Justin Martell with
Alanna Wray McDonald

‘The biggest star in the country.’

05a Tiny Tim Santa Monica Civic Aud- perfoms on park bench with live pigeons - June 28, 1968 by Henry Diltz

At this moment I am the biggest star in the country. I have gone from here in California to the tip of New York. I am invited to parties with all the great stars of Hollywood with beautiful girls. I am the toast of the city here in Hollywood, as well as in New York, people ask me for autographs, kiddies from five years old adore me to teenagers as well as adults and college groups.

Diary entry, July 27 1968


Tiny was not delusional. By July 1968, Tiny-mania had reached a fever pitch. On June 29, the day after his performance at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, God Bless Tiny Tim moved up to number 16 on the Billboard charts, while ‘Tip-Toe Thru’ The Tulips’ peaked at number 17. Though Tiny had in mind a number 1 single, breaching the Top 20 was a massive accomplishment.

As the album spread across the continent, Tiny began touring the US, performing everywhere from Phoenix, Arizona, to Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. In Detroit, he was mobbed by teenage girls during a performance at the Edgewater Amusement Park. Delighted, he ripped off his tie and threw it into the crowd, which excited them further. Caught up in the moment, he began ripping the buttons off his vest and threw those, along with some love beads, into the crowd. The crowd responded by throwing beads back at him.

On July 20, with God Bless Tiny Tim was enjoying its second week at its peak spot of number 7 on the Billboard chart, Tiny performed two shows at the Miami Beach club the Image. Four thousand people squeezed into the venue, causing the Miami News to comment that the ‘air conditioning was not powerful enough the handle the extra large audience.’ Tiny, however, netted a cool $5,000 for the engagement, about which the Miami News noted, ‘Not bad for two forty-five-minute shows and about twenty minutes of rehearsal to adjust the sound.’

As God Bless and ‘Tip-Toe’ slowly descended from their peak positions, Warner Bros decided it was time to issue a second single. Instead of issuing another single from Tiny’s first album, the label issued a recording of a 1924 number originally recorded in the blackface/mammy style, ‘Bring Back Those Rockabye Baby Days.’ The choice was a bizarre one—probably Tiny’s, since he later recalled showing ‘them’ the song. Furthermore, Reprise had produced ten-inch acetates of a planned ‘Then I’d Be Satisfied With Life’/‘Strawberry Tea’ single, but for reasons unknown the release was scrapped.

One reviewer later called ‘Bring Back Those Rockabye Baby Days’ a ‘paranoid retreat into baritone.’ Perhaps its release was an attempt to save Tiny from being pigeonholed as a falsetto singer. The finished product—even with ‘This is All I Ask’ as the B-side—just did not pack the punch of ‘Tip-Toe.’ Something was missing, and Tiny knew it. He later blamed his disappointment with the single on the lack of ‘an engineer who understands the different eras,’ and on himself, for not being in great voice, likening his vocals to ‘an orange half squeezed.’ He once even called the song ‘simply horrible.’ Nevertheless, he was obliged to promote the record before its July 17 release.

The audience had responded well to the song when Tiny debuted it during an appearance on The Tonight Show in early July, a week before its release, though they did not clap as enthusiastically as they had for his opening song which, coincidentally, was ‘Then I’d Be Satisfied With Life.’

‘They like it,’ Carson observed, referring to his audience. ‘That’s your new single record, huh?’

‘Yes, Mr. Carson, it’ll be out next week.’

‘That’s an old song, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, it was done in 1924 by the late, great Miss Lee Morse and she was wonderful … I’m so thrilled that for the first time on the 17th of next week it’ll be released and once more the public will be able to hear this great number which was written by Mr. Silver.’

‘What was the question I asked?’

If Tiny was disappointed with how the single sounded, he must have been doubly disappointed by its performance; entering the Billboard chart at number 96, ‘Bring Back Those Rockabye Baby Days’ moved up one place the following week and then dropped completely from sight in August. There was little time to dwell on that, however, as Tiny was to open at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas on August 15. Tiny announced the impending ‘Vegas situation’ on his July appearance on The Tonight Show, commenting, ‘Gee, it seems interesting.’ When asked about his fans, Tiny detailed all of the recent attention he had been receiving during live appearances. ‘You know, if you wear a $10,000 coat and if [the fans] want it and you happen to be a celebrity,’ he said, ‘I say give it to them because they made you.’

