Never, in his wildest dreams, as a a little kid shining shoes in bars and taverns in his south side Chicago neighborhood, did stand-up comic Tom Dreesen envision that one day he'd be sharing the stage and the spotlight with some of the country's biggest entertainers.
In some of those bars, the juke boxes would be blaring such tunes as Frank Sinatra's "Come Fly With Me."Little did he realize that, a few years down the road, he'd be doing just that - flying with Sinatra on his private jet for performances throughout North America.
During the past eight years, Dreesen has been an opening act for the legendary Sinatra in nightclubs, theaters and arenas across the country. He'll be doing it again on May 21 at 7:30 p.m. in the Salt Palace arena when Sinatra is scheduled to bring his 75th birthday "Diamond Tour" to Utah along with Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme.
Tickets, priced at $35, $50 and $75 for VIP seating, are now available at the Salt Palace box office and all Smith's Tix outlets. Tickets may also be purchased by phone at these numbers: (801) 467-5996, 1-800-888-8499, (801) 363-7681 or 1-800-888-7469.
The concert will be present in the round with a 31-piece orchestra conducted by Frank Sinatra Jr.
Dreesen, who's appeared on Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show" 58 times as well as logging nearly 500 performances on other talk shows, believes that talents are God-given gifts. Even as a child of 5 or 6, growing up in the tough streets of Chicago's notorious South Side (actually Harvey, Ill.), he always saw the humor in things.
"I gravitated to laughter," he said. "Whenever I heard people laugh, I was in awe."
He grew up as a street-smart kid with eight brothers and sisters in Harvey.
"We were shanty-shack poor," he said, but every night he'd make the rounds of the neighborhood bars with his shoeshine box - always going last to the tavern that his uncle owned and where his mother worked.
"I could sit there and wait for the shift to change while my uncle was telling hysterical jokes at the bar. I was fascinated by the fact that someone could talk and people would laugh - that one person could invoke that in another simply by their choice of words," he said.
Dreesen has progressed from a struggling, down-and-out show-biz hopeful sleeping in his dilapidated wreck of a car in Hollywood to a successful and on-the-go comedian who now drives a Maserati.
But his success as a performer really hit home about 21/2 years ago following a concert with Sinatra in Cincinnati.
"Frank had just finished and came off the stage. He said `Let's go, Tommy,' and we rushed in his limousine out to his private jet. Moments later we were flying over the arena, while many in the audience were still streaming out into the parking lot, and we were flying to Chicago for a concert celebrating the grand reopening of the Chicago Theatre.
"Then Sinatra said, `Great show tonight, Tom. I loved your material. You had them in the palm of your hand.' And I felt `Oh, my God, I'm flying in Sinatra's private jet going back home!' I was just glad that Frank kept on talking because it was one of those overwhelming moments that just hit you."
The concert that next night in the opulent Chicago Theatre was an unforgettable time, too, with his mother and family in the audience in the huge, ornate, renovated showhouse - the same theater where, not that many years before, Dreesen spent many happy hours enjoying movies and live vaudeville acts.
Last Dec. 12, in the Empire Room of the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City, Dreesen was among the crowd of celebrities paying tribute to Sinatra on the occasion of the singer's 75th birthday.
"In airplanes, in dressing rooms and hotel suites until 3 and 4 o'clock in the morning, I've learned an awful lot from Frank Sinatra," Dreesen said in his tribute that night. "I learned that he adores his wife and that he deeply loves his children, and that if you're a friend of his, he can't seem to do enough for you. I also learned that he has a tremendous amount of respect for his audiences.
"For the last three days or so, it seems that everyone in America is trying to measure this man's life. I don't know how you measure a man's life, but one of my favorite quotations is:
`Some men measure their lives by days and years,
And others by love affairs, passions and tears.
But the truest measure under the sun
Is what, in your life, for others you have done.'
"There's not a person in this room who doesn't know of at least a dozen things Frank Sinatra has done either for themselves or for someone they know," Dreeson told the crowd gathered in the Empire Room last December. "In conclusion, another favorite quotation of mine is, `The talent that you have is God's gift to you, but what you do with that talent is your gift to God.' I personally know of no man who has done more for God than Frank Sinatra."
A major turning point for Dreesen's career probably came with an article in USA Today about fiveyears ago that listed the top 10 comedians that audiences could trust for clean material that wouldn't be offensive. Bill Cosby was No. 1 on the list, followed by such celebrated performers as Jay Leno and Billy Crystal - and Tom Dreesen.
"I got an avalanche of bookings after that," he said.
In addition to concert work, Dreesen has also acted in "Murder She Wrote" (a cab driver in one episode, a publicist in another), "Facts of Life" and "Columbo." His latest recording is "That White Boy's Crazy," performed and recorded before an all-black audience. In the early 1970s, Tom and actor Tim Reid had their own black-and-white comedy team called, appropriately enough, Tim and Tom.
Dreesen writes all of his own material and he's always looking for ideas. He carries a pad and pencil everywhere he goes, just in case he hears something on the car radio or overhears a humorous conversation in the elevator. (You can't perform on Johnny Carson's show unless you're presenting brand-new material - so he writes and develops new jokes every time he's on that popular late-night show.)
As an example, Dreesen told us one joke that he'll probably use in Salt Lake in May. He first described it the way notoriously dirty comic Andrew Dice Clay would probably tell it, then cleaned it up for his own version.
Dreesen doesn't judge other comedians, and he would never censor others' work, but he strongly feels that it's much more of a challenge to write material that is both clever and clean rather than resorting to offensive remarks.
Coming up through the ranks as a struggling young performer, Dreesen has learned valuable advice from some of the greatest entertainers.
"Once in Chicago, I had been in `show biz' for about four weeks, and Irv Kupcinut (a Chicago Sun Times columnist) introduced me to Jack Benny, who gave me wonderful advice . . . advice I have kept with me my whole life," said Dreesen.
Like Benny, Sinatra, Davis and others, Dreesen has learned the joy that comes from doing benefit performances and charity shows. He's the driving force behind Chicago's yearly "Day for Darlene Weekend," which he organized as a fund-raiser for multiple sclerosis research. The event is named for Dreesen's sister, Darlene, who died of the disease.
The May 21 performance marks the first public appearance by Dreesen in Salt Lake city, but he was here several months ago for a private McDonald's convention.
Most citizens on the street don't realize that there's a whole other industry out there for entertainers performing at private conventions and meetings.
"Every major city has these big conventions and they like to wind things up with a dinner and a show - send everybody home with smiles on their faces. Singers need bands and rehearsal time and lodging for their musicians, but a stand-up comic just flies in alone. All we need is a microphone and spotlight. If they're not working, then we'll just talk louder and use a flashlight," he said.
The convention industry especially loves to book comedians who won't offend anyone - and Tom Dreesen fits right into that niche very well.
"I'm not one to preach morals, but my own point of view is that dirty jokes aren't a challenge to my creativity," he commented.
Some entertainers, Dreesen noted, get physically ill before a show. They get all worked up and nervous. Some even throw up. But not Dreesen. He loves the excitement of performing before a live audience and is happy, whether's he telling jokes for a crowd of 250 in a small comedy club or entertaining 25,000 in a giant arena.
And he's particularly excited to be performing again with Frank Sinatra, "the most benevolent and giving man you'll ever meet."