Ship to Shore PhonoCo-founder and Tiny Tim biographer Justin Martell speaks with Bucks Burnett about how his friendship with the Boxlers began, how Tiny Tim got involved, and some theories about who exactly were the mysterious Boxlers.
by Justin Martell & Liz Schack
A Dramatic Reading
A Family History Written As It Occurred
Ship to Shore PhonoCo-founder and Tiny Tim biographer Justin Martell speaks with Bucks Burnett about how his friendship with the Boxlers began and how Tiny Tim got involved in The Boxlers: A Family History Written as it Occurred, now available for purchase from Ship To Shore PhonoCo.
Mister Big Bucks Burnett had met Tiny Tim in Dallas in 1982, and by 1984 was running his fan club, booking his Dallas area appearances, and producing recording sessions in Dallas and Denton, Texas. Tiny would call Bucks his manager, a title with which he says he has only recently come to grips. Bucks produced two of Tiny's final CD releases, Songs Of An Impotent Troubadour, and Girl. Bucks' latest Tiny Tim release, a dramatic reading of The Boxlers: A Family History, is his third full-length Tiny Tim album.
The year was 1990 and the setting, Tiny Tim’s Holiday Inn hotel room in Denton, Texas. While surrounded by friends, Bucks Burnett, Miss Barley Vogel, and Miss Stephanie "The Eternal Princess" Bohn, Tiny would produce an elaborate reading of what has now been released as, Tiny Tim -- A Dramatic Reading, The Boxlers: A Family History Written as it Occured. It so happens that Tiny's 1990 visit to Denton, Texas coincided with Mr. Burnett's preoccupation with a series of letters he had received between 1986-87 from a mysterious Mr. Boxler. Tiny's reading consists of a 45 page letter received by Mr. Burnett from Mr. Boxler, out the 78 total letters Burnett received.
This recording puts the listener in the daily life of a Boxler, a household filled with a TV obsessed family -- characters that would be fitting for a Tod Browning film, perhaps. Tiny Tim narrates and impersonates the Boxlers, executing it to a T(T), with his trademark, eccentric charm. The tapes demonstrate Tiny’s considerable talent as a voice actor. Through these recordings, the listener experiences the eeriness of the family’s sheltered lives; everything from their intense appreciation of art, to Tiny’s peculiar descriptions (“Billy’s clubbed foot and Mr. Boxler’s girth at 449 pounds”). The Boxlers show the family exploring their interests, fears, desires, and overall bizarre existential thoughts, which they investigate together and through which they find solace.
However, the full story behind Tiny's eventual recording of Boxler Family History is even stranger than the release it itself. Ship to ShoreCo-founder and Tiny Tim biographer Justin Martell speaks with Bucks Burnett about how his friendship with Mr. Boxler began, how Tiny Tim got involved, and some theories about the exact origins of the Boxler family. To this day, no one knows who they were or if they even existed - many have often speculated that the letters were an elaborate prank or even the product of supernatural circumstances.
The story begins with Big Bucks Burnett and, oddly enough... Mr. Ed. Yes, Mr. Ed, the talking horse from the beloved eponymous TV series - of course, of course. Burnett received the first letter from Mr. Boxler via the Mr. Ed Fan Club, which Bucks was running at the time. After receiving said letter, he began the curious correspondence with Mr. Boxler that would last a little over a year from 1986-87.
Big Bucks: I published this story of the Mister Ed Fan Club and how I started it, the rise and fall of the whole thing, and it was published as the cover story of the Sunday magazine at the Dallas Times Herald called, ‘Dallas City Magazine,’ back when newspapers had, you know, weekly Sunday insert magazines. And I was on the cover with Mister Ed and it was like 5 pages and the address at the end of the story had the PO box to the Mister Ed Fan Club and people were invited to write to me or as the character. I got about 50 letters over the next month and one of them was from Mr. Boxler. That’s all it said on the envelope. And I read the letter and was just, kind of, a little intrigued. Something about it struck me as not weird but, I don’t know, something struck me about it. But he wanted an honorary membership and then he basically petitioned me, very respectfully, for an honorary - also known as a free - membership, to the Mister Ed Fan Club.
And the letter was so polite. I just wrote him back and said, “Yeah...of course,” you know? Even if he had three kids, I thought, “I don’t know why he can’t buy one, but he’s asking, I’ll give him one.” So he wrote me a very nice thank you letter. He was thrilled, the kids were thrilled and I had asked him on my first reply to him, “You say you have no money and no job,” and I asked, “Are you unemployed?” And then also, he mentioned, either in the first or second letter, that he never leaves his house. So, I thought that was unusual.
