Comedy scene: Tom Dreesen from opening for Sinatra to closing for corona
Special to the Tribune
My ongoing series on how my comedic buds are coping during these pandemic times continues with one of the legends in our business: Tom Dreesen.
He’s not only a fine comedian but an actor and a motivational speaker which I’m guessing has been coming in handy trying to find a positive spin on all that’s been happening.
Dreesen is celebrating his 50th anniversary this year in show business and has a new book out, “Still Standing…: My Journey from Streets and Saloons to the Stage, and Sinatra” sharing stories and memories of his days working exclusively as the opening act for arguably the greatest entertainer and vocalist of the 20th Century (13 of those years as his opening act in Las Vegas).
Everybody loves to hear Dreesen’s stories about his time spent with Frank, including former late night talk show host, David Letterman.
“When I was on his, Dave wouldn’t even have me do time, he just loved hearing me share my stories about what it was like working with Sinatra all those years” he said.
Oh, and there were plenty too. Like the night he and Sinatra sang a “Strangers in the Night” duet while driving through the desert near Sinatra’s Palm Springs home. They literally performed together in just about every large venue imaginable all across the globe.
Dreesen shared stories such as the advice he was given by the singer, how he was the emcee at Sinatra’s wake and one of the pall bearers at his funeral. Dreesen has worked with so many legends it’s mind boggling. In addition to Johnny Carson (who he credits for giving him a career after just one night killing it on The Tonight Show), Mel Brooks, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., Smokey Robinson, Clint Eastwood, Jay Leno, Jim Carrey, Bon Jovi, Elton John, Letterman and so many more.
Dreesen grew up in Harvey, Ill, a south suburb of Chicago, and attended Thornton Township High School. He hadn’t planned on a life in comedy and, in fact, said it was the furthest thing from his mind. It was almost by accident. While working as an insurance salesman in 1968, Dreesen met Tim Reid through a local Jaycee chapter, and the two were teamed up to promote an anti-drug program in the local schools and, prompted by a comment from a child, decided to form a comedy team, Tim and Tom, the first biracial stand-up comedy duo in the United States.
Tim and Tom polished their act in the nightclubs of Chicago, then took it on the road developing routines that even today remain surprisingly relevant (not to mention funny too) mirroring what the country is going through now. They were definitely ahead of their time that’s for sure and even though they lasted barely six years together they did co-author a book called, Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White.
As mentioned earlier, Dreesen has a new book out that you can get on amazon.com and it’s already doing very well. It’s a behind-the-scenes look into the life and groundbreaking entertainment career of Dreesen and like I mentioned earlier, includes lots of incredible stories from a guy who still considers himself a saloon comic, very down to earth.
So yeah, Dreesen has been keeping pretty busy during these Covid times sheltered at home and all things considered, his timing couldn’t have been more perfect. His book was completed earlier this year and he was just about to embark on a book signing tour across the country until the virus cut that short. But he’s fortunate being able to do all those book parties via Zoom, Skype, podcasts and even on my morning radio show. When I asked him while Zooming did he ever wear pants? he said, “I’m not wearing any pants Howie talking to you right now on your morning radio show.”
I should have known, his voice sounded suspicious.
Like the rest of us from the stand up world we have no idea when we’ll get to perform again and even then it’s obvious the comedy landscape is going to look very different.
“Let me tell you Howie why it’s going to be very difficult,” Dreesen said. “Will we be able to do it (performing)? Yes, but will we be able to crush an audience? No, and I’ll tell you why. Your energy is going out to that audience, all through that audience and then back up to you on stage. I’m establishing a current, like an electrical current. If you sit five people to the left, and six in the back and four to the right, you just took scissors and cut the electrical current that we need to get this flow going. So we set our timing off of it so if people aren’t shoulder to shoulder in the audience it’s cutting off that current that we need. We set our timing off of their laughter. So, will we be able to do it? Yeah, but it won’t be as good as we can do. And by the way, Broadway theaters rely on people being shoulder to shoulder in those theaters to create that same excitement, that current.”
After hearing that I had a major blackout.
Dreesen has a long history with Lake Tahoe and talked about doing a show over at Caesar’s (pre MontBleu) back in the day and when his portion of the show was over, he literally jammed over to Harrah’s next door because he didn’t want to miss seeing Frank Sinatra in the South Shore Room.
Dreesen was still dressed in his stage clothes and a lucky encounter with Sinatra’s’s lawyer via Harrah’s Entertainment Director set off in motion a series of events that would lead to his long and successful collaboration with Sinatra, and to think it all happened up here folks.
Positive things happen to Dreesen probably because he always looks at the optimistic side of life and how being in that mindset opens other avenues of opportunity for you.
“I’m also a motivational speaker, Howie, giving talks around the country to corporations and to colleges and stuff like that and I talk on four subjects: perception, visualization, self-talk and developing a sense of humor,” he said. “You have to perceive this Covid thing as, ‘what can we come out of this with?’ One of the things that I perceive is that this has been a blessing for me as a writer. I’ve been writing a lot more. It’s also been a blessing for me more importantly, because I’ve always thought I loved my friends and family and I’ve always thought that I’ve expressed that. But now … when this is over I’m going to appreciate more than I ever appreciated hugging my family, my children, grandchildren and my buddies. I haven’t done that in so long. You know when we can get back to that again I’m going to really appreciate it. That’s a positive aspect of what I’ve taken out of all this.”
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