Blog post by Amanda Dubin ’18.
Tiny Tim was born Herbert B. Khaury to a working class immigrant family in Manhattan on April 12, 1932. Tiny Tim is remembered as an American singer, ukulele player, and musical archivist best known for his rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” which he recorded in his signature quavering falsetto voice. Tiny Tim demonstrated an aptitude for music at a young age; he taught himself to play guitar at six and developed a passion for records throughout his teenage years. Against his parents’ wishes he dropped out of high school to pursue a musical career. At age 20, he discovered his distinctive falsetto voice. Tiny Tim’s outlandish appearance was striking: he had a large, beak shaped nose, long, curly black hair, and pale, pasty skin. While he stood at over six feet tall, he started using Tiny Tim as his stage name to highlight his high-pitched falsetto sound as per the suggestion of his manager, George King.
Throughout his career, Tiny Tim made guest appearances on the Merv Griffin Show, Laugh-In, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Tonight Show, and he also played a small role in the film, You Are What You Eat. His piercing voice, paired with his ukulele playing and striking appearance, set him apart from other performers of his time and made him one of the most popular entertainers in America in the 1960s. Tiny Tim was a cultural phenomenon and his presence attracted the attention of many. His marriage to Victoria Budinger, for example, was aired on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and drew a record number of viewers.
The Cornell Costume & Textile Collection boasts one stage ensemble worn by Tiny Tim. The outfit was donated by Zoe Miller-Lee in 2007. Miller-Lee purchased the stage suit from Unclaimed Baggage, a store in Huntsville, Alabama that sells off the contents of unclaimed luggage that is collected from the Atlanta Airport hub. The unclaimed items are auctioned off after a suitable waiting period has elapsed. Judging from the contents of the store the day that Miller-Lee purchased the suit, it was clear that Tiny Tim and other traveling performers had lost their luggage.
The cream linen suit has a gray silk-screened mismatched textile pattern that includes words and portraits of Tiny Tim. The suit was custom made for the performer by renowned Australian tailor, Tony Bonnici. The tuxedo cut jacket has long tails and two buttons at the center-back waist. The jacket features side front darts, three diagonal decorative buttons along each side of the body, and a pocket on the left breast. Lacking front closures, the jacket was likely designed to be worn open for the purposes of mobility and thermal regulation—on other words, for a musical performance! The pants have a zip fly with a button closure and show signs of wear and tear with discoloration along the front center of the pants. The unique textile design includes several portraits of the singer alongside repeated phrases, words, and numbers of various sizes. Phrases include: “unchallenged holder of the world record 2 hours 15 minutes and 7 seconds,” “eternal troubadour,” “century,” “time,” “world,” “sing,” “1988,” and “stop.” The text has significance: Tiny Tim set the World Non-Stop Singing Record (for a professional singer) at 2 hours, 15 minutes, and 7 seconds; he was also referred to by many as an eternal troubadour (and in fact, a book entitled, “Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim” was published in 2016 to detail the singer’s life); and I hypothesize that the year 1988 was perhaps the year this ensemble was worn on tour.
This suit was just one of Tiny Tim’s many extraordinary stage costumes. Tiny Tim’s eerie sound, unique style, and gawky appearance are a direct result of the cultural turbulence of the late 1960’. Although he is now a mere footnote in pop music, Tiny Tim’s unprecedented ability to seamlessly alternate between a deep baritone and a high-pitched falsetto allowed him to make his mark on the music industry.
Amanda Dubin is a senior majoring in Fashion Design Management. She has been a research assistant in the Cornell Costume & Textile Collection since fall 2014 and will begin working for Estée Lauder Companies in their Presidential Associates Program after she graduates in May. She has authored numerous articles on our blog, on topics ranging from Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1937 inaugural gown to the collegiate raccoon coat fad of the 1920s.
Grimes, William. “Tiny Tim, Singer, Dies at 64; Flirted, Chastely, With Fame.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 01 Dec. 1996. Web. 11 Dec. 2016.