One of the mysterious letters from Mr. Boxler
So anyway, I mailed them a newsletter and a picture card, so forth. But in the second letter, the thank you letter for the free membership, he said, in response to my question to why he had no money, “was he handicapped?” He said, “No, I’m fine. But we Boxler’s are self-sustaining and we choose to remain indoors. We’ve always chosen to remain indoors— it’s our natural way,” that kind of matter of fact response. “Even if I were to leave, I don’t know if I could pass through the doors due to my girth at 449 pounds. I’m not so thin.” I thought, “Okay, hang on. We got a 449 pound guy writing me now, who never leaves his house.”
He also said his wife and three/four children never leave the house and that’s just the way of the Boxler family. So anyway, that’s how I met Mr. Boxler, through the Mister Ed story I wrote in 1984.
Justin Martell: And so how many letters in was it when you finally received the sort of “motherload,” of the Boxler Family History?
BB: The first letter was January 6th, 1986. The final letter was August 17th, 1987. I may not be correct on that second date. Basically, a year and a half—78 letters over a year in a half.
This is how me and Mr. Boxler became fast and furious pen pals. And now very early into the exchange, after I got letter number six, they were getting progressively more absurd, bizarre, surreal. The thing was really taking on a life of its own. They sparkled from another dimension. And they still do. Basically, by letter number five or six I knew so many fantastic things about him that couldn’t be true but somehow he had been making me believe it. I brought up Tiny Tim because by that point I quickly came to the conclusion that there should be a book and a movie about the Boxler family and that’s when I started asking questions. And he agreed there should be a movie and wanted me to make a movie about his family very much. But he was telling me everything I wanted to know about the Boxler family. And then I wrote him a letter, you know, very early in the exchange, ”Well, back to our movie, Mr. Boxler. I think the only choice to play you in the lead role would be Tiny Tim.” And I never talked to him about Tiny Tim before. I just left if just like that even though odds were he might not know who Tiny Tim was...or care. He wrote back, opening line in the next letter update was, “Fabulous idea! Of course Tiny Tim could only play Mr. Boxler: head of the family household!” And so, Patty Duke was going to play Mrs. Boxler, that was our plan all along. Now she’s gone, too, I think... Anyway! So there is a Tiny/Boxler connection emerging.
Tiny Tim serenades his favorite waitress at a restaurant in Denton, TX (Photo by Barley Vogel)
When Tiny read The Boxler Family History, in my opinion, he read it as if he had read it a hundred times, memorized it and invented special voices for each of the Boxler family. He created ad-libbed sound effects, which were perfect and cartoon-like and the reading was so dramatically perfect that, you know, it’s bitter-sweet. I think the guy could’ve made a lot of money and found a whole career as a voice-over artist or doing spoken-word appearances or recordings. He is the most natural reader, just so great. So that is the start of the recording.
JM: And so I think you basically answered the question, did you have to give him any coaching? Like, in terms of the voices? Or is that all him?
BB: None, none. In fact, he did Mr. Boxler with his Grandpa Tim voice. I didn’t want him doing Grandpa Tim for Boxler, but he was doing so well with the reading and feeling so creative, I thought it could really slow the vibe or his mood if I stopped him and suggested a different approach. And I just decided, I don’t know, a few minutes into Grandpa Tim doing Mr. Boxler, I just decided, you know what? Just let Tiny do this and call the shots. And it turned out beautifully. And now I’m totally okay with Grandpa Tim gettin’ the spotlight as Mr. B.
JM: Yeah, well, Grandpa Tim is always a good time. Do you think Tiny had a favorite Boxler?
BB: No. He seemed to really enjoy the reading, you know? And I think he wouldn’t have put so much character into it if he weren’t enjoying some aspect of it. I think, really, he was just enjoying doing a reading. But he seemed somewhat intrigued, if not, very entertained by the material. I would say, I don’t know who his favorite Boxler might’ve been. If I know him, he probably would’ve liked Mrs. Boxler.
Tiny Tim hanging out at Bucks Burnett's house circa 1990
JM: Now, did you tell me once that you did, like, actually go to a house that you thought could be the Boxler household?
BB: Yes, I ended up there by accident one night. By the time I realized I’m lost. So I get out in the street and I say, “Hang on...that’s Mr. Boxler’s street,” and at this point, we’re about four or five letters into the friendship, right? And I said, “Oh my god! I know the address,” I thought, “I can find the Boxler house and finally meet the Boxlers. That would be amazing.” So, there was a purpose in knocking on the door and like, “Hey, I just wanted to talk about our story and see if we can do an interview...” Plus, I wanted to see what their stuff looked like. What their house was like. I was, like, so excited. And so I found their house, walked up, knocked on the door...long story short, a very nice man answered and it simply was not Mr. Boxler. And he was never gonna be Mr. Boxler. And he wanted to know why I thought he was Mr. Boxler. And I gave him the 30 second version about my mysterious pen pal, Mr. Boxler.
