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Remembering Frank Sinatra At 100

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Tom Dreesen, ‘Ol’ Blue Eyes’ Warm-Up Act, Is Still Singing The Praises Of The Man Also Known As 'The Voice' A Century After His Birth

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By David Fantle & Tom Johnson
Modern Times Magazine

Dec. 7, 2015 — He was born in the rough and tumble confines of Hoboken, New Jersey on Dec. 12, 1915 and went on to become arguably The entertainer of the 20th century.  

These facts are not in dispute: He was America’s top pop vocalist; he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in From Here to Eternity; he danced with Gene Kelly in a trio of Golden Age film musicals; he wed volcanically beautiful star Ava Gardner (and bedded countless others); he hobnobbed with presidents and mafioso; he maintained an acrimonious relationship with the press but was fiercely loyal to his friends. More than anything, he entertained us. On the occasion of Sinatra’s Centennial the legend lives larger than ever.

Comedian Tom Dreesen spent almost 14 years on the road with Sinatra as his opening act playing as many as 50 dates a year. The Chicago native, now 73, shared his insights with us on why Sinatra still matters.

It was just another night on the road for Dreesen; an arena packed with 20,000 fans waiting for the main event – Frank Sinatra. The veteran comic of dozens of Tonight Show appearances knew the drill: hold the audience’s attention for 45 minutes and make them laugh.

“Put it this way,” said Dreesen. “My job was to pull the emotional strings of 20,000 people with no props, no tricks, no special lighting, no orchestra, just 20,000 people and not one of them there to see me. Talk about mission impossible, but that was my assignment every night.”

And for almost 14 years, starting in the spring of 1983, Dreesen was Sinatra’s Eveready warm-up battery. Somewhere along the way, a close friendship blossomed, culminating when Dreesen delivered a eulogy and served as a pallbearer at Sinatra’s funeral after the singer passed away on May 14, 1998 at the age of 83.

By the time Dreesen met Frank Sinatra in Lake Tahoe, he had already toured with Smokey Robinson and Sammy Davis, Jr. As a poor kid growing up on Chicago’s Southside, Dreesen would shine shoes in local saloons with Sinatra’s tunes playing on the juke box. He was a fan from the beginning.

When, as an established comic, Dreesen saw Sinatra perform at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe, he didn’t bother to change out of his performing clothes but made a beeline to catch Sinatra’s opening. Dreesen was about to enter the showroom when he heard a voice say, “Tommy, come here.” The request was coming from a Harrah’s honcho who was deep in conversation with a man introduced to Dreesen as Mickey Rudin, Sinatra’s attorney.

“The Harrah’s executive said, ‘Tom, this is Mickey Rudin. Mickey, I think Tom would make a great opening for Frank Sinatra.’ Rudin got a pained expression on his face, and he winked at the Harrah’s VP and I caught the wink. ‘If I gave you a week with Frank Sinatra would you want more than $50,000?’ Rudin asked me. I replied, ‘let me put it this way, if you gave me a week with Frank Sinatra would you want more than $50,000? Rudin started laughing and said, ‘hey, I like this kid.’”

A week later the call came and Dreesen was offered a one-week gig with Sinatra at the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City. “I thought, great, I’ll get my picture taken with him, hang it at every bar in Chicago and say that’s it,” Dreesen said. The second night of the engagement Frank and his wife Barbara took me to dinner and I can remember the conversation like it was yesterday. Frank put his knife and fork down in the middle of the meal and said, ‘I like your material; I like your style. I’d like you to do a few other dates with me if you’re interested.’”

“A few other dates” turned into a continuous 14 years.

Dreesen said he became a student of Sinatra and would watch his performance every night from the wings.

“When we played the main rooms in Las Vegas, Reno and Atlantic City, I’d finish my show and as the orchestra played me off, the crowd applauding, Frank would come on and we’d crisscross on stage. He’d say, ‘Tommy Dreesen, how about Tommy Dreesen, come back on the stage and take a bow. A funny guy.’ I’d then sit in the wings and watch him night after night just to see how he approached the show and the audience. Working with Frank and Sammy, these were the icons of our business, especially of live performing. There was no ‘cut’ can we do that again, with their grace and style I was learning from the best.”

Dreesen offered some rare insights into Sinatra, the man and his music, including Sinatra’s insistence that they wear tuxedos to every show (except closing nights of an extended engagement).

