There he was again: Tiny Tim. I brought that book with me, and Brett and myself and a friend named Jim Sweeney piled into Jim’s boat-like Cadillac and drove to Holland….”
by kurt eisenlohr
I was twenty-four years old, living in Grand Rapids Michigan in the bottom half of a rented house on Eureka Street, working in a bookstore, obsessed with photography and compulsively taking pictures of everything around me. I read in the paper one day that Tiny Tim was touring with a circus. My roommate and I, a musician friend from high school named Brett Ashba, were deep into Lenny Bruce and Elvis Presley at the time and had noticed that in the trashy biographies Albert Goldman had written on each of these men, Tiny Tim popped up. A minor character, yet there he was. He had been Lenny’s friend and confidant toward the end, when Lenny was losing it due to drugs and endless legal persecution concerning obscenity laws and censorship. Elvis, Tiny had opened for. He had also opened for the Beatles, we learned. (I just today discovered that he sang “Nowhere Man” at the request of George Harrison for a Beatles 1968 fan club flexi-disc.) Until reading the Goldman books, all we had really known of Mr. Tim was the hit he charted with when we were children, “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips,” and the fact that he had gotten married to his seventeen year old girlfriend Miss Vicki on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. I was then, and remain, a huge fan of the photographer Diane Arbus, and in the days before Tiny’s performance shoplifted a book of her magazine work from the store that employed me. There he was again: Tiny Tim. I brought that book with me, and Brett and myself and a friend named Jim Sweeney piled into Jim’s boat-like Cadillac and drove to Holland, determined to meet this quirky piece of living history who stretched all the way from Tin Pan Alley to Elvis and the Beatles and beyond.
Tiny took the sawdust under the Big Top after some jugglers, but before a gaggle of bicycle riding monkeys. 1987 was not the apex of Tiny Tim’s career. It was moving to see him, perhaps for that very reason. He performed as if those bicycle riding monkeys were actually the Beatles, God bless him. After he was finished we approached him out back behind the tent, where he was milling around some trailers and parked circus cars. He was gracious and funny, upbeat, and happy to be talking. We quizzed him about Elvis, Lenny Bruce and the Beatles and Hubert’s Museum and Flea Circus in New York, and when Brett and Jim told him they were a duo called the Memphis Brothers he lit up, saying he loved the name and their shades and the goofy bandannas they were wearing. “It’s good to have a gimmick,” he told them. He autographed Jim’s guitar and playfully strummed it just as a dwarf strolled by (snap!) I asked him to sign the photograph in the Arbus book. He looked at it for the longest time. “I don’t remember this,” he said. I told him it was taken by Diane Arbus for the Sunday Times Magazine (London), July 14, 1968, for an article entitled TIPTOE TO HAPPINESS WITH MR. TINY TIM. He had never heard of Diane Arbus and the article didn’t ring any bells, but he held up the book and turning the image outward to face me said, “My God, look how young I was.”
His inscription reads:
To Mr. Kurt
a pleasure meeting you
(photo: kurt eisenlohr)
Kurt Eisenlohr is a painter, writer and bartender living in Portland, Oregon. In addition to illustrations contributed to all issues of Smokebox his poetry and fiction has appeared in numerous journals and magazines including Asylum, Verbal Abuse, River Styx, Another Chicago Magazine, Cokefish, Decoy, Way Station, and STOVEPiPER. His chapbook, Under Hand and Over Bone was published by Alpha Beat Press in 1994. More stories and art can be viewed in the Vault of Smoke.