hammering the

faces and skulls of people who still believed in the goodness of America, one girl wept softly to herself. I heard mothers curse that week in Los Angeles and I heard children cry. I don’t recall hearing any laughter. It was as though the technology surrounding us had turned everybody into zombies. The American dream was collapsing before our eyes, and we could only watch in passive silence. There was nothing anyone could do.

It must have been like this in the pre-Hitler Berlin of the 1920s and early 1930s. That was another sad time. The storm troopers were already in the streets, and people watched with that same horrified detachment as skulls were crushed and arms were broken and democracy died. It was probably the only other time in this century when a talent as strange and fragile as Tiny Tim’s could have been plucked

from obscurity and catapulted into general demand. For that was the last great era of kinky entertainers — men who wore makeup and women singers who dressed in black leather and carried whips. Although I tend to resist the rhetoric of the New Left, it is hard to avoid such distressing parallels — to see Tiny Tim, who is probably the hottest new entertainer in U.S. showbusiness, as a sort of latter-day Nero, paid to fiddle his ukulele as America burns.

Before I met Tiny (born Herbert Khaury, in New York City, son of a Lebanese immigrant), I tried out this theory on one of his publicity men, a very hip, very sincere young man from Johns Hopkins University, named Jon Gordon. We were having coffee at a drive-in on the Sunset Strip, and Gordon explained his own view of his client’s popularity: that Tiny embodies the classic McLuhan definition of “cool.” Like Trudeau or Kubrick’s 2001 : A Space Odyssey, an audience can read anything they want into the image that’s presented to them. “I believe,” said Jon Gordon, “that Tiny, number one, is sort of like a mirror. And if a guy comes in and he’s uptight, he’s going to see in Tiny whatever he’s uptight about.” Gordon also wanted to emphasize that, despite all those jokes on Rowan-and-Martin’s Laugh-In about why he couldn’t get into the army, there’s definitely nothing queer about Tiny. “I’ve never seen him come onto me or any other guy. But even more than that, he digs girls. He loves to be around girls. I think when it comes to sex he just isn’t there, you know? He’s never made love to a girl as far as I know.

“When you meet him, don’t go in with any preconceived things. That’s number one. No preconceived innocence, no preconceived anything. Just meet him and form your own impressions. And then what you should do is try to believe what you see. Because that’s where Tiny is. He’s not fooling anybody. He couldn’t. You’ll see. He’s just . . . real.”

After my briefing on the essential reality of Tiny Tim, we drove over to his apartment hotel. It was nearly noon, but we had a long wait in the lobby, since Tiny was completing the day’s “big shower” — / continued on page 66

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“I will have a two-tone face. It fits my personality”

a 90-minute cleansing operation that he supplements through the day with several little showers. Tiny, Gordon told me, spends most of his time in this hotel room, talking to friends on the telephone, showering, singing, experimenting with cosmetics, listening to old 78s on his Victrola.

“Tiny doesn't hang out,” Gordon explained. “He never leaves his hotel unless he's got something to do. If it’s an interview, yes. If he’s going shopping for records or cosmetics, yes. But, you know, he doesn't like going out for a walk, he doesn’t make it down to The Whiskey or any of that kind of thing.

Never. Never does he go out at night.”

F i n a I 1 y, the elevator door opened and there he was. Tiny was wearing a Burberry raincoat, stiffened with age and use, buttoned to the neck. His shoes were a nondescript black and his orange socks looked as though his mother had knitted them.

He was carrying a large vinyl shopping bag that contained his ukulele and an assortment of cosmetics. He looked just as unbelievable as he did in his pictures. His hair glistened from the shower. His makeup was pale and powdery, and left a scent trailing behind him. “Helloooooo, dear friends,” said Tiny Tim. He presented his left hand, palm down, for introductions. It was like shaking hands with a piece of bread.

We drove to a nearby park, since Gordon had the idea that an interview in the bucolic setting, surrounded by children and small dogs, would be “kind of pretty.” On our way to a bench under the trees,

Tiny explained how his image was subject to constant revision. “I don't aim to keep this hair,” he said.

“There will be a change.

Just the other day I went for a facial at Aida Grey’s salon in the BeverlyWilshire Hotel. I just love to keep my cosmetics, you know, as clean as anything. So we were there for two hours and the makeup consultant was looking me over. 1 said I would love to try something else. So she painted half my face white. From here to here it was all white. And from here to here the other side was all purple. A real purple color. Deep purple. 1 loved it, but when my manager came to pick me up he told me to take it off. This is another experimentation for the future. I will have a two-tone face.

I think it’s great and fits my personality.”

His arrival in the park caused the

expected commotion. Small children ran over, shouting his name. Mothers shyly introduced themselves and their offspring, and pushed forward scraps of notepaper and old hot-dog wrappers for autographs. For about 20 minutes Tiny signed everything, twittering with delight all the while. “Ooh, thank you so much,” he would exclaim. “My goodness, you people

are all so wonderful!” One girl collected 16 separate autographs. A small boy asked, “Mother, is Tiny Tim a man?” People clustered around him, smiling or just staring in mute curiosity.

