I used to work at a music store. On one wall there was an entire rack devoted just to ukuleles. The owner insisted that there were people out there who wanted them. I would say to him, “Mr. Figueroa, who these days wants a ukulele?” (We were already well into the 1970s.)
:Mr. Figueroa would turn to me and say, “What’s the matter? You never heard of Tiny Tim?”
In the entire time I worked at the music storewhich was one full summer, one spring break, and at least a couple of ChristmasesI never saw anybody buy a ukulele. No matter what Mr. Figueroa thought, big money and frequent appearances on television talk shows could not buy admirationor even a begrudging sort of envy. Tiny Tim might still have been famoushis curious moment of glory having lasted far beyond the expiration date on its do-not-consume-after-this-date warning labelbut his was the sort of disquieting glamour only the most self-abusive mind could covet. In the early 1970s, he was a most anomalous kind of celebrity: He had made long-playing records and he had appeared on the Tonight show, but he was not somebody who anybody else wanted to be.
In a world where it was a compliment to be mistaken for anybody famous, to be mistaken for Tiny Tim was to be mistaken for something much worse than Paul Lynde or Charles Nelson Reilly. To be mistaken for Tiny Tim was to be mistaken for a gay man with no fashion sense, a joke with no perceivable punch line, an apparently libidoless creature who nevertheless married a woman on late-night network TV. It was to be mistaken for the kid who knew all the words to all the songs from all the Ruby Keeler movies, the kid who had taught himself to play the ukulele, the kid who got beat up every afternoon riding home on the backseat of the bus.
Not even the bus driver would dare to protect a kid like that. Instead, the bus driver would stare straight ahead at the highway in front of him. At home at night, he would tell his wife, “That Tim kidhe’s a weirdo. Plays the ukulele. Makes the other kids crazy. Gotta be queer.”
I hated Tiny Tim. I hated him because I knew all the words to the Ruby Keeler movie songs too. I hated him because I knew all the words to “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” just like he did. I hated him because my voice did not change until I was already 17-and-a-half years old.
I hated him because, even when I was 16 years old, I was still having to stand up in front of P.T.A. meetings and sing “Tit Willow” while my mother played the piano. I hated him because there was a coach in our high school who would make me stand up and sing “Tit Willow” in front of his social studies class. I hated Tiny Tim because he let people laugh at him, even though he wasn’t quite sure why he was supposed to be funny. I hated him in the same way that freaks must hate other freaks in freak shows, since, even in freak shows, there is a pecking order. There are some who take the money and are grateful for the gawking crowd’s slack-jawed attention. There are others who take the money and stare the foul-breathed gawkers down.
I hated him because, just once, I wanted to see him turn around and laugh at himself. Just once, I wanted him to suggest that he had not invented himself, that he had had some choice in this, that this horror did not have to be real. But Tiny Tim would not do it. It does not matter whether Tiny Tim was actually straight or gay or merely a curiosity. For a gay child he was the worst terror there could possibly be.
Tiny Tim came out of a whole breed of creatures who made their living simply by being laughed at. On Laugh-In he had been discovered right alongside Mrs. Miller, who sang “Downtown” in a curdling, fake-Wagnerian soprano; Ruth Buzzi, who played a maleficent old spinster who could not keep her knees together; and Judy Carne, whose weekly torment was to scream, “Sock it to me!” only to be doused by the same torrents of icy flash flood.
They were like Sisyphus rolling the same rock-like schtick up a hillside, knowing full well that, no matter what they did, it could only roll back down over them again. There can have been little real pride in the undertaking. There can have been little use for rehearsal after a while.
Theirs was comedy in the tradition of Jerry Lewis and the Three Stooges, comedy from which all human dignity and all human feeling had been mercilessly pummeled. It elicited the sort of laughter that the tumbrel must have elicited as it carried wigless aristocrats to the guillotine. Except that the guillotine was kinder. On Laugh-In the blade could rise to drop again.
For whatever reason, Mrs. Miller stopped making records, Ruth Buzzi went on to sit-coms, and Judy Carne went on to drugs. But Tiny Tim, I fear, never took the hint. He had let people laugh at him, but he had kept playing the ukulele long after their laughing had stopped. He was still performing when he died; he had his heart attack right in the middle of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” He had started making records again in recent years, but I cannot imagine that his services were in much demand.
I am sure there are people, even now, who will say that they laughed at Tiny Tim for his sweetness, for his gentleness, for the whiff of divine innocence that he brought into their lives. But, having been a boy whose voice did not change until he was 17-and-a-half, I can tell you that those people lie. Tiny Tim was not even an anachronism; there had never been a time in which he actually belonged.
There had been no tell-all biography, à la Liberace; there was no sordid amyl-nitrate-scented death in the style of Paul Lynde. There probably will be no rush to make sense of his life in a made-for-TV movie. I cannot think who would dare to play him. Even Pee Wee Herman would have too much sense to take the part.
It hurts to remember Tiny Tim and the way he made his livingby being laughed at. It hurts to remember that he came about in the ’60s, when the world was supposedly losing its inhibitions, when everybody was supposed to be embraced and loved. But Tiny Tim was all about uneasiness and things that, even in an age of hip-hugger jeans and marijuana, were still unspeakable.
I am sure he had a fan club, but I’ll bet there was not one 16-year-old boy in its entire membership. Instead, I bet it included a lot of 16-year-old boys’ slightly befuddled mothers.
This much I do know: Mr. Figueroa never sold one of his ukuleles. They hung on the rack in the music store until they fell apart because of dry rot.