DEVOUT OR DERANGED?
You may know that Tiny Tim was one of the most aberrant things to emerge from the Sixties. You may know that two and a half decades ago, he took his long hair, ukulele and piercing falsetto to international prominence, that he married a 17-year-old named Miss Vicky on The Tonight Show, that he popped up on Laugh-In a few times.
Now here's something that has been kept pretty much between Tiny Tim and Jesus Christ. Take a deep breath, for now, Tiny speaks:
"I think the most underrated thing where I'm concerned, the No. 1 misconception the public has, is that I'm a poor or nonexistent lover. And nothing could be further, further, further from the truth," emphasizes Tiny from a hotel phone in Marlboro, Massachusetts, where he is performing all October at a theme park called Spooky World. His voice is surprisingly low and has the slurred accent and ballsy punch of a New Yawk cabbie.
"I thank Jesus Christ for keeping me from myself. If I had my way, this room would be filled with new contraptions [sexual apparatus] from the Xandria collection, it would be filled every day with new devices, ointments and oils. It would have two, three, four massage tables to please these women . . . it would never stop!
"Like other people collect stamps or baseball cards, this room would have antiseptics, tons of K-Y Jelly, tons of any potions, formulas, perfumes, powders for massages. It would have vibrators, two Oster hand vibrators that go by electric--believe me, I'm not putting you on--it would have chains from the ceilings where women would hang from their legs down. I'd do it just to please them, to hear them moan and groan--it's true, I'm quicker than a rabbit when it comes to the intercourse, but that's not my thing here--I would have them moan and groan in other ways. I mean, this place would be filled!
"And another thing, I would never say goodbye to them. If I got tired of them, I would renew my energy with new contraptions, new devices; it would never end. I can never have too much. And I don't have to have my clothes off, either, as long as they're pleased. If I had my way, it would not be a one-night stand to put in the book and brag to the fellas. The tenth time with these ladies would be like the first. I would never let nobody go, I would hold up no matter how tired I got, bring new ones in, and keep the old ones there. Every thrill with a woman is the greatest thrill the good Lord created, and all this is what the public doesn't know about me.
"But what I'm telling you I tell Jesus Christ."
Beyond the conventional image of some slightly twisted root of a flower child, Tiny Tim is something wholly other.
Mostly--as comments above and below attest--he seems to be a profoundly frustrated sexual being.
This is a man--christened by a Jewish father and a Lebanese mother as Herbert Khaury--whose years are a few months away from 70. For all his adult life, he has been an outsider, a weirdo, a freak to most, yet in the late Sixties, he made that pay off in the world of show business, blending his fixation on the romantic, benign music of the early 1900s with the self-driven need to simply look different. This involved long hair and ghostly white face makeup, worn day and night, something he'd been doing on- and offstage for years.
In other words, this is not an act. Never has been.
And this is where we need to go back a few years, back to 1951, when 26-year-old Herbert, worshiper of an era whose music and style he was born into but just missed, found his calling. And he also found Jesus Christ.
"It starts in '51," Tim says with purpose. "I was a messenger from March of '51 to August of '52, five days a week at 1540 Broadway, which was the office of Loew's theatres and MGM. At Christmas in '51, they had a party for the employees. Those who had talent would sing for the big shots, and, boy, did I want to be a star! So when it came time to do that, I sang a song called 'Never' and I bombed out with my straight voice and short haircut. I was devastated, really devastated.
"Right after that, I said, 'There's got to be a change.' Something was crying inside. The change came on two fronts, not for show business alone, but also for my personal life. I was certainly not good-looking, but I did not want to change the nose because I was afraid of operations. I really prayed about it--and I thank Jesus Christ for the strength--and a feeling came over me. The high voice started to develop around the early part of 1952; it made me feel like I had something original."
But it wasn't just the voice. It had a lot to do with hair and makeup. That albino-white makeup. All over his face.
"After the voice came, I had to think of something else. I bought a book written by Rudolf Valentino that he wrote in 1922 called Daydreams. There was a picture of him turning to the right in profile, and his hair was parted over one of his eyes, a little over the brow, let's say. I took that style and mine grew. . . . By 1954, it was down to the ear, over the brow, where it had a very strange look.
"Now the makeup and the white powder also came between '52 and '54. The reason for that was I had always looked at beautiful women, and I'm not saying 18. I'm saying 14, 15, 16, 17; that's when a beautiful girl can be so innocent and wonderful in her youth. But I had pure thoughts, I wouldn't dare bring up fornicating, but I thought if I married one like that, they would be an eternal princess forever and I would get to heaven. I looked for these women, and I still do today.
"If I went out with a 14-year-old girl, I would definitely ask her parents' permission and bring her back the same way she left. I just want to take a look at that beauty, just like a vampire who wants to suck in the blood, but doesn't want to kill the victim."
But, even in Tilt-a-Whirl New York, Herbert's visage was somewhat startling.
"It took a lot of nerve to go out in public to begin with," Tim says with a sigh. "In 1954, I was thin, lanky, no fat under the chin, and I'd be on the subways with long hair and white pillow makeup, people moving away from me. Every day, from 8 in the morning when I went out to look for work to when I came back, that white makeup was on with the long hair, and there were torturous parts from these kids coming back from school. I went into Harlem a lot of times in these black neighborhoods, and the black kids would say, 'Hey, man! What's going on with that boy?'"
Bear in mind this was before hippies, beatniks and freaks, back when Ginsberg, Kerouac, Burroughs and Cassady had yet to howl or go on the road. Meanwhile, Tim was walking the streets, riding the subways of New York, a living billboard of weirdness in his singular world of self-creation, an outcast army of one.
