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Tiny Tim

Posted: July 17, 2014 4:26 p.m.
Updated: July 18, 2014 5:00 a.m.

Isn’t it odd how every once in awhile, something pops in your head that’s been buried for a long time -- a distant memory that for some reason comes alive?

That happens to all of us, of course. Sometimes a familiar sight will trigger such a memory, or perhaps a favorite song from long ago.

But it was really odd earlier this week when out of nowhere, a name from long ago and far away popped into my head:

Tiny Tim.

If you’re not yet into middle age, the name will probably mean nothing to you.

But if, like me, you’re into your Social Security years, you will recall Tiny Tim, who was perhaps the ultimate show business novelty act.

How can I describe him?

Tiny Tim emerged for his 15 minutes of fame in the late 1960s  -- a stringy-haired, ukulele-plucking, falsetto-crooning, media-manipulating bundle of nerves whose shtick captured the public fancy for a short time before he flamed out quickly.

As a young reporter, I caught him on the downslide, far past his heyday, interviewing him in Camden as he traveled with one of those cheap-tented, one-night-stand circuses that move from town to town.

It hadn’t always been so for him.

Born Herbert Khaury in New York City in 1932, he discovered early on an ability to sing in a high-pitched falsetto voice, A few minor bookings in the ’60s led to an appearance on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, which topped the TV ratings at that time.

Adopting the name Tiny Tim, he strode onto stage in outlandish costumes, effeminately blowing kisses to the audience before launching into a high-register rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.”

His awkward hats, perched on top of a head of strangulated hair, made him a curiosity. It was always a guess as to whether people were laughing with him or at him.

But watch him they did.

In 1969, at age 38, he married a teenager he insisted on calling Miss Vicki. They got hitched on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, with 40 million viewers looking on.

Tiny Tim’s lamp stayed lit for a short time afterward, but like almost all acts which are too much hype and too little talent, it was a steady downward descent from there.

The stringy hair looked dirtier, the falsetto sounded more strained and the puritanical persona became a bit weary.

By the time he came to Camden -- this would have been in the mid-’70s -- Tiny Tim was more a figure to be pitied than admired.

One particular memory sticks out from our interview: his ukulele was broken, held together by duct tape, its gray stickiness masking cracks that could just as well have been the fissures in Tiny Tim’s career.

It was all so … well, sad.

Oh, Tiny Tim tried to make the best of it, of course, going on as if I were a Hollywood reporter for Variety and he was still at the top of his game.

He declared he was thrilled, just thrilled to be touring with the Big Top Circus, or whatever the name of it was, and he couldn’t be happier to be visiting places like Camden.

Hey, you and I might love Camden, but it’s not exactly at the top of every entertainer’s list of places they’d like to be performing.

You have to hand it to Tiny Tim, though. He took a minimum amount of talent and parlayed it into a lucrative, albeit brief, career.

And I’m sure that for years after his apex, he thought, like many entertainers on the back side of the moon, he was only a step or two from reclaiming glory.

He didn’t, of course. Tiny Tim’s career continued to deteriorate. Miss Vicki left him when the music died, and he went through two more marriages.

He died in 1996 not long after suffering a heart attack while playing at a ukulele festival in Massachusetts.

I’m no closer now than I was at the beginning of this column to figuring out why this strange man, once described as “a lonely outcast intoxicated by fame,” popped into my head after decades.

Wherever he is,  I hope he has a ukulele that’s not held together by duct tape.

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