The Unlikely Success of Tom Dreesen

By Rick Kogan, Staff Reporter
Chicago Tribune

BACK WHERE HE CAME FROM, Tom Dreesen is standing at the corner of 155th Street and Lexington Avenue in down-at-the-heels south suburban Harvey and here comes a ghost.

“Tom, Tom, Tom Dreesen. Do you remember me?” shouts an approaching woman who is the worse for life’s wear and tear, with a face a decade older than her fortysomething years and wearing a tattered brown coat. She says her name and Dreesen says, “Hey, I . . . Sure, sure. How you doing? How’s your brother?”

Dreesen is here to pose for a photo. The woman is here to attend an AA meeting in the Harvey 100 Club, which was once the Odd Fellows Hall and earlier the Harvey Methodist Church. That was a long time ago.

Dreesen and the woman talk for a couple of minutes. He slips a $5 bill into her hand, and then the woman walks with about a dozen others into the AA meeting and Dreesen says, “I knew her whole family. . . It makes me sad. There are still good people here but . . . When I was growing up Harvey was thriving. There was industry here and it was a microcosm of America: Irish, Italian, Jewish, Polish, Spanish and black. People worked in the community, banked in the community, shopped in the community, ate and drank and played in the community. But the factories began to die out, the shopping centers moved to the outskirts. So it’s not the same town I knew. Thomas Wolfe was right. You can’t go home again. You can never get back what was. And then, here I am.”

In the 30-some years since he left Harvey, Dreesen has, among many things and in no particular order, made more than 500 TV appearances, including 61 on “The Tonight Show”; was an opening act for, to name just a few, Smokey Robinson, Tony Orlando, Gladys Knight, Liza Minnelli, Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra. In fact, he was Sinatra’s opening act for 13 years, the master of ceremonies at the legendary singer’s wake and one of the pallbearers at his funeral.

When David Letterman was ill in 2003 he asked Dreesen to be guest host on his show. “I cannot say enough good things about the guy and his comedy,” says Letterman. “He is one of my oldest friends and a born storyteller. And he’s got such a good heart.”

His friends are many and loyal and devoted. “Tom is everything one could want in a friend and more,” says Dennis Farina, another local guy made good.

But for all of his success, Dreesen, 63, remains haunted and ever-influenced by Harvey and what happened to him here, bad and good. “It’s the basis of my comedy, the foundation of who I am. My life? It really has been kind of surreal, when you think about it,” he says. “From shoeshines to Sinatra.”

Let’s start the story just down the block and 58 years ago.

There is little Tommy Dreesen. He is 6 years old. He is sitting on the curb on 155th Street. It is a day of celebration. Schools are closed for a parade honoring Harvey’s most famous son, baseball’s Lou Boudreau, who had won that year’s American League MVP award as a Cleveland Indian. And little Tommy is having a most unrealistic fantasy: “Maybe they would do this for me one day.”

It’s unrealistic because after the parade he goes “home” to a shack in the shape of a railroad car behind a factory. He is the third of the eight children of Glenore, a waitress, and Walter, who works for Acme Steel and plays trumpet in a band. They are alcoholics. His mother would eventually stop drinking. His father would not. Both are now dead.

“We were raggedy-ass poor,” Dreesen says. There was no shower, no tub, no hot water. “And sometimes there were five of us kids sleeping in one bed.”

In his condominium in California, Dreesen has a sign: “If it is to be, it’s up to me.”

“That’s just another version of what my older brother Glenn used to tell me when we were kids: ‘If we’re gonna do it, we have to do it by ourselves.’ There was really never a ‘Hey, kid, let me buy you a new bike.’ None of that.”

Instead there were rats burrowing into the house, broken windows plugged with rags. “If we had holes in our shoes, we put cardboard in them,” he says.

“When I graduated from grade school, Glenn, who was going into the Navy, got me a watch, my first watch. Two months later, I couldn’t find it. I asked my mom if she’d seen it and she just put her head down and looked at my dad, and I knew he had pawned the watch for money for beer.