‘I don’t say that at all,’ Carson interjected. ‘They ain’t gonna get no $10,000 coat of mine!’ The discussion then led inevitably to the other aspects of Tiny’s success, with Tiny revealing some details about his finances, which would later become the source of speculation and controversy. Asked whether the success and money had changed him, Tiny replied, ‘Not really. I know it sounds crazy, but I haven’t got a cent because all my management takes and they put it aside for me or for them.’

‘What do you mean, for them?’ Carson asked.

‘For their commission. Whatever they want. But they’re so wonderful to me …’

‘You don’t care about money?’

‘No … I’m just so happy, thank-God-to-Christ, that I just made this grade, though it was such a big challenge.’

‘Don’t ever change, Tiny Tim. Just stay plain, simple—just as you are,’ Carson said endearingly during the interview. However, Tiny’s ‘plain, simple’ nature was a source of worry for many who knew him well. One telling anecdote comes from Tiny’s childhood friend Artie Wachter. Tiny and Wachter had fallen out of touch after Wachter joined the United States Air Force. By 1968, Wachter was living in Denver, Colorado, and one night was called to ‘check this guy out!’ on the television. Wachter halted when he recognized his childhood friend. ‘I don’t believe it! It’s Herbie!’

The next day, Wachter was able to put in a call to Tiny’s management and got through to Tiny. ‘Hey, Herbie,’ he declared, when Tiny answered. ‘This is a voice from the past!’

‘I haven’t heard your voice in so many years!’ Tiny exclaimed. ‘We’ve got to get together!’

Shortly thereafter, Wachter visited Tiny at the Sunset Marquis Hotel. Despite Tiny’s busy schedule, the two found a few minutes to relive the old days and played an improvised game of hockey with a puck and stick Tiny had in his room, using a coffee can for a goal.

Wachter observed how Tiny now had very little freedom. ‘The managers kept him under lock and key,’ he recalls. ‘I never got to spend very much time with him because he was on a schedule and was like a dog on a leash. He didn’t know how to say no.’ He also began to wonder about Tiny’s control over his finances. Noticing a check next to Tiny’s bed, he asked, ‘Hey, you got a check on the nightstand here. Why do you have it laying out here?’

‘That’s my pay,’ Tiny replied.

‘What do you mean?’

‘My agent gives me $100 every week, and I can do with it what I want.’

Wachter did not press the issue.

The truth was, whether his earnings were small or large, Tiny was always kept in the dark about the financial aspects of his own career. A few years earlier, he had allowed the likes of Bud Friar and George King to take exorbitant shares of his meager earnings in order to keep playing the small clubs and dive bars. Now, with more on the line, a docile Tiny dared not shake the boat. He later claimed that the first time his management spoke to him of his finances was only to tell him that they would not disclose his earnings from the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium as it would ‘shock’ him. Furthermore, he claimed later that he only learned of his $50,000 income from the week-long engagement at Caesar’s Palace in the trade papers.

‘So those were great years,’ he told Johnny Pineapple. ‘Things were rolling. I never saw any of this cash. I just got about $100 a week. They put me in a nice hotel … in West Hollywood … and they put their hands [over the statements, which said how much he was making] and said, “We’ll hide your salary, because you’ll tell the press. You can trust us.” Well, whether I did or didn’t, I wanted to make it big and a name meant more than money. My poor father—may he rest in peace—and so many others didn’t agree.’

Meeting Miss Vicki

04a Tiny and Miss Vicki Portrait (Collection of Victoria Benson)

On June 3 1969, Victoria Budinger awoke to her mother’s voice. ‘Wake up! Come on! We’re going to Wanamaker’s today!’ The seventeen-year-old groggily obliged. The Budingers were a middle-class family living in Haddonfield, New Jersey: Vicki’s father, Alan, was a traveling art-supply salesman and sometimes artist whose work had required the family to relocate frequently, and Vicki, the second youngest of five sisters, had recently dropped out of school due to complications brought on by the family’s repeated moves and had taken a job as an usherette. Her three older sisters had already moved out of the house; her younger sister was still in elementary school.

Vicki and her mother took the train to the Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia. By noon, they had made their way to the fifth floor, where they inadvertently walked into a Tiny Tim Beautiful Thoughts book signing. Vicki had first seen Tiny on television the previous year. Though her parents usually watched Bonanza, one evening they caught Tiny’s segment on Laugh-In. Vicki was intrigued. ‘I thought he was really interesting and different,’ she later recalled. ‘There was something about him that made me want to hear and see more.’ She bought a copy of God Bless Tiny Tim and watched his subsequent TV appearances.

