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.

The audience thought that was pretty damn swell, and let out an audible sigh. Johnson left the stage to great applause, muttering something about incontinence, and musician Jim Beloff arrived to lead the crowd through a warm round of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips" on one of Tiny Tim’s old ukuleles. Afterward, Budd Friedman, the Improv’s owner, grabbed a microphone and said something — probably something about Tiny Tim — through a mouthful of delicious Improv-vittles. I couldn’t quite tell what he said, but I’m sure it was very, very nice.

—Dave Shulman

Halo 2 Halo

I FIRST SAID IT BACK in July, and I was only half-joking: If George Bush wins, at least there’s Halo 2. That fleeting thought became an unfortunate prophecy; Bush eked out a "mandate" on November 2, and exactly one week later long lines formed across the country again as people waited to get their hands on the most anticipated video game of all time. There couldn’t have been better timing for such virtual relief. With James Dobson’s religious-right strike team already hustling Arlen Specter to the pillory for suggesting caution in Supreme Court nominations, and Senate Democrats announcing that their strategic response to 2004 was some new institutional complacency called the Third Way, the need for escape was urgent.

That’s how I saw it, at least. The 300 other people massing around the Electronics Boutique at Universal CityWalk to await the game’s release last Tuesday night may not have been as politically motivated.

"Plain and simple, Halo 2 is the best thing that’s ever happened to me," one kid at the end of the line said. Nearby was a man clad in the battle armor of Master Chief, the game’s "biologically, mechanically, technically enhanced" protagonist. Any politics in the conversation revolved exclusively around decisions by Bungie, the developer, or by Microsoft, the overlord publisher, regarding the shifting release date, last-minute changes, fidelity to the previews, the capacity of the Xbox Live servers.

Up front, the most devoted had stood in line for up to 18 hours. "I asked if I could bring a sleeping bag and stay overnight on Monday, but they said no," explained David Jimenez, who had the coveted right to step in the door first to pick up his pre-ordered copy. "So I got here at 6:30 this morning." By noon, a hundred more had gathered. By 9 p.m., there were drinks and a DJ, and PR teams from Electronics Boutique (E.B. for short) and Microsoft were organizing gift bags and handing out raffle tickets for a life-size sculpture of Master Chief.

If this sounds like movie-type fanfare, it’s meant to. Halo 2 received the kind of extended weekend rollout reserved for summer blockbusters: a Wednesday opening, preceded by a frenzy for the faithful at 12:01 a.m. the night before. E.B. alone had 1,300 locations open Tuesday night for the 1.5 million people with pre-orders. That’s $75 million paid in advance, and within 24 hours, Halo 2 added another
$50 million, making the day’s total higher than the record single-day grosses of the Harry Potters, the Matrixes, and both Spider-Men.

The first Halo, for those confused by such hoopla, was not just a good video game; it was an unusually great video game. So great that Microsoft, ever the clever monopolists, bought the entire Bungie studio in order to ensure the game would be available only on Xbox and thereby force people onto its new game platform. It was a quid pro quo: Microsoft got Xbox converts, and they in turn got one of the best video entertainments ever made. That was three years ago, and the gaming magazines and Web sites and chat threads have been trading whispers about the sequel ever since.

By 9:30 p.m., East Coast gamers were in possession of Halo 2 for half an hour already and reporting back to those in the E.B. line via cell phone. Their accounts spread around like news from the front: "The Elites have jet packs or something"; "you can do flips and rolls when dogfighting in the Banshee"; "the rocket launcher has a new targeting device."

To non-players, it’s hard to explain what distinguishes Halo as something so many people would line up for. The details, the design, the way things fit together — in every respect, both Halos are more skillfully conceived than most science fiction movies. But it’s hard not to notice that they are also driven by a fundamentalist subtext that perhaps unintentionally alludes to our own troubled times. Gone are the sci-fi villains modeled on conventional 20th-century secular monsters like the Nazis, spiced with a bit of Bergsonian élan vital (for example, the Empire). Collectively called the Covenant, the aliens of the Halo realm are intergalactic religious fanatics. Halo 2 also unfurls an arcane storyline involving a lot of sin and redemption, characters called Prophets and a schismatic millenarian sect that wants the world to end.

"Why does the future always look like the past, but with lasers?" a friend asked rhetorically when we played the first Halo together. With Halo 2, the better question is why the future looks so much like the present.

