September 23rd, 2008 18:00 EST
The American Perspective Radio Program Featuring Tom Dreeson and John Taylor
Tom Dreesen is one of those rare people who makes a living in show business doing exactly what they want. He did it when he traveled the world with Frank Sinatra as the legendary singer`s opening act during the last 14 years of his career. He does it today when he performs his wise, hip and wonderfully funny stand-up comedy routines hundreds of times a year before audiences of every description. Las Vegas showrooms, nightclubs, corporate functions, motivational forums, awards shows and banquets where he is master of ceremonies, Dreesen works them all. Not to mention performing before so many charitable groups that Jim Murray, the late sports columnist for the Los Angeles Times, once wrote, If you count the benefits he has performed without a fee, he has contributed more to charity than the Rockefellers.
Dreesen also appears regularly on many local and national television shows, including Late Show with David Letterman, where he has also served as guest host. But Dreesen`s warmest conversations with Letterman, about the days when they were struggling young comedians together, take place when the cameras have been turned off. Dreesen is also a low-handicap member of the celebrity golf tour, which features some of the top entertainers and athletes in the country. I tell jokes and I play golf, he says. Life is good.
But Dreesen`s life has not always been this good, and there are times when he looks back on where he started and how far he has come, and can scarcely believe it himself. Did he really grow up one of eight children sleeping five to a bed in a cold-water shack near the railroad tracks in Harvey, Illinois, a suburb south of Chicago? Did he and his brothers and sisters really have to fend for themselves by employing such measures as throwing coal down from moving trains on cold winter nights as their alcoholic father was drinking up his paycheck in a warm bar not far away? Did he really survive scrapes with the law, fights with neighborhood kids, dinners of cornmeal pancakes and flour-and water gravy poured over day-old bread?
We were raggedy-ass poor, ? Dreesen says. To this day, some of my brothers and sisters can`t talk about it. It`s hard for us to go deep into it because it seems surreal.
But Dreesen not only survived, he prospered. For all the struggle and danger of growing up in Harvey, Illinois, he learned important life lessons there, too. He learned responsibility, and to play golf, as a caddy. He learned the joys of community, and laughter, in his uncle Frank Polizzi`s bar. And he learned an appreciation of African-American culture by becoming friends with many of Harvey`s black youngsters.
I was different from so many of the white guys they knew, Dreesen says, Maybe they associated with me because we were so poor, because of the holes in our shoes and the raggedy clothes.
Dreesen escaped Harvey, joined the Navy and then returned home where, after working at a succession of jobs ranging from sewer-cleaner to bartender to private detective, he began selling insurance. His outgoing personality and his belief that he was helping people quickly made him a success. He got married, started a family and joined Harvey`s Junior Chamber of Commerce. His future as a businessman seemed secure.
And then, in 1969, he gave it all up to become part of a comedy team with fellow Jaycee member Tim Reid. Not just any comedy team, either, but the first black and white team in the history of show business. And the last.
We must have been crazy, Dreesen says in a new book he has written with Reid, Tim and Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White. Do you remember what was going on in America then? Vietnam. Race riots. Cities burning. Protests in the streets. About the time we were getting our first gigs in Chicago, for instance, Fred Hampton was killed in an FBI raid on Black Panther headquarters and police were using tear gas to break up a race riot at my own high school. And here we were thinking we could make a difference by telling jokes. We were so naÃ¯ve.
For five years, Tim and Tom traveled America trying to make it in show business. They performed in big towns and small towns, hotels and motels, on college campuses and in prisons. They worked Playboy Clubs and the Chitlin` Circuit, a loose confederation of black owned-and-operated nightclubs across the country. They worked in restaurants, nightclubs, supper clubs, jazz clubsÃ¦any place that would have them.
Often, Reid and Dreesen were greeted with laughter and applause as their hilarious look at race relations in America struck a chord with their audiences. But there were other times when they were confronted by racist heckling, threats and even physical violence. Finally, after separating from their families and reducing themselves to near poverty, they had to face reality. They were ahead of their time. Many audience members, whether black or white, simply weren`t ready to see a black comedian and a white one interact on equal terms.
But Dreesen had been bitten hard by the comedy bug and he was determined to keep striving. He went to Los Angeles, where he tried to find work and, in the evenings, get noticed at The Comedy Store, one of the few comedy clubs in existence then. He failed so miserably that for a month his home was an abandoned car in an alley behind Sunset Boulevard.
I`d clean up in a gas station and hitchhike to The Comedy Store, he says. I`d eat once a day at Kentucky Fried Chicken where you could get two pieces of chicken and two small ears of corn for 99 cents. They called it corn and cluck for under a buck and it kept me alive. To this day, when I go by KFC I genuflect.
And then he got the break he had been dreaming of. A producer for Johnny Carson`s Tonight Show caught his act at The Comedy Store and booked him. Three times Dreesen went to the studio in Burbank and three times the show ran long and he was bumped. But then one evening, there he was, telling jokes about growing up in Harvey, about going to Catholic school and about his black friends on national television. The Tonight Show audience couldn`t stop laughing. Neither could Carson. Dreesen was called back from behind the curtain to take another bow, then walked out of the studio into the cool night air and wept. In five minutes, his life had changed forever.
Many times over the ensuing months and years, Dreesen would return to The Tonight Show. He would listen to Carson talk to the other guests, look out into the audience as Doc Severinsen`s band played during the commercials and think that it was almost as if God had said to him, Tommy, I`m going to put a load on you the first half of your life, a real load. But if you survive, the second half is on me.
Soon, Dreesen was performing in clubs and on stages all over the country and appearing on virtually every variety show on television. He toured with Sammy Davis Jr. for three riotous years and with many other top acts "Smokey Robinson, Natalie Cole, Frankie Avalon, Tony Orlando and Dawn, Mac Davis and others "and was cast in dramatic programs like Colombo and Murder, She Wrote, and in sitcoms like The Facts of Life. One day, he found himself in an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati opposite his old partner Tim Reid, who, after years of his own struggles, had become a television star virtually overnight with his portrayal of that show`s hip disc jockey Venus Flytrap. What a reunion that was.
The years Dreesen toured with Sinatra were among the most rewarding of his life. Though the singer was coming to the end of his career and had lost some of his concentration and vocal power, Dreesen was moved to see the profound effect he still had on his audiences. Before long, the two men formed a close bond, almost like father and son. The reason for this was not hard to understand. Both men had started out as poor Italian kids. Both had grown up in and around saloons. Dreesen in his uncle Frank`s bar (when he was a teen-ager he discovered that Polizzi was really his father); Sinatra in his father`s bar in Hoboken, New Jersey, where sailors would give him a nickel to sing along with the player piano.
A writer for the New York Times once asked Frank why he kept me with him so long, ? Dreesen says, and he said, ?If I`m a saloon singer and I am then Tommy is a saloon comedian.` By that, he meant we were just a couple of neighborhood guys. ?
When Sinatra died in 1998, Dreesen served as pallbearer and gave a eulogy at his funeral. Later, he wrote a one-man play, Shining Shoes and Sinatra, which he has performed to great acclaim around the country.
Occasionally when he is doing this show or his stand-up comedy act Dreesen will stop to ponder where he is today and where he began. Then he will remember something the author Christopher Morley wrote: Success is living the life you want.
That`s me, he says. How lucky can one man be?
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