Tom Dreesen Interview
In May of 1998, one of the greatest singers of the Twentieth Century, Frank Sinatra passed away.
In tribute to Frank Sinatra we thought it would be fitting to offer up remembrance of the singer by some of the people who either knew or worked with him.
Tom Dreesen is one such person. He opened for Frank Sinatra (or in his words “Frank Sinatra closed for me”) for 14 years.
He was also a pallbearer at Frank Sinatra’s funeral.
Q – Were you always a fan of Frank Sinatra?
A – Yes. When I was a little boy shining shoes in all the taverns, Sinatra was on all the jukeboxes in those days. So, as a little boy I heard him on those jukeboxes while I was shining shoes. I now have a one man play that I’m doing. I did it a few times last year (2007) and I’ll be doing it more this year. It’s called ‘Shining Shoes And Sinatra’. It opens with me shining shoes in a bar as I did as a little boy. Sinatra is on the jukebox. And, it ends with me carrying his coffin. So, it’s the journey from that little boy to Frank Sinatra’s coffin. So, as a little boy I’d hear him. In my neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, if you played a word association game, if you said Black-White, Tall-Short; if you said show business, we didn’t say Clark Gable or Marilyn Monroe, you would say Frank, Sammy and Dean. That was show business. I was a fan of his and Dean’s and Sammy’s.
Q – When you got a little older did you have the opportunity to see Frank Sinatra in concert in your hometown?
A – When I got older, I did one time. When I got out of the service my cousin had seats one time for the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago, a huge arena. I went there and saw him. I was sitting way up in the nose bleed seats. I thought it was pretty cool. It’s like, when I was a bartender, I’d be in the bars, tending bar in Chicago and late at night you’d close the bar. Your buddies would stand there while you’re re-stocking the freezer and all that stuff. And somebody would play that song ‘Come Fly With Me’. I’d say to my buddies, ‘Can you imagine what that would be like? Frank, Sammy and Dean. How cool it must be, those guys’. We’d all elaborate. Neighborhood guys. Street guys. What would that be like? That would be something! Then years later I was flying with Frank Sinatra all over the world. It was almost surreal some nights.
Q – I guess that’s why you said all your dreams have come true.
A – Yeah. It’s true. Performing with him, gracing the same stage as him meant more to me than anything that I could ever accomplish in show business because it never mattered to me if ABC, NBC, CBS or the motion picture world ever thought I was a viable force in show business. Frank Sinatra thought I was good enough to grace the same stage as him, that meant more to me than any award I could ever win in show business.
Q – I had to laugh when I saw you on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno recently. Jay said, “You used to open for Frank Sinatra”. You said, “Excuse me, Frank Sinatra closed for me”.
A – Yeah, that was a joke that Frank would laugh at. Him and I sometimes would be
somewhere and somebody would say, ‘What’s it feel like to open for Frank Sinatra’? I’d say , ‘You got it wrong. Frank closes for me’. Frank would laugh. He said, ‘That’s right. He’s not lying. I close the show for him’. Sometimes I would joke and say, ‘Yeah, I was looking for a singer to close my show and I’d call Frank and he wasn’t doing anything. So, we’d go around the country and give him a chance to see 20,000 people in an arena’. (Laughs).
Q – That is pretty funny.
A – He had a good sense of humor about that.
Q – How did you get that gig?
A – By being glib at the right time. I was touring with Smokey Robinson. I was at Caesar’s in Lake Tahoe and I performed at Harrah’s in Lake Tahoe many times. Harrah’s is next door to Caesar’s. After my show, Sinatra was at Harrah’s. Nancy, his daughter was his opening act at the time. As I came offstage one night I rushed right over. I didn’t even change out of my stage clothes. I rushed over to catch Frank’s show. As I was running into the showroom, the Vice-President of Harrah’s Hotel, a man named Holmes Hendrickson was in the lobby. He saw me running into the showroom. He was standing with a big guy with a cigar. He said, ‘Tommy come here. Tommy come here’. I reluctantly went over there. I didn’t want to miss Frank’s opening. He said, ‘Tommy, this is Mickey Rudin’. I recognized the name. It was Frank Sinatra’s lawyer. He said, ‘Mickey, this is Tom Dreesen. I think Tom would make a, great opening act for Frank Sinatra’. The lawyer got a pained expression on his face like he’d heard this before many times. He winked at the Vice-President and I caught the wink. He said, ‘Hey, kid. If I give you a week with Frank would you want more than $50,000’? I said, ‘Mr. Rudin, put it this way, if you gave me a week with Frank, would you want more than $50,000’? He started laughing. He said, ‘Hey, I like this kid’. A week later I got a call to go do a job with him for one weekend. I figure great, I’ll try and get my picture taken with him and try to hang it in every bar rack in Chicago. The second night I worked with him, he took me out to dinner with his wife Barbara. I can remember it like it was yesterday. He was eating dinner and put his knife and fork down 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’. I didn’t say let me check my calendar; I said, ‘Yeah. Sure’. It turned into 14 years and a friendship. A great friendship. We hung around together. I’d go and stay at his house, 5, 6 times a year. A lot of laughs. A lot of good times.
