Making Very Nice With Tiny Tim 


IN 1968, ON THE PREMIERE episode of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, a strange and struggling young baritone named Tiny Tim sang Al Dubin’s Tin Pan Alley hit "Tiptoe Through the Tulips With Me" in a falsetto voice, accompanying himself on ukulele. Tiny Tim scared us. A towering, homely man, with deep-set eyes and the beak of a cartoon witch half hidden by the hair of Jimmy Page, smiling so sweetly, warbling and strumming in a brightly checkered three-piece suit and tie — Tiny Tim simply creeped us out. And we liked it. By the time he married a teenage girl named Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show a year later — before a record-breaking audience of 40 million viewers — Tiny Tim was a household name, and every few weeks, you’d be walking down the hallway and overhear someone singing a few falsetto bars for friends:

Tiptoe to the window
By the window, that is where I’ll be
Come tiptoe through the tulips with me

Then television found some new faces, and Tiny Tim’s disappeared. I can’t recall hearing anything about him again until 1996, when he died of a heart attack while performing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips With Me" in Minnesota.

What happened during those 20-odd years? And what about those 30-odd before? Ask Tim’s former manager and friend, Stephen M. Plym. Actually, he’d prefer if you read the book he just wrote with Vivien Kooper. It’s called Tiny Tim and Mr. Plym: Life as We Knew It. Last Wednesday night, the Improv on Melrose hosted a launch party for this book, and I received important public relations materials to prepare for attendance.

"Tiny Tim always wore a tie," the Tiny Tim Facts and Tidbits press sheet told me. "Morning, noon and night. Mr. Plym never saw him without a tie. Ever. He even wore one to bed.

"Tiny Tim ate lots of walnuts in the winter," it went on. "‘Squirrels eat them to keep warm, and I’m going to do the same,’ he reasoned. From November to February, his floors were covered in walnut shells."

I showed up early on Wednesday and found a table at the back, against the huge color Jerry Seinfeld poster. Beside Seinfeld, a black-and-white poster of Tiny Tim had been tacked up with double-sided tape: Tim in a dark silk cape over a checkered three-piece suit; looking happy, but terribly, terribly nervous, with his fingers woven together in a painful-looking clench.

Onstage was a modest dais, with barstool seating for six. Throw pillows and wildly patterned fabrics were used to evoke, as cheaply and ineffectively as possible, some visual semblance of Laugh-In. Swirls of oranges, pinks, purples and magentas. And stage left: an altar of Tiny Tim memorabilia — photos, album covers, ties.

The room filled to capacity. At every table was a glass vase with a recently harvested yellow tulip, and at every fourth or fifth table was someone with a boob job, a bleach job, a face-lift, a comb-over, a toupee or all of the above. One unmodified white man placed a big plate of pasta on my mini-table and sat down. Thanks.

"Any good?" I asked this man of this food.

The man shrugged to indicate that I should piss off and leave him alone.

Just as well, fucker. The show’s starting.

The show: Lydia Cornell, who was once on a sitcom, apparently, warmed up the room by bombing. Then radio personality or broadcasting legend Frazer Smith did the same ("Jenna Bush thought they’d said ‘Four More BEERS!’") before introducing Kooper and Plym, who hugged and told heartwarming anecdotes. How Tiny Tim was not gay. ("Very not gay!") How he had this tremendous baritone voice, and the falsetto was just for fucking around. How he had no checking account, no savings account and never drove a car.

Then Gary Owens, the voice of Laugh-In, read heartwarming letters from Ruth Buzzi, Ed McMahon and Dick Martin. Similar sweet words spilled from cast member Alan Sues and Laugh-In’s creator, George Schlatter, but the audience wanted more than sweetness.

Thank you, Arte Johnson: "There’s no comedy anymore," Johnson denounced, sussing out the room. "Nobody has any drugs. Nobody smokes." And yes, Johnson added more kind words for Tiny — "one of the most lovely, wonderful, warm people I’ve ever met" — as well as a detailed description of the man’s habit of eight or nine showers a day (with Jergens soap, and drying off with paper towels). But then he read this story. It was a tribute — a poem, really — by Henry Gibson. Gibson tells of the Laugh-In cast’s visits to V.A. Hospitals to cheer up the blown-up young men returning from Vietnam. One man with no remaining limbs called Gibson over to his bed. There, the man told Gibson that he had known Tiny Tim when they were kids, but not since then. And that recently, after Tiny Tim had heard about the man’s devastating injuries, he sent the man an RCA color television set.

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