Film Review: Tiny Tim: King for a Day

STUDIO: Juno Films | DIRECTOR: Johan von Sydow
SPECS: NR | 78 min. | Documentary

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie 

To most people who know his name, Tiny Tim is the oddball, frizzy-haired guy with a falsetto voice who played the ukulele and had a surprise novelty hit in the late Sixties with 1929’s “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” Others may recall that the 37-year-old performer married a 17-year-old woman known as Miss Vicki in December 1969 on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in front of 40 million people—the second biggest TV audience at the time topped only the Apollo 8 moon landing earlier that same year.

But, according to the documentary Tiny Tim: King for a Day, there’s a lot more to the story than most realize, and much of it is not as quaint or happy as tiptoeing through the tulips.

Directed by Johan von Sydow, the film chronicles the entire life of the late Mr. Tim aka Herbert Butros Khaury (he died in 1996 at the age of 64), beginning with his tough upbringing in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan by strict parents, a Jewish mother and Lebanese father. Tim’s teenage years were a period of sexual confusion that impacted him greatly, but they evolved into a few years of frenzied, high-profile success, followed by a quick as demise as a celebrity and, some attest, as an artist. His heath, sadly, also rapidly spiraled.

The film uses a whole bunch of fascinating elements to tell the story. Terrific footage is culled from several of Tiny’s talk show appearances, as well as his stints on the TV shows Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and The Hollywood Palace. The archival material is bolstered by photos, interviews with the likes of singer Tommy James, 60s icon Wavy Gravy, producer George Schlatter, filmmakers Jonas Mekas and D.A. Pennebaker, the late “Miss Vicki’ Budinger (audio only), along with terrific new black-and-white animated sequences, which fill in the gaps. “Weird Al” Yankovic reads Tiny Tim’s diaries, which reveal his struggles from young adulthood and on.

Tiny Tim: King for a Day spotlights a person uncomfortable in his own skin who seems to only be happy when cameras and spotlights are on him, while onlookers gawk at him as being a freak of sorts. This also rings true—literally—in Tiny Tim’s life, as he was billed as “The Human Canary” in a sideshow gig early in his career, before he hit the Greenwich Village folk scene and became friends with Peter, Paul and Mary and Bob Dylan, who wanted to make a movie with him. Years later, he donned clown makeup and retreated to the circus to earn cash when things got rough.

Though the documentary may appear to be a comprehensive survey of this one-of-a-kind entertainer’s world, there are some missing parts. Totally absent is any mention of Tiny Tim’s regular appearances on Howard Stern’s radio show in the late 1980s and early 1990s and one of his three wives is barely mentioned. Then there’s his attempt to become a movie star with a lead role in the 1987 low-budget horror flick Blood Harvest, which is glossed over with in a quick shot of its poster.

Still, the film is filled with prime material that serves as an effective time capsule for a cultural phenomenon that may be hard to fathom if one didn’t experience it the first time around.

About Irv

Irv Slifkin has been reviewing movies since before he got kicked off of his high school radio station for panning The Towering Inferno in 1974. He has written the books VideoHound’s Groovy Movies: Far-Out Films of the Psychedelic Era and Filmadelphia: A Celebration of a City’s Movies, and has contributed film reportage and reviews to such outlets as Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, Video Business magazine and National Public Radio.