Finally, after about half an hour, we made it to the park bench, arranged ourselves, set up the tape recorder and got ready for The Interview. Up to then, Tiny had been enchanted by everything: the park, the kids, the nearby baseball diamond. He even exclaimed over the park bench:

“What a good seat! You can't beat this seat!” But suddenly he became uneasy. He looked anxiously around him, up in the trees and around the bench, then whispered urgently to Jon Gordon.

“What’s the matter?” I asked.

“There are bees here.” said Gordon. “Tiny doesn’t like bees.”

“1 love bees,” protested Tiny. “I

mean, I think bees are great little insects. I'm crazy about their honey.” What he was trying to say was that he didn’t want to be a nuisance to anybody. Tiny was willing to stay put, bees and all, if that’s what the rest of us wanted.

By this time, the whole scene was striking me as completely surrealistic. There was no point in asking questions. I just sat there while Tiny took his uke out of the bag and gave me a guided tour of his dream world. He chattered about baseball and hockey.

He is passionately involved in the fortunes of the Dodgers and the Toronto Maple Leafs, sometimes sends telegrams of advice to Punch Imlach, can do a passable Foster Hewitt imitation, and recalled how, on a night when the Leafs won the Stanley Cup, he went berserk with excitement in a Greenwich Village nightclub. “When somebody told me the Leafs had won. my whole emotions went up to the ceiling. And then I got down on the floor and I just spread myself apart and I just yayyyyyyyyy! yayyyyyyyy! — like that, and the waiter said, ‘Get this guy out of here,’ so they took me to a cloakroom to cool off. Believe me, I take my hockey and baseball very seriously.” His hands fluttered as he talked, and he punctuated his conversation with giggles and coy little pouts. But soon he began to lose interest in what he was saying, and strummed his ukulele. As a crowd gathered around the bench, he announced that he would sing a song, “the one I want to do this fall on Mr. Ed Sullivan’s show. It was written in 1909 by Mr. Byron G. Harlan.” And he strummed and sang an ancient Irish ballad about a fallen woman, in a voice that lacked only the needle scratch:

Just across the bridge of gold

Where the lights are shining bright Just across the bridge of gold

Lies an aching heart tonight.

For the sake of gold she loved

All her happiness she sold. And tonight we will pray For our dear sister Maeeeeeeee

Just across the bridge of gold.

Tiny broke up in peals of girlish laughter as the crowd applauded. Then he sang it again.

Then came one of those moments that was so illuminating I half-suspected the PR man had laid on the whole thing. But no, a PR man couldn’t have imagined it. Out of the crowd came an elderly white-haired man with a middle-European accent. He introduced himself as Morris Sheinberg, one of the few remaining concertina players in America. He wanted to sell Tiny a concertina and teach him how to play it. Tiny was genuinely enchanted. He’d always wanted to play the concertina. They exchanged phone numbers eagerly. Mr. Sheinberg gave Tiny a demonstration record he’d cut and explained in his thick accent: “This record is me playing Sodom and Gomorrah. It’s three Biblical numbers, played while the city is getting destroyed. I have it in my mind, my imagination. This record is made to play at 45.

You can also play it at 33. But at speed 45 you find the beauty of it.” Tiny was gassed. An actual concertina player! Right here, in this very park, he meets a virtuoso on an instrument that's almost extinct! He fired questions at Mr. Sheinberg, kept vowing to get together with him. and exclaimed repeatedly at his good fortune in running into him. Remember that Tiny Tim, despite his success, is the kind of entertainer who used to bring his axe to parties and hope people would ask him to play. He's spent the past 20 years in this entertainment underground, doing his thing in gay bars and Times Square freak shows and parties and amateur contests. For a time he shared a bill with Moondog. a blind, bearded drummer who designs his own instruments, gives them names like the oo and the trimba. and plays them on the sidewalks of New York for change that passersby throw into a hat. This is Tiny’s real scene. And so when Mr. Sheinberg came along, the possessor of a small, weird, and spectacularly unmarketable talent. Tiny instantly recognized him as a soul brother. America is full of people who play oos and trimbas and concertinas and ukuleles and musical saws and dream impossible dreams of stardom, and Tiny has always been one of them. But in August he played a week at the Caesar’s Palace Hotel in Las Vegas for $50,000. At Christmas he’ll be at the Fountainebleau in Miami for $60,000. He’d never made more than $3,000 a year in his life — he’s now in his 40s — and this year his income is expected to be around $500,000. But Tiny Tim does not forget his origins.

