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New documentary chronicles the slow rise and fast fade of Tiny Tim

Bill DeYoung

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Jan. 22, 1968: America meets Tiny Tim on "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." Screen grab, Juno Films.

There has never been, at least since the start of the TV age, an entertainer as bizarre – and yet strangely appealing – as Tiny Tim. Awkward and tall, with unkempt shoulder-length hair, he had a monstrous hawk nose, wore pancake makeup and strummed a left-handed ukulele he’d pull out of a ratty shopping bag.

And when he opened his (enormous) mouth, he sang in a girly falsetto voice, the kind of voice that could peel paint. From the moment America got its first look at him, on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, the debate raged over Tiny Tim – was the act an elaborate put-on, or could this strangely androgynous man-child be for real?

The answer, made clear in the documentary film Tiny Tim: King For a Day, was that he was both, and he was neither. For Herbert Butrous Khaury, born to a Lebanese Catholic father and Polish Jewish mother in Manhattan in 1932, was an extremely talented musician, a musicologist with databank knowledge and understanding of the popular songs of the 1920s and ‘30s.

Was he normal? That depends on your definition.

As the film, which opens Sunday at Green Light Cinema, explains, Herbert’s parents were verbally and physically abusive to their strange, gawky son, and from an early age he sought refuge in his bedroom, listening to records night and day on the family Victrola, losing himself in the melodies and lyrics.

He was, from an early, both obsessed with and confused by his family’s religion, and his own sexuality.

And he desperately wanted to be famous.

His baritone singing voice had an old-timey Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby quality to it (he once told this writer he’d loved a book, as a young man, called You Too Can Sing the Dick Haymes Way), but it wasn’t until he discovered that otherworldly falsetto that people began to notice him. In his diary (read in the film by “Weird Al” Yankovic) he says “God told me to sing the sissy way. Thanks, ever so much, for the magnetism onstage that you’ve given me.”

First as a freak show act known as Larry Love (along with other names), then as Tiny Tim, Khaury endured taunts and thrown tomatoes for years before becoming a “hit” in underground Greenwich Village folk clubs.

Which led to Laugh-In, and a recording contract (“Tiptoe Through the Tulips” was a Top 20 hit in 1968), and multiple appearances on all the TV entertainment shows (Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, David Frost, Merv Griffin, Hollywood Palace, Jackie Gleason).

King For a Day includes excerpts from many of these programs, and it becomes clear that the hosts, incredulous though they were at Tim’s weird mannerisms (the flirty eyerolls, girlish laughter and flurry of blown kisses) and outrageous statements, had a begrudging respect for the man – he was clearly a respectful, and well-spoken, fan of vintage music. And he knew how to entertain.

The pancake makeup disappeared, but the disheveled appearance and flights of falsetto remained.

Between 1968 and 1970s, Tiny Tim was America’s freak. He was on every magazine cover.

England loved him too. George Harrison included him on the Beatles 1968 Fan Club Christmas record, he sold out Albert Hall, and the was the smash hit of the Isle of Wight Festival.

In 1969, he married 17-year-old Vicki Budinger, live on The Tonight Show. An estimated 40 million people tuned in.

The marriage fell apart, as Budinger explains via audio clips in the film, because Tiny Tim was incapable of anything resembling normal life. He was addicted to applause.

The couple’s adult daughter, Tulip, is one of the interview subjects in King For a Day, along with a parade of managers, agents and adult women who knew him as teenagers (despite everything, they insist, he always remained a perfect gentleman).

Laugh-In producer George Schlatter, musicians Peter Yarrow and Richard Barone, professional hippie Wavy Gravy, record producer Richard Perry and filmmakers Jonas Mekas and D.A. Pennebaker are also interviewed.

There’s nothing, however, quite like watching the man himself onstage. In his salad days, Tiny Tim was extraordinary, so much more than a novelty act.

The public, of course, didn’t see it that way, and his disappearance from view was swift and final. The last third of the relentlessly engaging King For a Day chronicles the sad decline of Tiny Tim the entertainer, and Herbert Khaury the man. Plagued by health problems in his final years, he collapsed onstage at the end of a performance, and died in the arms of his (third) wife, Susan, in 1996.

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