Tiny Tim has joined the circus. The chirpy-voiced singer, now in his 50s, has started a 36-week stint under the Great American Circus big top, playing the center ring right after a bareback acrobatic horse act. To some the gig might seem a comedown from the $50,000 a week Tiny was earning in Vegas in the late ’60s. Certainly the audiences will be smaller than the 35 million who watched his Tonight Show marriage in 1969 to a wide-eyed teen named Miss Vicki. But Tiny didn’t seem to mind when he talked about the tour a few months ago in Brooklyn. “I’ll have my very own private trailer,” he told me in modest wonderment.
We were at the Golden Dove lounge in Bay Ridge, the sort of place Tiny often plays these days. It was filled with aging singles on the prowl, its bar three-deep in spangled miniskirts and spike heels, leather jackets and plunging shirt fronts. I couldn’t help wondering how these fading disco ducks would react to Tiny’s wavery falsetto and beloved old vaudeville tunes.
Shortly after midnight Tiny fluttered onto the club’s small stage, blowing kisses with both hands. He would be backed this evening by the Townsmen, a four-piece rock band with more equipment than talent and very little knowledge of Tiny’s repertoire. Tiny pulled his battered ukulele out of a canvas tote bag emblazoned with a big sun and the word “Florida,” then launched into a Victrola-era rendition of Let Me Call You Sweetheart. Although the Townsmen needed about four bars in this and every other song to figure out just what he was doing, the audience didn’t care. Tiny, after all, was probably the closest they’d ever come to a celebrity at the Golden Dove.
Midway through the first set Tiny’s drummer gradually speeded up the tempo. Tiny hand-signaled for a slower pace to no avail, and so he plugged gamely on, rushing through 10 tunes in about 15 minutes. He is 6’1″ and a portly 250 pounds now, but he looked genuinely fragile up there, an overgrown guppy surrounded by sharks. Finally, after doing his old million-seller, Tiptoe Through the Tulips, he flung off his coat and flopped to the floor for his rousing finale, a Presleyesque Heartbreak Hotel. The crowd loved it.
Between sets Tiny sat at a small table and accommodated a half dozen autograph seekers, treating each with extraordinary courtesy. By his side was his “very good friend,” a mid-30ish platinum blonde with silver glitter sprinkled on her face, neck and shoulders. Miss Vicki has long since gone, and Tiny’s second marriage last year had apparently been foundering. In the ladies’ room the blonde and I chatted for a few minutes. “The soft-spoken Tiny that you see onstage, that’s him all the way,” she assured me. “He’s very sincere.” As she was leaving, I told her, “I hope your pal is able to make it again.” Somehow my meaning failed to penetrate; maybe her glitter acted like the radar-jamming chaff dropped from planes. At any rate she thought I’d said something about her and Tiny making it. “Oh, I think we will,” she replied. “He’s ready for a long-term relationship now.” (But not with the blonde. Tiny and Miss Jan got back together.)
Tiny’s second act was much the same, only with different tunes. Again he saved his best for the last five minutes, pumping out a spirited rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis’ Great Balls of Fire. Suddenly a middle-aged gent in a bad toupee, tight polyester pants and a matching shirt that rode up over his stomach hopped on the stage with a younger, pumping-iron type. Both boys acted like chimps in heat, rolling on the floor, bouncing off the walls, making faces at the audience. Tiny looked pained—and conservative by comparison—but he went on with the show, his eyes focused somewhere above the crowd.
When I saw him last he was dancing with his blond friend, slow-stepping to the Golden Dove’s disco band. A few weeks later he was off, riding his very own private trailer through the South in the company of jugglers, bears, elephants, trapeze fliers and high-wire walkers. He would get no sympathy from me, though—not that he would even want any. Because the fact was, I couldn’t tell if he had really joined the circus or merely left it.