We have discovered that if you pile up enough odd days in your life, then at some point the entire bell curve shifts over a standard deviation or two into the deeper caverns of the weird. Once there, your days are almost unrecognizable to the rest of the population. Put another way, they begin to look like Fellini movies. Or at least that is how we envisioned it when we began this series three issues back. We’ve got to say, however, that this submission bears a stronger resemblance to a John Waters’ adventure than to anything by the Italian master-weirdo. For our younger readers, there are a few things you’ll need to know. First, Tiny Tim, pictured on this page, was a supremely bizarre celebrity and bizarrely engaging über-fop. He would play his ukulele and warble in a vibrato falsetto. His most famous song was Tiptoe Through the Tulips, which you should all Google immediately. Second, Joe Franklin, host of the Joe Franklin Show for 42 years (from 1951 to 1994) created the template for variety talk shows and went places stranger than even his most forward-leaning imitators. His shows would often feature national politicians, unknown cabaret acts, and drunken raconteurs in the same segment. They were a perfect fit for Tiny Tim.
Enjoy this tale and keep the submissions coming!
It’s 1983, I’m at Joe Franklin’s claustrophobic Times Square office, which always makes me think of the Collyer Brothers and how they were buried by their own clutter. Surrounded by peeling hospital-green painted walls covered with signed celebrity photos, I’m foraging through the mountains of showbiz memorabilia, magazines, posters, photos, and ancient albums trying to find an old Ethel Merman record and an old Dinah Shore record to help me perfect my impressions of these women for my comedy act.
Then, into the office walks Tiny Tim.
I remember back to the early sixties when I was a two-hundred pound twelve-year-old living in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and my older brother Bobby took me into New York City so we could try to get into Steve Paul’s Scene, a trendy, infamous rock and roll bar. I was wearing a flowered baby-doll dress with puff sleeves and black patent leather shoes with white socks. Of course, they let us in. The opening act was a comic who gave out pins saying, “Mother’s Hive’s PIF Club” (Pot Is Fun). I didn’t know what it meant but as I wore it on my lacy white collar, Tiny Tim came onto the stage. I really enjoyed Tiny, draped in black, with his curls, clown-white makeup and his voice rapidly changing from a virile baritone to a quivering soprano. He sang the oldies, like Tiptoe, of course.
My father was the town psychiatrist, and Tiny seemed like one of his patients.
Then, nearly twenty years later and in person, Tiny Tim is standing over me as I plow through boxes of memories in Joe Franklin’s office. He stands there wearing the loudest plaid jacket with a large, worn, pink fabric flower in his lapel. Still, I can see that underneath the layers of white pancake makeup that he hasn’t changed.
I invite him to see my act of comedic impressions at The Comic Strip that night. And Tiny replies as though he’s singing vocal-exercise scales, “Ohhhhoohhh, Miss Lois I’d love tooooo!”
Tiny comes to the club with an entourage of sleazy-looking, fringe-showbiz types and is introduced from the stage. He stands up and kisses his hand and waves for what seems like several minutes as the audience applauds his flamboyant freakiness. I simultaneously think, Geez, Tiny is such a has-been, pathetic freak . . . and I am such a big fan.
After my performance, he asks me to open for him at a show in Brooklyn. I happily agree.
We’re set to play a double-decker loft and seafood restaurant in Brooklyn. In the car are Lola, aka Miss Big Apple (the winner of a competition judged by Joe Franklin on the Joe Franklin Show earlier that night), Tiny and me. We will soon be joined by our driver who is also Tiny’s manager, Colonel Birnbaum. Colonel Birnbaum’s son will also be coming along. He is “a poor-man’s Elvis impersonator,” I’m told.
We proceed to Tiny’s residence at The Alcott Hotel on 72nd Street. Tiny has been living there for some time under the name Dorian Gray. His hotel room reeks of Revlon’s Jontue, an inexpensive cologne sold at Thrifty Drugs. Countless Jontue products (cologne, bubble bath, powder and so on) are strewn throughout the main rooms and the attached bathroom. Preparing for his gig in Brooklyn that night, Tiny hits the giant Jontue powder puff against his thickly made-up face. He wails, “Oh Miss Lois, Miss Vickie, my former bride, slept with the Bellboy on our honeymoon. She was not a nice girl. She got pregnant once from kissing. It can happen that way. Now if you ever have sex with Mr. Paul Newman or Mr. Burt Reynolds, make them sign a contract beforehand — promising you a thousand dollars or a starring part in their next picture.”
