In an act of marketing genius, Chicago florist Jim Harney bought up much of the world’s tulip supply so he could send 10,000 flowers to the 1969 “The Tonight Show” wedding of Tiny Tim, who quavered his way to fame with a falsetto rendition of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips With Me.”
Mr. Harney, 77, founder of Aberdeen’s Wedding Flowers, died on Dec. 27 at his Des Plaines home. He had struggled with multiple myeloma and dementia.
He handled tens of thousands of weddings at his business, which he founded in 1958 and operated until selling the location at 3829 N. Harlem in 2010.
To make sure it was listed at the front of the phone book, he named it Aberdeen’s. He delivered bud vases to banquet halls, where charmed staffers shared the names and phone numbers of brides-to-be who had booked weddings. Then he called the brides and pitched his services.
He provided flowers for the weddings of children of Mayor Richard J. Daley and Malcolm X — and for the 76 attendants at a single Polish wedding at St. Joseph Catholic Church, 4800 S. Hermitage. He persuaded rose growers Jackson & Perkins to name a new hybrid after presidential daughter and bride-to-be Tricia Nixon — and received an invitation to the White House as a result.
But his biggest marketing coup occurred in 1969. The entertainer known as Tiny Tim was a hot novelty act, perhaps because of a bizarre yet unthreatening persona at a time when the nation was rent by conflicts over the Vietnam War. He resembled a cross between John Turturro and “Weird Al” Yankovic but sang like a 1920s throwback, strumming a ukelele and emoting in a tremulous falsetto.
A viewing audience estimated at 45 million tuned in to gape at his nuptials, which combined hippy-dippy flair and Johnny Carson’s razzle-dazzle as the 37-year-old singer wed “Miss Vicki” Budinger, 17.
When he heard the “Tulips” singer was going to marry on “The Tonight Show,” Mr. Harney “had an epiphany,” according to a biography written by his family. “Jim called his flower suppliers and ordered all the tulips that would be available on the Holland Tulip Exchange in December,” the bio said. “Then, he called the people at NBC that produce ‘The Tonight Show’ and asked if he could provide the wedding flowers.”
At first, his maneuver looked like a failure. The network told him NBC’s florist would handle the arrangements.
“However, once that florist discovered that Aberdeen’s had purchased all the tulips in Holland for that month, they called Jim back and hired him,” according to his family’s memoir. He supplied 10,000 tulips for the bride and groom to tiptoe through.
Mr. Harney said he “cornered the world flower market” to provide the tulips, according to a 1969 article about the coup in the Southern Illinoisan newspaper.
Business soared as the news media and customers descended on the shop.
Growing up, Jim Harney did clean-up jobs at Wrigley Field in exchange for watching games. He attended Schurz High School and loved to “Shoot the Chutes” at Riverview. He worked his way through the University of Illinois doing deliveries and designing centerpieces for florists.
After founding Aberdeen’s, he operated at several Chicago area locations, in Milwaukee, and at booths in formalwear and bridal stores. In the busy era of the 1990s, he handled about 300 weddings a week, relatives said.
Usually happy-go-lucky, his serenity faltered when inundated by calla lily-loving brides, said his daughter, Amy Warlick: “He’d come home and say, ‘All they want is calla lilies, but they’re so fragile!’ ”
Mr. Harney always looked forward to the next James Bond movie. He enjoyed smelt-fishing at Montrose Beach and angling in Canada. “We always had a freezer full of walleye,” his daughter said.
He helped found the 100 Percent Foundation, a charity that provides toys and outings to needy kids. He was active with the Lions Club and the United Church of Christ.
Mr. Harney is also survived by Helen, his wife of 54 years; two more daughters, Shelly Fang and Anita Davis, and eight grandchildren.
Visitation is 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday at Oehler Funeral Home, 2099 Miner St., Des Plaines. Burial is private. A celebration of his life is planned at 2 p.m. Jan. 10 at Christ Church, 1492 Henry St., Des Plaines. Flowers will be provided by The Flower Firm, whose co-founder, James Papajohn, once worked for Aberdeen’s.
Papajohn credited Mr. Harney with showing him how to run a business, calling him “one of the first genius telemarketers of the 1960s and 1970s” for his successful phone pitches to brides. “He produced weddings like Ford produced cars,” Papajohn said. But, “Family was the most important thing to him.”