Long Live Tiny Tim

‘King for a Day,’ chronicles the life and peculiar genius of Herbert Khaury.

Among the strange spectacles that ended the 1960s was a wedding — the Dec 17, 1969, nuptials of Herbert Butros Khaury and Miss Vicky Budinger. At the time, it was the second most watched television broadcast ever, second only to that year’s first moon landing. The wedding occurred on the Tonight Show, with an unusually humane Johnny Carson hosting. Tiny Tim, as Khaury was also known, is the subject of Johan von Sydow’s short but evocative documentary Tiny Tim: King for a Day. He was a fascinating subject who deserves his own chapter in the ever-running story of the madness and fickleness of crowds.

After years of being a Greenwich Village oddity, Khaury was declared ready for prime time and put as a guest on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In. The comedy show was, in  singer-songwriter Mike Monahan’s words, “a Scotch drinker’s idea of the psychedelic.” Tim was a natural guest for such a venue. Extracting his ukulele from a shopping bag, he played and sang his signature tune, Harry Dubin and Joe Burke’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” from the musical Gold Diggers of Broadway

Like all great performances, it was a bit frightening. There went that warbling falsetto, tickling the spine as if it were a xylophone. He was not tiny in any sense of the word. He was 6 feet in height, flamboyantly dressed in suits with snazzy depression-ware wide lapels, bold stripes, and an extra-wide tie. He had a mop of corkscrew hair and a vast nose at a time when everyone on TV besides Jimmy Durante had rhinoplasties. In some appearances, Tiny Tim wore harsh white makeup — he was emulating the look of a silent movie star, in the days when the faces of movie stars were painted up to catch every bit of the then-weak studio lighting that they could.

Tiny Tim had started small — in a flea circus, at one point. (That old-time diversion is explained via documentary footage). He claimed that his upper range was a late-in-life discovery. Sometimes he said that he’d prayed for it, and God gave it to him. He had a several octave range, but his theremin-like falsetto really slew listeners. “I must use the sissy voice,” Tim wrote in his diaries — they’re read aloud by an unusually somber Weird Al Yankovic.

Before he broke big on TV, Tiny Tim played night after night in NYCs’ gay bars, doing numbers like “I Enjoy Being a Girl” from the San Francisco-set musical Flower Drum Song. Tiny Tim caught the lenses of a gamut of avant-gardists, from Jack Smith to Diane Arbus to Andy Warhol. D.A. Pennybaker, interviewed here, describes how Bob Dylan wanted to make a film starring Tiny Tim as a circus ringmaster. Both Northern Californian hippie clown Wavy Gravy and long-time doyen of the NYC 16mm scene Jonas Mekas both knew Tim in the old days; Mekas filmed him live at a Greenwich VIllage spot called The Fat Black Pussycat.

Based on the biography Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim by Justin Martell and Alanna Wray McDonald, King for a Day lacks some context. We hear of Tiny Tim’s tormented life — animated in grim black and white by Marko Mestrovic — but there’s no observation of the 1920s and Depression era revival in late 1960s pop culture. It began about the time Bonnie and Clyde was released in 1967, and perished about the time 1974’s The Great Gatsby tanked. Tim wasn’t alone as a surveyor of old time music. Take the late Ian Whitcomb, The Temperance Seven, and The New Vaudeville Band, who had the novelty hit “Winchester Cathedral” — they and others kept these old tunes warm. In the case of the amazing Bonzo Dog Band, they kept these songs red hot.

Certainly none of these artists hit the big time on television like Tiny did; you can see the satisfaction in the face of Laugh In producer George Schlatter for being perceptive about Tim’s star qualities, as Schlatter faces us down from a desk backed with a gleaming row of just-polished Emmys. But the question is left open here of whether Tim was just a bizarre flash in the pan, as opposed to a gifted vocalist in an almost forgotten style.

The point is that Tiny Tim was also adroit with the music of his contemporaries. Heard in excerpt is Tiny Tim’s utterly approrpos version of “People Are Strange.” It’s the best Doors cover I’ve ever heard, give or take “Soul Kitchen” by X. Though the song turns up on the soundtrack, it’s not underscored that Tiny Tim recorded the Paul Williams and Biff Rose tune “Fill Your Heart” three years before Hunky Dory was released. We can make an educated guess that David Bowie first heard “Fill Your Heart” on the flip side of Tiny Tim’s megahit 45 RPM “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” 

Tim’s first wife, Miss Vicky is interviewed by phone; she chalks up the failure of the marriage to the fact that Tim loved performing more than he loved domestic life. By the time of his two divorces, and a final collapse at a live show, Tiny Tim had toured with a circus, confessed to poverty in the pages of the National Enquirer, and had starred as a psycho clown in a movie called Blood Harvest (1987). There was a lot of decline in store for this poor man, who was indefatigably polite, at least until decades of showbiz vicissitudes rubbed that polish off. “A turtle without a shell,” says one witness. Clearly, Tiny Tim was one of those people born without that little switch on their throats that keeps them from saying everything he thought. To his misfortune, he idealized people, even those close to him. 

The tombstones for parents read, “He was a saint of a father… she was a saint of a mother.” This was demonstrably false, according to Tim’s cousin, Bernie Stein. Tiny Tim’s childhood in Washington Heights was squalid — the parents didn’t have a bedroom door to close on their son. He was born to a Russian Jewish mother and a Lebanese Christian father; the latter suspected the boy’s queerness, which he punished brutally. Tiny Tim was “half-gay” according to the testimony of his last wife Susan Gardner. She was a long time fan who married Tiny Tim, when he was a physical wreck in his 50s and she was 30 years younger.

The cruellest thing in this film is the cornering of one Bobby Gonzales for whom the young Herbert harbored deep romantic love in boyhood. Gonzales is surprised with the evidence of diary pages proving the attraction. There’s a hundred better ways this info could be obtained. This ambushing robs us of memories of Tiny Tim that only Gonzales would have had.

Tim was Christ-haunted, especially about his harmless oral perversions — watch this and you’ll learn, whether you wanted to learn it or not, that he liked to smear peanut butter on his lady friends and then lick it off. The documentary amps up the bizarreness of a singularly strange performer, in favor of illuminating his music, or telling the story that legendary Atlantic records exec Ahmet Ertegun himself was amazed by Tim’s emulations of 1920s vocal styles. Essential to the success of Tim’s first album, God Bless Tiny Tim, was unironical, first-rate production at Reprise records. Someone there had a long enough memory to contextualize his crooning.

Ultimately, rather than the Behind the Music exposees of hidden pain and vicissitudes, I wish there’d been more emphasis on the music itself, and the successes, as when Tiny Tim performed “There’ll Always Be an England” to a 600,000-strong festival crowd at the Isle of Wight. Too often during his time, and sometimes here in this documentary, Tiny Tim was treated as a freakazoid, instead of someone who knew where the weird old music of his parents’ age was stashed. He was the forebear of the many odd-duck hipster performers with uke, a common sight today. While this is a knowledgeable film and a genuine labor of love, the problem is right there in the title. He was king for more than a day — Tiny Tim was a remarkable talent who is overdue for a revival.

Related Stories