Later that day. at the agent's office, we had what John Gordon described as “the formal interview.” We sat on a sofa and Tiny strummed and talked in an exalted, disconnected way. He is a beautiful person, a freak actually — not because he looks so strange, but because he is utterly without hostility or guile. His life story is like some odd inversion of a Victorian morality tract, about the poor boy from the sidewalks of New York who defies the world and grieves his parents by wearing pancake makeup and strange hair, and prays to God through Christ for strength to continue on tys dreamlike quest until — faith and virtue rewarded! — the hand of God reach-

es down and Tiny Tim clix in the stix and gets his name Up There In Lights. All the ingredients of the Horatio Alger myth are there, preserved as faithfully as the ancient crooners' voices that are the sound of Tinv's gentle soul:

EARLY REJECTION: “You're killing your father." said Tiny's mother 15 years ago when he embarked on his cosmetic kick. Both parents, now in their 80s, worked in knitting mills and lived in a poor neighborhood in

Manhattan. “They thought I was abnormal,” recalls Tiny. “They even thought I must be a sissy.”

In those days, back in the early 1950s. even though his appearance electrified entire subway cars, he persisted in working at a variety of straight jobs — aging messenger boy. MGM flunkie, delivery man. Most of these jobs lasted a maximum of three weeks.

Vignette: Our hero is working as a delivery boy in a clothing store on

Madison Avenue. Even then he wore clown-white makeup, which he'd furtively freshen up each noon hour inside a cubicle in the store's men's room. "I’d always carry a little cleansing cream with me — Pond's usually. and Jergen's Lotion for the hands. One day I was in the cubicle applying my makeup when Mr. Armstrong, the boss, walked in. I came out of the cubicle and said, “Ohhhhhh, helloooo, Mr. Armstrong!"

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Mr. Armstrong, an austere, humorless man, looked at his new employee. He sniffed. “Something smells sweet,” he commented. “Ohhhh, thank you, Mr. Armstrong,” said Tiny. He was fired that same afternoon. He was told that two ex-employees had suddenly returned from Korea and wanted their jobs back.

Vignette: During Expo last year, Tiny appeared in Montreal. The audience disbelieved what they saw and started pelting him with paper cups full of beer. “Oh thank you. my dear sweet fans from Montreal,” trilled Tiny. “And for my next number I shall sing . . .” On that occasion, he used his ukulele as a cricket bat to swat at the garbage that was raining down on the stage. “Whoever he was,” commented a Montreal newspaper, “he had courage.”

MAINTAINING HIS FAITH AGAINST INCREDIBLE ODDS: “I used to pray alone at nights,” Tiny recalled. Here is Tiny’s prayer: “O blessed Christ, do You sec what my parents arc saying? Do You see what my psychiatrist is saying? Lord, if I’m wrong — then, fine. Let me do whatever has to be done. But if I’m right, 1 pray for strength to keep Thy commands.”

“I refused to believe failure,” Tiny told me, “even when my heart told me I was speaking against the wind. I’d pray, ‘Lord, I don’t even believe what I’m doing — but help my unbelief.’ ”

TEMPTATION: Tiny worships beautiful women as something distant and unattainable. Every year he gives trophies to his favorite girls — honest; the kind of trophies that bowling leagues hand out. “Even in the 1950s,” he said, “I would look at a beautiful girl and, praise the Lord for His blessings, write songs to them. I would look at them, girls on the street, as I looked out my window, and I mean my heart would flutter. But I

only had the purest thoughts with them. I want this understood for the record. If I was looking at her out the window and I accidentally touched my nose, I would go and wash my hands. Because I always felt that being next to a woman, a beautiful young girl, was like being next to heaven.

“Temptations? Well, women . . . women arc the biggest temptation for me. But thank God through Christ that He leads me out of it. And I tell you,” said Tiny — he sounded as though he were talking about his manager — “He’s always been wonderful to me.”

MARRIAGE: “I tell you, Mr. Ross, the reason 1 couldn't get married is because I’ve always got to see a new face all the time. Not only would I be hard to live with, but also 1 can’t stay with one person too long, as far as living together. I like to do things alone. .Suppose I was listening to one of my wonderful records. If someone else was there ... I'd get very tight. I'd feel an irritable closeness. So I’ve never had any relationship with a woman. Because 1 know it’s wrong. Not until marriage. And I'll never get married.”

SUCCESS: By last year. Tiny had acquired an influential underground following — Bob Dylan has been a fan for years — and on rare occasions was actually being paid to perform. Warner Brothers Records signed him to a contract, but nothing came of it until early last year when Richard Perry, one of the label's brightest young producers, worked with him in a studio for a week and emerged with an LP that was probably the most interesting musical effort since the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper album. In rapid succession came appearances on the Johnny Carson Show and Rowanand-Martin’s Laugh-In that drew thousands of letters, not all of them incredulous. Somehow, after nearly 20 years of anonymity. Tiny Tim’s prayers were answered. “I was out to

make this challenge,” said Tiny, “and thank God through Christ. He helped me to succeed. It wasn't a million-toone chance, it was a /vvo-million-toone chance. You’re talking to the biggest miracle in the history of success.” THE MORAL: Work, pray, strive and succeed. This is the American dream, and maybe Tiny Tim is its last remaining embodiment. Tiny Tim is as real as he can be, in a country where unreality has become a way of life. God bless him. ★