—Joshuah Bearman


Horse Sense

THERE ARE MANY ESTABLISHED WAYS to train a horse, some involving loud noises and physical restraint, others focused on carrots and praise. So far as I know, however, none involve jogging closely alongside an unbridled stallion murmuring secrets in French as Frédéric Pignon was doing when Normand Latourelle, the congenial and sparkly-eyed producer of the Canadian equestrian show Cavalia, escorted me into the show’s vaulted tent next to the Santa Monica Pier. As Latourelle busily explained certain technical aspects of the show — how the performance space was planned to accommodate a stallion’s full-on gallop, how each row of seats is exactly a foot higher than the next, so that everyone can see the horses hooves — I couldn’t take my eyes off Pignon and his horse. For a moment, to the embarrassment of the young woman publicist standing by, I struggled to blink away tears.

A slender man with a muted resemblance to Orlando Bloom in his Elven phase, Pignon romped around the arena, wavy brown locks flying, with a gait as light as his horse’s delicate trot. Both human and horse seemed to land and spring a few millimeters short of earth. Everything about the animal, from its lifted tail to its elegantly curved neck, said that in all the world there was nothing so fun, and certainly nothing so important, as learning to kneel and bow and stop in a second for the reward of his trainer’s understanding. Still, every now and again, the horse would get carried away and peel off from Pignon’s side in a rocking canter, as if overcome with some thrill. I was shocked to see that Pignon didn’t utter a sound, but simply bounded across the arena to meet the horse on the curve with a kiss on the muzzle and a pat on the neck. The next time around, the Arabian stallion followed him like a puppy.

"That horse is only a year and a half old," Latourelle said proudly. "Just a baby. And he’s only worked with Fred five times."

Pignon carries no whip, only a fine thread on a stick; it makes no noise and never hits the horse. "It’s just an extension of his arm," Latourelle explained as we watched Pignon apply it gently to the horse’s foreleg and the horse bent his leg to bow. "He doesn’t need more than that, because he doesn’t break his horses. He doesn’t climb up on the horse until the horse understands what he’s doing and tells him it’s all right."

Latourelle, who produced the significantly animal-free Cirque du Soleil from its evolution as a band of street performers until it hit the big time in 1990, told me this attitude toward horses was a big reason he tracked down the 37-year-old Pignon and his wife, Magali Delgado, also 37, whose father breeds Lusitano horses in Avignon, France (including 15 of Cavalia’s 37 stallions and geldings).

"I was convinced they could do a show without abusing the horses," Latourelle said.

Inside the temporary stables on the beach next to the pier, Pignon and Delgado, a tiny, dark woman in tight jeans and a black T-shirt with "Beverly Hills" written across in it rhinestones, stop by the stall of a horse named Fasto, a misty-white Lusitano who resides next to his brother, Templado, the 19-year-old star of Cavalia. Fasto doesn’t have the placid, vacant gaze of the horses I’m used to, but a sharp, mischievous look, as if he’s about to trick somebody.

"He’s a little clown," Pignon confirms, as the horse nips playfully at Pignon’s striped jeans and finally, after several calm corrections, rests his chin on Pignon’s shoulder. "You have to teach the basics. You have to be just. But I don’t force the horses to do anything, I invite them. When I ask Fasto to lie down, he won’t do it right away, but I know he will eventually, because he knows that when he lies down, I will scratch his back."

One row back is Mandarin, a Buckskin Lusitano that suffered from emotional problems early in life — related, says Delgado, to the horse’s lack of faith in human perceptiveness. "Sometimes horses don’t communicate with us," she says, "because they think we’re too stupid to understand them."

Pignon then demonstrates how he taught Mandarin to express himself. "I’d climb up a little bit onto his back like this, and he’d make this noise" — Pignon makes four little grunting sounds — "and so I’d get off. Then I’d do it again, and he’d make the noise, and I’d climb off." The horse learned that his little noises told this particular human to back off.

"One time," says Pignon, "Mandarin is sick and the vet says, ‘It’s colic.’ We say, ‘No, it’s his teeth. He told us.’ The vet says, ‘Colic.’ We say, ‘Teeth.’ Finally, when the colic treatment doesn’t work, the vet looks in Mandarin’s mouth and sees a bad tooth. And we say, ‘Right, it’s his tooth. That’s just what he said to us.’"

—Judith Lewis


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