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Tom Dreesen: Tim and Tom Breaking Racial Barriers, Frank Sinatra, Film Classics, US Navy, Boxing & More…

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Exclusive Interview by “Bad” Brad Berkwitt
Photos of Tom are courtesy of Tom Dreesen

Photo of Ray Mancini (Copyrighted by Ringside Report)

“Tom Dreesen is the Swiss Army Knife of entertainment. He can do it all by making you laugh, and at times, bringing you to the verge of tears. He can do drama and comedy with the same effortless attempt, yet make you feel that he’s a guy from your neighborhood”.—Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Former WBA Lightweight Champion of the World

There is old saying that my dad used many times as I was growing up in the 70’s- “so and so, is my kind of guy.” In conversation and in social media posts, for years, this is what I have heard about Tom Dreesen. He is the subject of this exclusive RSR interview. As you read the interview, you will get the same feeling.

It’s no secret that Tom Dreesen was very close to the iconic Frank Sinatra. He opened up for Sinatra over a span of 13 years. In this, the 21st year we lost Francis A., it’s very touching to see that Tom still loves the man, and displays his loyalty to him, which, in this day and age, is a dying trait. We covered so much in this delightful interview. Instead of going on and on in a lead-in, let’s have Tom tell you the rest…

BB: Let’s catch up the readers on your busy schedule of touring and any other things you are involved today with.

I’m still touring, doing standup around the country for corporations as well as emceeing corporate events, and doing standup within the confines of the evenings program. I’m also doing my one man show, “An Evening of Laughter and Memories of Sinatra” at theaters and also for corporate America. I’m acting, and I also give motivational talks in high schools, colleges and corporations.

I talk on four subjects. Perception….Visualization…. Self-Talk…. Develop a Sense of Humor. Also, I’m writing a book about my own life, from shining shoes on my hands and knees in taverns as a child and hearing Frank Sinatra on the juke boxes in Harvey, Illinois to one day carrying his coffin out of a church in Beverly Hills, Ca. I’m also working with a production company to get a movie made from the book Tim Reid and I wrote about touring the nation for 6 years as America’s first black and white comedy team.

BB: In the 1960’s through the mid 1970’s you were half of the comedy act Tim and Tom that had comedian and TV/Movie actor Tim Reid touring the country with you and from all accounts performing a hilarious act. It’s no secret that at that
time, that was cutting edge. What was the experience like and how would that mold your comedy from there forward?

Tim and I toured the country from 1969 to 1975 as the first black and white comedy team and, as history shows, we were also the last. We paid dues like no other comedy team before us. It was a unique experience because there were no comedy clubs in those days, so we worked all black clubs in the north and south on a tour of what was affectionately called the “Chitlin Circuit”. Black owned nightclubs around the country like the “Sugar Shack” in Boston, the “Twenty Grand” in Detroit, the “High Chaparral” and the “Burning Spear” in Chicago, the “Club Harlem” in Atlantic City and many more. We also worked white clubs Like “Mr. Kelly’s” in Chicago and the Playboy circuit from Boston to Los Angeles. Neither one of us had been on stage before we met so we both learned “on the job” so to speak.

Stage presence, delivery, timing etc.

BB: For 13 years, you toured with Frank Sinatra who, in my opinion, is our greatest male singer of all time. In August of 1994, I first saw you perform when you opened for Frank at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia Maryland and you were extremely funny that night. I have seen you tell many stories about Sinatra and I know you always get asked about him. I want to try something different. What is the one question you have never been asked about him, but you wish you had been?

That is a unique question, and no one has ever asked me that. What most people do not know is that during the years I toured with Frank I turned down more opportunities for shows that most comedians get offered in a lifetime. Every time the networks or producers would come to me with an offer about a show, I would turn it down.

So, the obvious question would be why? My answer is it would mean that I would have had to quit touring with Frank and not being able to fly all over the country in his private jet or stay in his home in Rancho Mirage and grace the same stage with him in theaters, Casino’s and 20,000 seat arenas around the country and after the shows hang out with him till dawn. I wouldn’t have given up any of that for the world. I knew it was the end of an era and I wanted to be there for every moment I could.

BB: From when you first started in comedy, how has it changed through modern day?

Obviously, the language. When I started out wherever you went in America people would say “what do you do for a living?” You would say “I’m a comedian”. They would then say “Oh yeah, have you ever been on Johnny Carson”? If you hadn’t been on then in the eyes of America you weren’t bona fide. So, we all focused on how to get on that show because one appearance could launch your career and the way to the show was to work “clean” You had to do material that could make Grandma and Grandpa, Mom and Dad and the kids laugh. There wasn’t cable television in those days. Most comedians today can hardly finish a sentence without dropping the “F” bomb 3 times.

