Tiny Tim, Outcast Troubadour

Remember, it’s better to be a has-been than a never-was.
(Tiny Tim)

That an outsider like Tiny Tim could reach success, albeit briefly, can be ascribed to the typical appetite for oddities of the Sixties, the decade of the freak-out ethic/aesthetic, when everybody was constantly looking for out-of-line pop music of liberating and subversive madness.
And yet, in regard to many other weird acts of the time, this bizarre character embodied an innocence and purity the Love Generation was eager to embrace.

Born Herbert Khaury in New York, 1932, Tiny Tim was a big and tall man, sporting long shabby hair. Even if in reality he was obsessed with cleansing and never skipped his daily shower during his entire life, he always gave the impression of a certain gresiness. He would come up onstage looking almost embarassed, his face sometimes covered with white makeup, and pull his trusty ukulele out of a paper bag; his eyes kept rolling in ambiguous winks, conveying a melodramatic and out-of-place emphasis. And when he started singing, there came the ultimate shock. From that vaguely creepy face came an incredible, trembling falsetto voice like that of a little girl. It was as if Shirley Temple was held prisoner inside the body of a giant.

If anything, the choice of songs played by Tiny Tim on his ukulele tended to increase the whole surreal effect by adding some ancient flavor: the setlist mainly consisted of obscure melodies from the 20s or the 30s, re-interpreted in his typical ironic, overblown style.

It was hard not to suspect that such a striking persona might have been carefully planned and engineered, with the purpose of unsettling the audience while making them laugh at the same time. And laughter certainly didn’t seem to bother Tiny Tim. But the real secret of this eccentric artist is that he wasn’t wearing any mask.
Tiny Tim had always remained a child.

Justin Martell, author of the artist’s most complete biography (Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, with A. Wray Mcdonald), had the chance to decypher some of Tiny’s diaries, sometimes compiled boustrophedonically: and it turned out he actually came within an inch of being committed to a psychiatric hospital.
Whether his personality’s peculiar traits had to do with some autistic spectrum disorder or not, his childish behaviour was surely not a pose. Capable of remembering the name of every person he met, he showed an old-fashioned respect for any interlocutor – to the extent of always referring to his three wives as “Misses”: Miss Vicki, Miss Jan, Miss Sue. His first two marriages failed also because of his declared disgust for sex, a temptation he strenuously fought being a fervent Christian. In fact another sensational element for the time was the candor and openness with which he publicly spoke of his sexual life, or lack thereof. “I thank God for giving me the ability of looking at naked ladies and think pure thoughts“, he would say.
If we are to believe his words, it was Jesus himself who revealed upon him the possibilities of a high-pitched falsetto, as opposed to his natural baritone timbre (which he often used as an “alternate voice” to his higher range). “I was trying to find an original style that didn’t sound like Tony Bennett or anyone else. So I prayed about it, woke up with this high voice, and by 1954, I was going to amateur nights and winning.

Being on a stage meant everything for him, and it did not really matter whether the public just found him funny or actually appreciated his singing qualities: Tiny Tim was only interested in bringing joy to the audience. This was his naive idea of show business – it all came down to being loved, and giving some cheerfulness in return.

Tiny avidly scoured library archives for American music from the beginning of the century, of which he had an encyclopedic knwoledge. He idolized classic crooners like Rudy Vallee, Bing Crosby and Russ Columbo: and in a sense he was mocking his own heroes when he sang standards like Livin’ In The Sunlight, Lovin’ In The Moonlight or My Way. But his cartoonesque humor never ceased to be respectful and reverential.

Tiny Tim reached a big unexpected success in 1968 with his single Tiptoe Through The Tulips, which charted #17 that year; it was featured in his debut album, God Bless Tiny Tim, which enjoyed similar critic and public acclaim.
Projected all of a sudden towards an improbable stardom, he accepted the following year to marry his fiancée Victoria Budinger on live TV at Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, before 40 million viewers.

In 1970 he performed at the Isle of Wight rock festival, after Joan Baez and before Miles Davis; according to the press, with his version of There’ll Always Be An England he managed to steal the scene “without a single electric instrument”.

But this triumph was short-lived: after a couple of years, Tiny Tim returned to a relative obscurity which would last for the rest of his career. He lived through alternate fortunes during the 80s and 90s, between broken marriages and financial difficulties, sporadically appearing on TV and radio shows, and recording albums where his beloved songs from the past mixed with modern pop hits cover versions (from AC/DC to Bee Gees, from Joan Jett to The Doors).

According to one rumor, any time he made a phone call he would ask: “do you have the tape recorder going?
And indeed, in every interview Tiny always seemed focused on building a personal mythology, on developing his romantic ideal of an artist who was a “master of confusion“, baffling and elusive, escaping all categorization. Some believe he remained a “lonely outcast intoxicated by fame“; even when fame had long departed. The man who once befriended the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who was a guest at every star’s birthday party, little by little was forgotten and ended up singing in small venues, even performing with the circus. “As long as my voice is here, and there is a Holiday Inn waiting for me, then everything’s just swell.