Q – How did his audience treat you?
A – Oh, with tremendous respect. Fortunately for me, before I met Frank Sinatra I had done about 50 ‘Tonite’ Shows. I had done a lot of television; Dinah Shore, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Hollywood Squares, Midnight Special, Rock Concert, Soul Train, American Bandstand. I appeared on all those shows. I did 15 Mike Douglas (shows). I did a lot of television. So, when I went touring with him that was one of the reasons he wanted me, because I could change my material a lot. I was always coming up with new and unique material. We would return to the same cities. That’s why he kept me with him. There was always a lot of respect. When you walk out there and there’s 20,000 people, they all came to see Frank. You know that going in. So, you had to get ‘em fast. I would use little tricks to get the audience. But, after awhile it became second nature.
Q – Did he ever sing around you, when you guys were offstage?
A – One of my favorite moments with him was in a car, down in the desert. He never went to bed until the sun came up, his whole life, whether we were on the road or off the road. He didn’t go to bed until the sun came up. He’d like you to hang out with him. One night I was sleeping in my bungalow. It was 3 o’clock in the morning. He came and said, ‘Hey, let’s take a ride’. So, I got up and we start riding around the desert. It was hot, real hot. I remember we had the windows down, and we were talking. He told me something very personal. He said later, ‘I shouldn’t have told you that’. I was driving and I said, ‘Well, it won’t go any further than this car’. He said, ‘I shouldn’t have’. I said, ‘Well, don’t worry about it’. It’s not like we’re strangers. We’re friends. And then I paused and I looked at him with a grin on my face and went, ‘Strangers In The Night exchanging glances’. He said, ‘Man, if you’re gonna sing, get in key’. He goes, ‘Wondering in the night what were the chance’. Then I would do a line and he would do a line. When we pulled into the compound he always kissed me on the cheek – ‘Goodnight. I’ll see you in the morning’. I was going back to my bungalow thinking if I were to go back to the old neighborhood with all those guys I know in the bar and say I was just riding around with Frank Sinatra and we were singing ‘Strangers In The Night’ they would say, “Get the hell out of here with that b.s’. But, it happened. It’s one of my favorite moments thinking about him.
Q – Overall what kind of a personality did Frank Sinatra have?
A – Well, there was no middle with Frank Sinatra. You have to understand that. If he worked, he worked harder than anybody you want to know. Everybody better know their job ‘cause he knew his. Every night was a Command Performance. And that’s the way he approached it. So, he worked hard. If you wanted to play with him, he’d drink everybody under the table. Up until dawn every single day. He never went to bed ‘til the sun came up. If he loved, he worshiped the ground you walked on. He couldn’t do enough for you. If he hated, he hated like a Sicilian hates. There was no middle with him. What kind of a guy was he? He was energetic. Quirky sometimes. But, a funny guy and a good guy. The most giving human being I’d ever met in my life.
Q – Were you asked by Tina or Nancy to be a pallbearer?
A – No. I was asked by Barbara. Barbara made that decision.
Q – I believe it was Wayne Newton who said Frank Sinatra’s funeral should have been televised. Would you have any idea why that wasn’t done?
A – Barbara didn’t want it, ‘cause Frank didn’t want it. I was with Frank at Sammy’s funeral. At Sammy’s funeral it was big. It was huge and everybody was speaking and open to the public. When we left, Frank said in the limo that night, ‘I don’t want that. That’s too theatrical. Way too theatrical. I don’t want that at my funeral’. I said to him, ‘You know what they should do Mr. S? They should bury you at quarter to three in the morning with your buddies around and a little Jack Daniels around’. He said, ‘Yeah’, because of the song ‘It’s Quarter To Three’. He said, ‘Yeah. You make that happen Tommy’. I started laughing. I said, ‘Sure. I’m gonna go to your family’. We both laughed about that. But, he did make it very clear that he didn’t want a big, theatrical funeral.
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