BB: We share a bond with us both having served in the US Navy. What did you do during your service and where were you stationed?

I went to Boot camp at Great Lakes and then from there to Newport Rhode Island for a few months and then to Quonset Point, Rhode Island and served in a squadron called NATU (Naval Air Torpedo Unit). From the squadron, I went aboard the USS Tarawa (CVS-40) and then put the Tarawa out of commission in Philly and spent the last 6 months on the USS Essex (CVS-9). Some highlights for me. When I went to Newport, I wanted join special services and go out for the base basketball team, but they weren’t going to have tryouts for 4 months. In the meantime, they were going to send me mess cooking for four months.

A friend of mine told me to go out for the boxing team. I said “I don’t want to box”. He said “you won’t have to. By the time you’re ready for some bouts it will be basketball season and you can switch from boxing to basketball”. I was about a month and a half into the program and the base Commander was a guy named Captain Creighton and he loved boxing and decided we weren’t having enough “smokers” so he ordered to have three smokers a week with 5 three rounders a night.

Next thing you know I’m being put in the ring with guys in my weight class (lightweight) who way outclassed me. I’m a hardheaded Irish/Italian and hate to lose if we’re playing checkers, so I hung in there, but two months later I was transferred to Quonset Point. (Thank God). While at Quonset point the Navy Dept were experimenting with Swift boats and decided that the Naval Personnel who were taking ground troops up rivers had no ground training if the boat got shot out from underneath them. They created an outfit called NEGDF. (Naval Emergency Ground Defense Force) and each squadron had to send one guy. There was a Chief in my squadron named Gamba and he wasn’t that fond of me, so I was his first choice. I trained with them for 9 months and then got orders to go aboard the Tarawa. I was so glad. Good outfit though. In retrospect, I was proud to be among them.

BB: You acted in a some very popular movies and TV shows. If you had to pick one acting performance you are most proud of, which would you pick?

I liked a scene I did with Angela Lansbury in “Murder She Wrote” and I also liked some scenes I did with my ex comedy partner Tim Reid in “WKRP Cincinnati”. Doing a scene with Clint Eastwood in “Trouble With the Curve” was a lot of fun for me because we’ve been buddies for 35 years.

All the rest were just jobs that I could hardly wait to get over. “Spaceballs” was fun because anytime you can spend a couple of days around Mel Brooks is a pure joy.

BB: I want to throw out a few movie stars you worked with and get the first thought that comes to you when you read their names.

Peter Falk: Unique character.

John Candy: Terrific guy, but sad.

Rick Moranis: Genuine guy.

Ray Liotta: Good actor.

Joe Mantegna: Truly one of the nicest guys in Hollywood and a dear buddy from back home.

Don Cheadle: Extraordinary actor and also a good guy.

BB: Who is your favorite male and female singer of all time?

Frank Sinatra (Obviously) and Celine Dion

BB: Favorite actor?

There are so many, but Frank Sinatra and Clint Eastwood rank up there.

BB: Actress?

Again, there are so many, but Julia Roberts makes me fall in love with her in everything she’s in.

BB: Favorite dramatic movie?

I can’t name just one. Godfather 1 and 2

BB: Favorite comedy movie?

I can’t just name one. Young Frankenstein, Blazing Saddles & History of the World Part I.

BB: Favorite musical?

Again, too hard to name just one. West Side Story, Chorus Line and Phantom of the Opera.

BB: Who are your two favorite fighters of all time and why?

Well, you cannot be a boxing fan and not mention the greatness of Muhammad Ali who was a heavyweight and could move like a middleweights. I loved Rocky Marciano who was like a middleweight and fought like a heavyweight.

BB: What is the greatest fight you have ever seen?

The Thrilla in Manilla. It was two great fighters who went way down in their physical beings till there was absolutely nothing left and then they went into their souls till there was nothing left.

BB: Have you met any boxers and if so, do you have one story that sticks out?

I have met many boxers and I’m good friends with Ray Mancini who I love like a brother. Sugar Ray Leonard and I are friends and play golf together. Oscar De La Hoya and I are also good friends and play golf together. I’ve met Muhammad Ali, Tommy Hearns, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran and so many more when I worked Vegas. They would come to the shows and often come backstage.