Needless to say, this is valuable show-business advice for anyone.
Tiny goes on to explain to me that he has three managers who each take twenty-five percent of his earnings and two agents who take fifteen percent and he has no money. He says, “I wish I could help you with your career. But Miss Helen Reddy who helped me with my career needs help now herself, Miss Lois.” Tiny sighs and his loose body quivers like Jell-O as he puts on another big plaid jacket with a black satin collar and grasps his ukulele.
We leave his hotel and get into the limo. I slide down the back seat next to Miss Big Apple, a Puerto Rican girl with big, teased, jet-black hair, gigantic breasts and bad acne. She is wearing a lime sequined bikini under a girlish wool coat. I look down and can’t take my eyes off her ten-inch high, matching lime-sequined platform shoes. I almost pass out from the combination of her overwhelming perfume and Tiny’s Jontue.
Tiny coos, “Ohhh Miss Apple, you’re beautiful!”
Next to Miss Apple is another agent of Tiny’s who adds, “Hey Tiny, since Lola here is a female impersonator we should fix her up with Colonel Birnbaum’s son, the Elvis impersonator!”
The Colonel can’t wait to set it up. I can’t believe that the thought is just dawning on me now, but maybe this gig isn’t a step up (or even sideways) in my career.
We get to the double-decker restaurant with its shiny wood décor; the place is packed and noisy. The second floor is high above, balcony-like, filled with even more patrons than the main room and bar. We go down to the dank concrete basement which is to serve as our backstage and dressing room. There is a panic. It seems both the manager and the agent forgot to bring the P.A. system and the microphone. They tell me I have to go on without a microphone; I think about the seventy-some people sitting in the mile-high balcony eating area.
Miss Big Apple slithers onto the main-room stage wearing her sequined bikini, and death-defying shoes. She gets a round of applause right away for this impressive effort. She brought her own boom box to play the score of Lambada, The Movie. She turns it on and dances in place. Her body appears frozen, except for her right arm, and boy, can she move that arm. She’s a hit.
It’s my turn. I start to do my act of impressions. A little Hepburn, a little Barbra Streisand. No one can hear me at all, except a few drunks at the bar. Fortunately, the balcony crowd is kind enough to try to listen. I hear rumblings of “What did she say? Who’s she doing?” Because of this, I decide to pause after each impression and take a little bow. This way the audience will know to applaud even if they have no idea what I’m doing. And thankfully, the audience does applaud whenever I pause and bow. My ego is satisfied and Colonel Birnbaum looks impressed. I’m done. I take a big bow. The audience goes wild with applause.
At least I’ll get my three hundred bucks and a night’s worth of memories, I think. At age twelve, I never could have imagined that this is where my promising stand-up act would lead me. Tiny Tim got married on “The Tonight Show,” a magical 1969 time-capsule union of freakdom and mainstream celebrity. Maybe his stardom will rub off on . . . Oh right, his stardom has already rubbed off. The moment has passed. And that’s the rub.
Tiny gets on stage and wisely just plays to the bar. He is singing Elvis songs and sweating and writhing and . . . Oh, God, no . . . taking his shirt off. His breasts are jiggling. His belly is bloated and whiter than his pancake makeup. A hefty drunk woman who was sitting at the bar is now kneeling and thrusting at Tiny’s feet in worship. Birnbaum’s son appears miffed that Tiny stole his bit, but says nothing.
On the way home, the conversation is a blur except for Tiny’s closing line, spoken in his inimitable sing-song. “It was wonderful and divine working with you, Miss Lois. Now remember, men don’t care. They just pound away at you and keep on pounding . . . even if you have uterine cancer!”
Lois Dengrove was kind enough to allow La Cuadra Magazine to publish this fantastic story about the early years of her career. All rights remain with the author, but we sure hope she’s got more stories to tell through our oddball venue. We think Tiny would agree. To other writers, please submit your own stories for the Fellini Files. We just ask that they are true and that you write them well. Try to keep the word count at either 500 or 1000. The shorter stories will be packaged with another submission. Send stuff to email@example.com.