And this had nothing to do with being cool, nothing to do with raising his middle finger at normal society. An absolute definition of irony, Herbert Khaury just wanted to be liked. By girls. Young girls. By any means necessary.
"My gut feeling told me that white was the color to bring me into a paradise," he rasps. "White symbolizes pure. Angelic. A fantastic passion of purity. It symbolized the young girl with creamy skin and an angelic nature, cuddling with me in a paradise to a Rudy Vallee song. I repeat, it was not a show-business ploy alone. Where I was concerned, Jesus Christ came first, romance second and show business third."
But did it work?
"Sure it worked," he mocks. "In a negative way, in a very torturous way. Girls would now call me, 'Ugly! He's grotesque!' But at least they did pay attention, whereas before they did not. But there were the few who were nice; there were a few who had the looks and did start to pay attention to me. It was worth the few beautiful ones over the majority."
And so Herbert Khaury attempted to follow his idols--Vallee, Valentino and Crosby--into the world of setting female hearts aflutter, and ended up in the world of New York City amateur nights. And that's also where the name Herbert Khaury was finally put to bed. Varlee Roth, Alexander Hemingway, Emmitt Swink, Judas K. Foxglove, Larry Love, Darry Dover were all pseudonyms employed by this odd man from Brooklyn, until he met, well, let him tell it. "A man named George King, the man who coined Tiny Tim. He had a beret on, an FDR cigarette holder, a mustache like Errol Flynn and a bottle of Seagram's 7 with Tropicana orange juice in his back pocket," says Tiny, who apparently has a memory like a broken sieve. "He would sign talent, mostly girls, and bring them to clubs and producers. But he knew I had no money, and he had nerve galore, so he'd bring me to Greenwich Village clubs, sit down with anyone and say, 'Tiny, give these people a song.' That's how I got into the Village. Later, he changed his name to Fred Martin and became a gigolo for old women who had money."
After moving up to decent gigs at period Village mainstays like the Big Fat Black Pussycat and the Page Three, Tiny finally made it to the legendary Steve Paul's The Scene. The joint was maison secondaire to the Velvet Underground, Warhol, and whichever glittering hipsters of the day happened to be in town. And he will never forget his first show there. "I was so thrilled on that miracle night, December 5th, 1965, and when I came home at 2 in the morning, the building I lived in was on fire. Thank God it didn't get to my mother's room."
His extended engagement at The Scene led to a signing with Sinatra's Reprise label, TV spots (including playing a coffee-house singer on the first episode of Ironside), and, ultimately, his 15 minutes that have lasted 26 years, Tiny's December 1969 wedding to Miss Vicky on The Tonight Show. (She left him in '72.)
But even though this unlikely talent Made It--Tiny even joined the Beatles on their fan-club Christmas record in '68--his public image at the end of that strange, confused decade was one of, well, strangeness and confusion.
"Even before the record came out [his chart-humping God Bless Tiny Tim], when they saw me on Laugh-In, mail was coming in, and I knew I was hot. But the letters--`Who is he?' 'Disgrace to the nation'--and the articles; there were editorials saying, 'What's Happening to This Country?' 'Worse Than the Vietnam War.'
"But the biggest question was, 'Are you putting us on? Is this an act?'" His response is part Zen, part resigned subway outcast. "If I say I'm putting you on, they'd say, 'I told you so.' If I said I'm not, they'd still say the same thing. . . . The difference between me and Rudy Vallee, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley is with them, people said, 'Aaahh!' With me they said, 'Uugghh!' The emotion of negativity was so, so emotional that they had to be there. I was the one they loved to hate."
And, to hear him tell it, very little has changed.
He's been married again, to Miss Jan in 1984 (though still legally bound, she left him only months after the wedding), he's been performing at carnivals and nightclubs, more or less broke, living in trailers and hotels, but has never escaped the bizarre aftertaste made by his now-decades-old celebrity imprint.
"The Tiny Tim image is not one that people rejoice over," he says, measuring his words. "It is an image that still is as the Master of Confusion. What is he? What is he saying? Is he a geek? Is he a queer? They can't relate and they're ashamed to say they even remember me. They don't want to be connected to a mental disturbance. They are ashamed to be noted with this type of character."
Which brings us back to Spooky World.
This is 1994, and this jovial, 69-year-old man who still uses moisturizers and facial cleansers 12 times a day is more than happy to perform 14 shows a week at a Halloween amusement park, play at nightclubs for people who could be his grandchildren, and even look beyond his own death.
Though he's obviously an avowed Christian, Tiny Tim willingly tackles the question of reincarnation. "I would want to come back--but only with the spirit of Jesus Christ in my heart, only if I have that--I would like to be John Holmes. He had great equipment--may he rest in peace--and I would love to love one woman completely and be able to satisfy her for hours. Only if it was that way would I want to be John Holmes."
But he can't, of course, be John Holmes. He can only continue to be Tiny Tim, an exceedingly polite gentleman with long hair, a piercing falsetto, a ukulele and a crabgrass career that hasn't stopped growing--in one direction or another--since he took the stage at a Christmas party at 1540 Broadway, New York City, 1951.
"I just think my career is floating like the dollar," Tiny Tim says in his hoarse Brooklyn purr. "Up and down. I think it's like a steel rod in the water, and the water just passes it but always knows it's there. I hope that some way a record of mine will be played that may revive me to the top again."
But until then, he'll stick with "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." Tim chuckles. "I never let myself get tired of the hand that feeds me.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.