Knowing her daughter was a fan, Mrs. Budinger purchased a copy of Beautiful Thoughts, and the two got in line for an autograph. Soon Tiny Tim emerged to address the crowd. A few hecklers shouted ‘sissy’ and ‘queer’; Tiny ignored them and instead looked out into the crowd, making eye contact with Vicki. Unsure if he was actually looking at her, she waved to him shyly. Tiny momentarily lost his bearings, and, glancing back in her direction several times, muttered to himself, ‘Get away from me, Satan, in Jesus’s precious name.’

After singing ‘Tip-Toe,’ Tiny sat down for the autograph session. Vicki made her way along the line, and when she arrived, he looked at her for a long moment. Tall and slender in a silver-gray dress, with shoulder-length brown, wavy hair, clear brown eyes, and an innocent, unassuming disposition, she must have stood out to her thirty-seven-year-old admirer. She handed Tiny a book to sign.

‘What’s your name?’ Tiny asked, pen in hand.

‘Vicki,’ she replied, softly.

Tiny put his pen to the front cover and wrote, ‘To Miss Vicki, God bless you always—Tiny Tim.’

Vicki noticed a Band-Aid on Tiny’s hand and asked about it. ‘It’s for removing warts,’ Tiny blurted out. Despite his cringe-worthy response—about which Motion Picture magazine would later sardonically comment, ‘You just don’t hardly find these romantic moments anymore’—Vicki then came back along the line again with a second copy of Beautiful Thoughts. Again Tiny signed her book, but he failed to give her an address or phone number.

Tiny’s friend Pat Barreat was on hand that day and witnessed Tiny’s reaction to meeting Miss Vicki. ‘He was totally transfixed,’ she recalls. I remember him sending his manager to find her and find out who she was. He just went completely crazy. He just had a look. Then he talked about her the whole rest of the day. He had to know all about her. He just loved her at first sight … he said she was the most beautiful girl he ever saw.’

After the book signing, Wanamaker’s hosted a dinner for Tiny, his management, executives from Doubleday Publishing, and a few members of the press. When it came time for Tiny to give a brief talk about his book, he could speak only of ‘Miss Vicki.’

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he told the guests, who included John Wanamaker himself, ‘I know I’m here for a book tour, but I can’t talk about that. I just met a beautiful girl and I didn’t ask for her address, and I was afraid to give her mine. All I know is her name was Miss Vicki, because she bought two books.’

One local reporter promised that he would print a story about Tiny’s search for Vicki. As was later reported by the press, Tiny sat in his room thinking of her. He shed a single tear into an envelope and inserted it into the sound hole of his ukulele. ‘Thanks for that great classic moment,’ he wrote in his diary, ‘when Miss Vicki that beautiful angel who was in John Wanamaker’s store today in Philadelphia came, shook my hand, got two books for her sister as well. I was afraid to give her my address. Will I meet her again? I believe I will—Lord willing—when I am back in Philadelphia.’

The local reporter kept his promise, and the next morning the paper carried a headline asking, ‘Who Is The Mysterious Miss Vicki?’ The article included Tiny’s description of Vicki and how he felt about her, and urged the mysterious girl to come forward.

Back in Haddonfield, Vicki’s mother saw the article. ‘I think that’s you!’ she told her.

Meanwhile, Tiny left Philadelphia for a television appearance in New York. He returned four days later, on June 7, for another series of book signings. When Vicki’s mother read of his return, she urged her daughter to go along to the book signing. ‘Go and see if that was you he was talking about,’ she said. Vicki and her sister Tracy duly arrived at the signing, and Tiny was ecstatic. She passed along her address and promised to come to his next appearance that day.

Afterward, Tiny hurried back to his hotel room and ordered a trophy over the phone. ‘Look, I met this beautiful girl named Miss Vicki,’ he said frantically, ‘and I’ve got to have a trophy today!’ Normally, Tiny’s trophy ritual took place at the end of the year, but Miss Vicki had moved him in such a way that, for the first time, Tiny gave a trophy in the middle of the year. The store had a trophy delivered to Tiny’s hotel by 1pm. It was three-and-a-half-feet tall and topped with a golden angel, arms stretched to the heavens.