But here is a story that sticks out to me. I was working with Frank Sinatra in Connecticut and after the show we went out to dinner in an Italian restaurant and Willie Pep came over to the table. I stood up like I was in the military again and an Admiral just entered the room. I knew about his career and began to tell Frank and the table all about him. Frank knew him of course and kept nodding as I was babbling about 241 fights and 229 wins and how he was almost impossible to hit because of how elusive he was. Then I began to tell the story about the fight he had with Jackie Graves in 1946 where he told a few ringside reporters before the fight that he wasn’t going to throw a punch in the third round and he would win the round because he would make Graves look so bad.

As I was telling the story, Willie reached into his jacket and began passing a newspaper articles to the people at the table that was written the day after the fight. Frank and I laughed and laughed and Willie did as well, but later that night I laid in bed and thought about how great he was in his profession. However, now all that was gone and all he had were memories and he had to carry them around in his pocket because the generations who followed had no idea.

BB: I’m going to throw some spontaneous questions at you and give me the first thought that pops into your head.

Favorite sound?

Laughter. I wrote a poem years ago called “The Sound of Laughter”

The Sound of Laughter

As far back as I can remember ~ or shortly thereafter,
I loved to hear the sound of laughter.
Whether grown-ups or children, it really didn’t matter to me.
If I could make people laugh, I was as happy as could be
You see, when you make people laugh you give them such a lift,
My mom once told me it was a God-given gift.
Because you get so much love and yet you’re still able to give,
I knew that I wanted to do this as long as I live.
So I left my home in Harvey, Illinois
To tour around the country and spread some joy.
Success was ahead, I just didn’t know how far.
Soon I was broke and sleeping in my car.
But I worked and I prayed, I planned and I dreamed,
There were times I was alone ~ or so it seemed.
I begged for jobs everywhere I could,
And I bombed a lot of times, but I started getting good.
They laughed one night in Boston I’m proud to say,
And soon they were laughing out in L.A.
Now if you’re a comedian and you want America to know,
You’ve got to get a spot on the Johnny Carson Show.
Well that happened one night and what a break for me,
Soon my name was on Caesar’s Palace marquee!
Well God’s been with me now and I’ve gone pretty far,
Who knows, maybe one day I’ll become a big star.
But if I don’t it won’t matter at all.
Believe me when I tell you I’ve had a ball!
So now I wish for all of you what’s happened to me,
To find the work you love, because that’s really the key.
So when I die and go to the hereafter,
I’ll miss all of you, my friends, but most of all….
I’ll miss the sound of your laughter.

Tom Dreesen
Written in dressing room backstage at
Caesars Palace Las Vegas Jan 13th, 1977

Least favorite sound?

Leaf Blowers. Nothing pisses me of more than waking up in the morning to some guy with a Volkswagen engine on his back-making sounds like a locomotive blowing one leaf across the street. I wanna scream. “Get a rake you SOB.”

Favorite food?

Pasta.

Favorite vacation spot?

Lake Tahoe

Favorite color?

I like the look of a black tuxedo with an orange pocket kerchief. That what I wore on tour with Frank for 14 years and that was the color of our tour jackets.

Coolest car ever?

1990 red two-seater Chrysler Maserti sports car. It had a hard top that came off and then became a convertible like the old Corvettes.

BB: What is one thing you ever did that you are still shocked to this day you tried?

Well, from being a guy who started out like any other comedian being apprehensive about going out in front of 10 people to one day opening for Frank Sinatra in front of 20,000 people all over the country and one night in Hawaii in and outdoor venue with 40,000 people. (And keep in mind not one of them came to see me.)

BB: If you could meet one person from any time in history, who would it be and what would your first question be for them?

I would like to go back in time and meet Jesus. There are so many questions that I would like to ask him. I want to ask him where he went from 12 years old to 30. Because we know of him in the Temples at 12 but then nothing til he was about 30. It fascinates me that he preached for about 3 years and was brutally beyond description murdered and today there are billions following him and he changed the course of the world.

BB: I am going to flip the mic over to you… What is one question you have never been asked, but wished that you had been? What is the answer to that question?

The question I have never been asked is “As busy as you are why would you do an interview like this where you sit at a computer for over three hours answering these questions when you could have said I’ll do a phone interview for 20 minutes and have the other person record it and they do all the typing.”

My answer to that question is “Because I gave my word that I would do it and your word is always more sacred than a contract. Besides “Bad” Brad is a good guy.

BB: Finally, what is the saying you live your life by?

Emerson said “You’ve lived a good life if you leave this world better than you found it” I have always taught my children “Try to be as perfect as you can in two things. Your work and your word. If you make spoons try to make the best spoons you can and if you tell someone you’ll help them move on Saturday morning at 8 AM and you were out all night till 6 AM you have to be there because you gave your word”

Check out Tom’s website by clicking here.

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