“Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips with Me” was not written as a comedy song necessarily, but it has been used for comedic effect through the decades. Al Dubin (“I Only Have Eyes For You,” “September in the Rain”) and Joe Burke (“Rambling Rose,” “Moon Over Miami”) composed “Tulips” for the 1929 musical comedy, Gold Diggers of Broadway, staring Nick Lucas, “The Crooning Troubadour.”
Gold Diggers of Broadway – only the third Warner Bros. release to be filmed in color – was a box office smash and made a star of Lucas, as well as the song. No complete print exists of the musical comedy, which synched polished, vivid Technicolor dance sequences with popular Jazz Age songs. Like the carefree era of the 1920s it captures, the film is lost forever. But “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips” remains.
Lucas’ falsetto crooning, while charming and old-fashioned, was not intended as parody. The Italian-American singer (born Dominic Nicholas Anthony Lucanese) was a serious musician and an influential early jazz guitar player.
In 1930, the year after its first publication, “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips” was featured in the cartoon short, Sinkin’ in the Bathtub, the first Warner Bros. Loony Tunes cartoon. The characters of Bosko and his sweetheart Honey have been criticized for employing black face humor as well as for being derivative of Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse. At the end of the cartoon Bosko utters for the first time the now immortal line, “That’s all folks.”
Since then, “Tulips” has been used for laughs in countless cartoons and film.
The song was sung in the bar of a ship in the 1945 film adaptation of Graham Green’s The Confidential Agent.
It appeared in another Looney Tunes short in 1961 – A Scent of the Matterhorn – featuring the not-so-veiled ethnically French skunk character Pepé Le Pew.
Beatle George sings a parody – “Tiptoe Thru the Meanies” – in the Yellow Submarine cartoon from 1968.
And, of course, “Tulips” is most famously remembered as performed by Tiny Tim, the falsetto-singing, ukulele strumming, frequent Carson guest and unlikely star of the late 1960s. There is an element of parody to Tiny Tim’s entire persona. Whether his rendition of “Tulips” is in earnest or is meant for a laugh remains unclear, although his admiration for old songs and singers, like Lucas, was certainly genuine. Tiny Tim died after performing “Tulips” on stage at a ukulele festival. He cut the song short before collapsing in his wife’s arms.
Tiny Tim requested that Nick Lucas sing his signature song on the Tonight Show for Tiny Tim’s televised wedding in 1969. 40 million viewers tuning in to Carson that night saw the original Crooning Troubadour effortlessly strumming his guitar, his voice a bit lower, performing a song many of them perhaps only knew from the eccentric groom’s odd homage.
At 70, Lucas was vibrant and charismatic. After transitioning from his first song, “Looking at the World Through Rose Colored Glasses,” into “Tulips,” he deadpanned: “What did you expect, Tiny Tim?”
“Tulips” comes from the “Moon and June” Tin Pan Alley school of simple, unserious fare. It is not a great song – at least not when compared with the many masterpieces of the Great American Songbook era in which it was written – Cole Porter’s “What is This Thing Called Love?,” The Gershwin brothers’ “I’ve Got a Crush On You” and “Embraceable You,” and Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’” were all written within a year of “Tulips.”
But it certainly has made its mark – “Tulips’” simple charm has permeated the culture, appearing as ironic or whimsical atmosphere from Harry Potter to the Walking Dead, from Insidious to the Facts of Life, and even as performed by animatronic animals at Chuck E Cheese.
It may not be Gershwin or Porter or Berlin, but in its lasting appeal, “Tip-Toe Thru the Tulips with Me” is a Great American Song.