So I opened my address book, where I put Mr. Boxler’s address, “Am I at the correct house?” And he looked at it and said, “Yes, that’s my address. How did you get my address?” I said, “Well, Mr. Boxler gave it to me.” And he said, “Well, who’s Mr. Boxler?” I said, “I already told you everything I know.” It’s pouring out like a Humphrey Bogart movie, but, so anyway, he’s very nice, but a little bothered, you know? And I apologized for disturbing his privacy and I said, “I’ll be on my way. It was not my intent to bother you.” And he said, “No bother.” And he said, “So good luck. Hope you find your friend.”
I ended up having about three phone calls and probably two more visits during the year and a half correspondence. I would occasionally pop by his house, just ask him if, “Anything weird goin’ on with your mailbox because...still getting letters…” And I even showed him a couple of those envelopes with the address and he said, “Well, this is very mysterious. This is kinda weird, but...okay, whatever.” But, that’s the story of the house…
So, I didn’t get to meet Mr. Boxler like I thought I would.
BB: And I raised that topic to Mr. Boxler the very next day. And as you can imagine, I was a little intrigued. Wrote Boxler, “Hey, Mr. B. Went to your house...What’s up, dude? You don’t live there! Somebody else does…They know nothing about our letters. How are our letters finding each other? Have a lot of questions, hope you have some answers.” And even that early I was suspecting he was probably not gonna give me a straight answer. And he didn’t. He said to apologize to the occupant the next time I saw him because he thought there might be a nice bois d'arc tree that I could lean against while I thought. Exactly what he told me.
And he didn’t address how the letters were transported from the address to the Boxler family at all. That’s all I ever got as to why he wasn’t in the house.
JM: What’s this about a Boxler video?
BB: The Boxler video? What about that?
JM: Well, I mean, isn’t that another piece of this whole thing, right?
BB: Basically, Mr. Boxler early in the friendship would talk about how much he loved photography and taking pictures. So, as the friendship grew just a bit more strange, I knew I was in the middle of some labyrinth style game. Like, I couldn’t see the labyrinth, but it seemed to be one. An invisible labyrinth with me and the letters bein’ the only thing in the labyrinth.
One day, I bought a roll of Kodak color slide film. And I sent it to Mr. Boxler as a surprise gift and said, “Hey, I hope this roll of film fits your camera okay. I wanted to surprise you with this and just take any pictures you want. And they’re your pictures to do with what you please, but if you think I’d enjoy any, I’d absolutely love to see them, but won’t expect them. Sincerely, Bucks.”
So that was kinda a fun thing to do. A week later, I get the roll of film back. And the letter from Mr. Boxler basically says, “I believe my attempt to transfer images to the film you so kindly sent me was successful. I was unable to use my camera with this film, but still, I had serious intent to transfer the images and believe I succeeded,” something like that. “Thanks again for the film, Mr. Boxler.” So I had it. So, “Wait. Stop right there. You couldn’t use the camera...your intent was to transfer the— got it. Okay...you’re magic. Uh, which episode of The Twilight Zone, is this?”
I took the roll of pictures to a drug store, had prints made, cheap little print photos. And they were mostly bare tree limbs against a blue sky, some out of focus pictures of the night time sky full of stars. Very abstract. But then, the only one that was truly interesting was a crystal clear, perfect photograph of, like, millions of stars and some type of galaxy.
So, we are now to the point of the video. That was the first time I ever sent him an artistic canvas, if you will, to toy with. Now I find he’s claiming to be taking pictures without his camera. Implying with telepathic or mental effort of some kind. Who knows what. So, anyway, I sent him a blank VHS tape, because he also talked about his love of movies and we were already in the discussion about, in addition to the book, that Tiny Tim should play you in the movie. So I thought of the movie and so I thought, “Well, let’s see if Mr. Fancypants can transfer images to this.”
So I sent Mr. Boxler this VHS tape— got it back about a couple weeks later. And he said, you know, again, “I don’t have the machinery to do this, but I believe I left some moving images on the tape you sent. And thank you so much, I love films. This content may or may not be called, ‘Magnetism,’ as a title.” And I said, “Okay, ‘Magnetism,’ it is.” And played it and holy shit. Okay, we — I was watching something kinda very weird and very mundane — getting the distinct impression that I opened the door to somewhere else. Like, seriously, that’s the moment in the movie where things get weird. Like, they’ve already gotten weird many times, but it’s like...stuff got real...chill...because the about eighteen minutes of footage, it’s of a nature and ambience that a friend of mine said, “Oh, this thing has a life of its own.” It's like if Lou Reed made a movie called, ‘Mental Machine Music,’ this would be the film. But most of it was like, soft ambient white noise with slowly altering static and moving images and at one point you see a glowing green temple that you see through...like a second...very mysterious. It’s kinda dark, mysterious. But nothing negative, it’s just...dark.