But he never stopped performing, in relentelss and exhausting tours throughout the States, which eventually took their toll: in spite of a heart condition, and against his physician’s advice, Tiny Tim decided to go on singing before his ever decreasing number of fans. The second, fatal heart stroke came on November 30, 1996, while he was onstage at a charity evening singing his most famous hit, Tiptoe Through The Tulips.

And just like that, on tiptoes, this eternally romantic and idealistic human being of rare kindness quietly left this world, and the stage.
The audience had already left, and the hall was half-empty.

Robert Ripley

Una vita alla ricerca del bizzarro

Nato nel 1890, Robert Ripley aveva cominciato la sua carriera come fumettista, collaborando ad alcune strisce del New York Globe. All’età di 29 anni fece il suo primo viaggio intorno al mondo, e tornò completamente cambiato: la scoperta di culture differenti, località ed usanze esotiche l’aveva talmente intrigato che decise di dedicare la sua vita alla ricerca del bizzarro e dell’inusitato.


Così cambiò il titolo della sua striscia in Believe It Or Not! (“Che ci crediate o no!”), e attraverso i fumetti cominciò a raccontare le più strane e incredibili storie provenienti da tutto il mondo e ad illustrare i prodigi della natura meno conosciuti.


Il successo della rubrica crebbe vertiginosamente durante tutti gli anni ’20, e Ripley divenne presto una delle figure pubbliche più famose e conosciute; ma dietro a questo eclatante risultato c’era un altro uomo, che restò per sempre nell’ombra.

Infatti Ripley, deciso ad essere il più attendibile possibile, nel 1923 ingaggiò Norbert Pearlroth perché si occupasse della ricerca. Quest’uomo era uno studioso eccezionale e di sicuro uno dei maggiori artefici del successo della rubrica.

Norbert parlava 11 lingue, e lavorava 10 ore al giorno per sei giorni alla settimana restando chiuso nella sala di lettura della New York Public Library: si stima che abbia esaminato 7000 libri all’anno, rimanendo a lavorare nello staff di Believe It Or Not fino al 1975, leggendo un totale di più di 350.000 libri. Da contratto, doveva riuscire a trovare ogni settimana esattamente 24 curiosità da inserire nella rubrica, e lavorò praticamente in completo anonimato per tutta la sua vita.


Nel frattempo Ripley aveva stretto una collaborazione con il magnate della stampa William Hearst (quello a cui faceva il verso Orson Welles in Quarto potere, per intenderci), che aveva deciso di finanziare i suoi celebri viaggi attorno al mondo alla ricerca di stranezze e pezzi rari da collezione. Nel 1930 Believe It Or Not sbarcò alla radio, con uno show che sarebbe durato per 14 anni. Il pubblico cominciò a inviare migliaia di segnalazioni alla redazione, spesso raccontando di storie bizzarre accadute nel proprio circondario; le testimonianze erano tutte soppesate e verificate accuratamente (spesso da Pearlroth in persona) prima di venire pubblicate. Con i suoi 18 milioni di lettori in tutto il mondo, Ripley riceveva circa 3000 lettere alla settimana, tanto che si dice che la sua posta superasse per volume quella della Casa Bianca.


La popolarità di Ripley era alle stelle: la Warner Bros produsse perfino una dozzina di cortometraggi Believe It Or Not da proiettare prima dei film, nelle sale cinematografiche. Nel 1932 Ripley ha visitato ben 201 paesi del mondo. Decide allora di mettere in mostra l’impressionante quantità di stranezze che ha accumulato in tutti quei viaggi, ed apre il primo Odditorium a Chicago. Vi espone, fra vitelli a due teste impagliati, strumenti di tortura e feticci esotici, anche la sua collezione di tsantsa (le teste dei nemici “ristrette” dagli indios dell’Amazzonia) che è la più grande del mondo. Per metà wunderkammer e per metà sideshow, sospeso in un limbo sempre in bilico fra l’accuratezza di un antropologo culturale e la faccia tosta dell’imbonitore da fiera, l’Odditorium ha un immediato successo e in meno di 8 anni Ripley ne apre altri cinque in varie città degli Stati Uniti.


Durante la Seconda Guerra Mondiale Ripley smette di viaggiare e si dedica a opere di carità. Nel dopoguerra però torna alla carica con una mossa azzardata ma lungimirante: punta tutto sulla neonata televisione, e trasferisce il programma radiofonico su piccolo schermo, inaugurando la serie tv di Believe It Or Not. Fa in tempo a registrare 13 episodi, prima di morire per cancro nel 1949.


Oggi la franchise Believe It Or Not conta 32 musei in tutto il mondo (Bizzarro Bazar ha visitato quello di New York, in questo articolo), e la Ripley Entertainment Inc. è un colosso dell’intrattenimento: oltre a decine di parchi di divertimento, detiene a sua volta le franchise di Madame Tussauds e delle attrazioni relative al Guinness dei Primati. Con il marchio Ripley vengono pubblicati libri, calendari, poster, videogame, trasmissioni televisive… e, ancora oggi, la famosa striscia a fumetti da cui tutto ebbe inizio.