God Loves Tiny Tim
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 31, 2008
God Loves Tiny Tim is the autobiographical one-man show that Tiny Tim never did. Tim—portrayed by a man who knew and loved him, Spats White—takes the audience on a journey through his life, with appropriate tunes of yesteryear sprinkled throughout (always played, of course, on the ukulele).
By now you have, I trust, realized that the Tiny Tim we're talking about is not the sickly Cratchit child from a Dickens novel but rather the novelty artist (né Herbert Khaury) who was one of the most famous people in America in 1968 and 1969. (This is his official fan site.) After years building up a small cult following in New York City for his unadorned renditions in falsetto voice of nostalgic tunes from the '20s and '30s, Tim guest starred on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In on TV, singing "Tiptoe Through the Tulips." I was only seven years old at the time and I can still remember pretty much exactly what he was like. He became an overnight sensation. His notoriety culminated with his on-air wedding (on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show) to the much younger model Miss Vicki. There followed a couple of decades of severe career decline; eventually he toured with Roy Radin's Vaudeville Revue (a haven for has-beens of even earlier vintage than Tim that roamed the country in the '70s and '80s) and then a circus.
With his stringy long hair, sexless manner, and high trill-y singing voice, Tiny Tim was—so it felt—very much a figure of fun from the time he became well-known. Was he the greatest performance artist of all time, living a cannily crafted persona? Or was he what he was; and if so, was he in on the joke?
Those are the questions that I hoped God Loves Tiny Tim might answer. It doesn't; instead it's as sincere and on-the-level as Tim himself seemed to be. White channels Tim and conveys his manner and style without actually imitating him. He tells anecdotes about Tim's life with a serene matter-of-factness that often belies their eccentricity. And he performs on the ukulele and sings with real elan and authentic musicianship; at the finale (inevitably, "Tiptoe Through the Tulips") he plays better than I can ever remember hearing Tiny Tim do, and he evokes surprising emotions as a result.
The show is well-crafted, moving chronologically through Tim's life from his odd childhood as a boy addicted to old time radio in the '30s and '40s up until his somewhat sad decline in the 1980s (the show is set in 1986 at a fictional cabaret appearance; Tim himself lived about ten years more). The stories, which I presume are true, are often strange and always fascinating. The songs are just as strange, in the sense of unfamiliar: this is the only show in town (in decades!) to feature Rudy Vallee's signature tune "My Time Is Your Time" AND Bing Crosby's signature tune "When the Blue of the Night Meets the Gold of the Day." Fans of nostalgia will be thrilled.
I liked the show, and I liked hearing the old songs. But I wanted more context for Tiny Tim; I wanted White to step away from the character and let us in on whatever insights he might have about how a man becomes what Tiny Tim became. When fame is fleeting—whether that's deserved or not—the result is that curious phenomenon called a has-been. What did that mean to this man? What might that mean to us? White doesn't really tell us, instead simply reminding us of the tiny moment in our pop history when this oh-so-offbeat entertainer held forth in our collective consciousness. It is a ride that's as compelling as it is unusual.