JM: How many letters did you send Boxler after you stopped hearing back from him?
BB: Maybe, at the most, 10 more letters over about one or two months. He had kinda hinted that the pen pal relation would someday reach its end. Which, he said that in, like, the second/third to last letter. And as soon as I saw that letter -- I knew him pretty well by then -- I thought, “Now, that’s his way of saying, ‘I’m about to stop,” and I panicked. Just being in his world, I just pleaded with him to A. Not stop. And, B. If you have to stop, please tell me why you have to stop. And he never addressed it. And at the end of the very last letter, after many they - we rarely did any post-script - it said, “Sincerely, Mr. Boxler...PS: The End,” and when I saw that, I knew I would never see another letter from him and I have not to this day.
JM: Okay, and my next question is, it’s kind of a two-pronged question. One is, why wait so many years to release Tiny's dramatic reading of the Boxler Family History? That’s one. But the other part of the question is, having not heard from Mr. Boxler in, I think, 31 years, if he’s still living, do you think if he heard about this tape, you could possibly draw him out?
BB: I think I’ve thought about such things, but I’ll go back to what I said earlier. When I saw those words, “The End,” I knew that I was operating with such a high-level prankster-artist, or maybe an ancient spirit at such a high-level that, they were carving it in Egyptian stone, so to speak... Okay, I just made that up, but it kinda makes sense they carved it in Egyptian stone and I just instinctively knew that I’d never hear from Boxler ever again and I simply have not.
JM: And, have you ever had any other theories over the years that it was someone you knew? Have you met among your closest friends and listened to things they were saying to you and while you’re having a conversation, in your mind, you’re going, “Okay, you could possibly be Boxler— ”
BB: That was kinda Boxler-y— what you just said.
JM: Ha ha, yeah?
BB: Oh, one or two minor suspicions with friends, but didn’t really, couldn’t take it quite seriously enough as a theory. Everyone always goes to the obvious. It’s always that you’re crazy and I understand why... The obvious is, it’s a postal employee having some fun. Well, okay, but I don’t even see a postal employee being able to successfully maneuver 78 letters to me and well over 100 from me to Boxler, without failure for a year and a half.
JM: Here’s a conspiracy theory that we were wondering about: could Tiny Tim have been Mr. Boxler?
BB: Although, if there were any human I’ve ever met in my life, it would be him. That’s why I wanted Tiny to play him in the movie. If there is ever a Boxler movie. Now, I would have to play Mr. Boxler, but pretend I’m Tiny Tim playing Mr. Boxler. If that makes sense…
JM: By the time you made this recording with Tiny in 1990, this is a couple years after receiving your last letter from Boxler. You had been trying to figure out who Boxler was. Did Tiny, obviously being a fan of Perry Mason and mystery novels and liked to pretend do detective work sometimes, did he have any theories or opinions to who Boxler might be?
BB: Yes, at the conclusion of the reading—and I did record this part -- we had to edit out thirty minutes of dialogue and mistakes. But right after it was over I said, “Tiny I have to ask you, it’s kind of a mystery to who the Boxlers are. Well, this is a guy who wrote me letters. So you’ve seen enough of his personality and his writing and what happens to their house and all, the whole family. Who do you think the Boxlers were?” And Tiny said, “Well...I think...I think maybe they were on drugs.” And we kind of giggled. And then he said, “...or...perhaps— maybe they were a family of whales!”
JM: Of whales?!
BB: A family of whales. Implying that the ocean is there house. And that’s all the thoughts he had on who they might be. Either on drugs or a family of whales.
PS. THE END?
A Dramatic Reading
A Family History Written As It Occurred
This limited edition release is available on CD and audio cassette in the Ship To Shore PhonoCo. store, only while supplies last!
Bucks Burnett met Tiny Tim in Dallas in 1982 and served as his manager from 1984-1996. He produced Tiny's “Mr. Ed Theme" b/w "Memories" 45 (1984), Songs Of An Impotent Troubadour (1995), Girl (1996), and The Boxler Family History (2018). Other endeavors include the Mister Ed Fan Club and The Eight Track Museum. He currently owns 14 Records in Dallas.
Justin Martell is the co-founder of Ship To Shore PhonoCo. In addition to his involvement in numerous posthumous Tiny Tim releases, including Ship To Shore's own Tiny Tim's America, in 2016 Jawbone Press published his biography of Tiny Tim, Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim. The book was ranked by Mojo Magazine as one of the top ten music biographies of 2016.