Tom Dreesen and Fran Sinatra. Images provided by Tom Dreesen

“Frank was the first of his kind and the last of his kind too,” Dreesen said. “When I asked him about why he wore tuxedos for every show, he said, ‘Tommy, if we were to perform before the king and queen, we’d wear a tuxedo. That guy who works in a garage who saves money to buy a ticket and his wife the waitress who does the same thing, they are as much royalty to me as the king and queen and they deserve the same respect.’ That’s something else I learned from him.”

Sinatra’s “magic,” according to Dreesen, was that he could walk out into a 20,000-seat arena and bring intimacy to the performance, replicating the atmosphere of a saloon. “If you were a Sinatra fan, his music was the soundtrack of your life,” said Dreesen. “No one will ever interpret lyrics like that again.”

Sinatra was also known for his vices, an affinity for Jack Daniels and an addiction to nicotine. “During rehearsals it was tea,” said Dreesen. “On stage, he’d have a little drink and toast the audience, ‘May you all live to be 150-years-old.”

Like his musical “Rat Pack” contemporaries Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, Sinatra was a chain-smoker, a habit he was never able to kick.

“I was at Frank’s home one day when he was 75 years old and he said, ‘Tommy, hand me my cigarettes’ and I reached over and grabbed a pack of unfiltered Camels. I said, ‘Frank, cigarettes are one thing, but unfiltered Camels?’ He said, ‘I’m 75, leave me the fuck alone.’ He knew they were bad for him, but it was an addiction he wasn’t able to kick.”

We asked Dreesen to really paint a picture of Sinatra, one with insights the public may not know.

“He was complex and gifted,” Dreesen said. “He was this enormous talent, but he was complex. There was no middle ground with Frank Sinatra. If you played and wanted to hang with him, he’d drink you all under the table. If he played, he played hard. If he worked, he worked hard. If he was your friend, he couldn’t do enough for you. There was no middle ground with him. Frank couldn’t say ‘I love you,’ but he’d show you in so many ways.”

Dreesen continued: “The generosity of this guy was beyond your wildest dreams. You had to be very careful not to say to him, ‘nice watch’ because he would take it off and give it to you. If you’d say ‘that’s a beautiful painting’ he’d take it off the wall and give it to you.”

That generosity extended beyond his friends; fans were also recipients of Sinatra’s largess. One night, as Sinatra and Dreesen were exiting the Waldorf Astoria for a waiting limo, a fan approached them. “Mr. Sinatra, Mr. Sinatra, please…” recounted Dreesen. “Frank turned around and asked what she wanted. ‘My husband is home sick and if I get you to autograph this photo it would mean the world to him.’ As he was signing the autograph the lady complimented him on his cufflinks, which I should add were $1,000 cufflinks. He said thank you, finished the autograph, took the cufflinks off and said, ‘Give them to your husband.’ In the limo I told Frank what a beautiful thing he just did. He said, ‘Tommy, if you possess something and don’t give it away, you don’t possess it, it possesses you.’”

Dreesen, while still touring the country doing his stand up, also pays homage to his friend in a show called “An Evening of Laughter and Memories of Sinatra.” It’s a love story.

“Growing up poor, my mother had a plaque in our kitchen that read: ‘The talent you have is God’s gift to you. What you do with that talent is your gift to God.’”

And Sinatra’s gifts were many, said Dreesen. “Frank Sinatra sang his songs and millions were raised and they built Temples and he wasn’t Jewish. He sang his songs and millions were raised for Protestant orphanages and he wasn’t Protestant. He sang his songs and millions were raised so young African-Americans could go to college and he wasn’t African-American. I know of no one in our industry who ever did more for God than Frank Sinatra.”

As Frank’s health deteriorated, the tours stopped and he spent his final months mostly in his Beverly Hills home seeing only a handful of close friends, including Dreesen. On one of those nights, Dreesen was leaving his house when Sinatra asked him where he was going.

“My wife and kids are in town so I have to leave,” Dreesen told him. ‘Give them all my best,” Frank said, ‘and you know, Tommy, I love you.’ Frank had never used those words and it just stunned me. I was stammering, but finally said, ‘I love you too, let’s go back on the road again.’ Frank replied, ‘You’ll have to go on the road yourself from now on.’ That’s when I knew that he knew that he was never going to sing again. When I finally got outside, I was all choked up.”

David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from “Hollywood’s Golden Age.” They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 Years Of Celebrity Profiles From Vaudeville To Movies To TV and are currently writing a biography of songwriter and legendary MGM musical producer Arthur Freed. Reach them at david.fantle@gmail.com or tjohnsonca@aol.com
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