“I said, ‘You know, I never liked that watch that much,’ because I felt sorry for him. He never… he never threw a ball at me, never put his arm around me, never took me to a ball game. I eventually came to learn that it was his loss. That’s what I told myself when he died. I actually wept, but I was weeping more for what he missed out on. He wasn’t a bad guy. He wasn’t mean, never beat us. He was just weak.”

He talks about shining shoes at Harvey’s many saloons and setting pins at its bowling alleys, about caddying at Ravisloe Country Club, never having new clothes, not being able to graduate from Thornton Township High School. It’s like something out of a modern-day Dickens novel, so it is jarring when he finally says: “Now, I don’t want to portray that I was an unhappy child.”

The happiness, what there was, came from his siblings, especially older sister Darlene.

“She was 18 months older and as far back as I can remember, she’s holding my hand, helping me across the street, walking me to school. I was an altar boy, went to mass six out of seven days a week. And Darlene would be right there. When I sold newspapers, Darlene sold them on the corner with me. When I had a paper route, Darlene was helping me.

“When she was 14 years old, she got a job in a little corner grocery store. She would get a dollar an hour. By the end of the week, she had no money coming in because she had used it to buy bread and bologna and stuff to bring home. She never complained. My parents would be out drinking and she’d be the one watching over her brothers and sisters. She never had a childhood. None of us really did.”

In 1982, Dreesen created “Day for Darlene,” a 26-mile run through the south suburbs to raise money to help fight multiple sclerosis. Darlene died of the disease in 1989, and Dreesen has ever since done charitable work to help find a cure for MS.

“I think about her every day. She was just the sweetest person in life and . . .,” he says, pausing, as tears well in his eyes, “and she . . . when she finally started to live-she got married and got pregnant with a son-she got sick. She went from a cane to a walker to a wheelchair. But she never complained. She didn’t have anything to give but her love and she gave it free and took care of her brothers and sisters and, and she never went to a prom, never went to a . . . ”

Dreesen stops talking. He’s choked up.

A minute later, he says, “All the other kids, they’re doing pretty good.”

Glenn operates the Dreesen Photography studio in Homewood; Judi owns her own beauty shop in Peotone; Margie works for a newspaper in Peotone; Dennis is in the home repair business; Wally lives in Memphis, where he is a singer and actor; and Alice is a homemaker in Florida.

I think we all learned to get along on our own. We helped each other, but our parents weren’t in the picture in any positive ways,” he says. “And we were all able to find role models outside the family.”

For Tom that would have been a man named Frank Polizzi, who was married to his mother’s sister Marge and who owned the Cedar Lodge, the bar where Glenore Dreesen sometimes waitressed and Tom shined shoes. “He was the toughest person I ever knew,” says Dreesen. “He threw steelworkers out of there two at a time. He had a line in his bar and he told anybody making trouble, ‘Now you can go.’ And that was usually that.”

Dreesen is sitting in a quiet upstairs room at Gibson’s, the Chicago steakhouse and celebrity hangout where everybody seems to know him.

“I don’t know if I really should be talking about this . . . , ” he says, stopping to pour some tea.

“OK. When I was 11 or 12 and I started to realize where babies come from, I began to wonder why I didn’t look anything like my father. Walter Dreesen had blond hair and blue eyes,” he says, his speech measured and his eyes downcast. “Do you really think I should be talking about this? Well, I began to realize that I looked a lot like my uncle, Frank Polizzi.”

We are traveling back again to Harvey and there is 12-year-old Tommy saying to Polizzi, “I need to talk to you. I’ve got these mixed-up feelings.”

“What do you mean?” asks Polizzi.

“I think you’re my father,” Tommy says. He is scared because he knows Frank is an explosive guy. But he continues, “I look like you. I look like your son. And I don’t look like anybody in my family.”

Polizzi takes the boy’s hand and they walk around the block.

“I’m going to tell you a story,” says Polizzi. “I am your father.

“But I need you to know I had affection for your mom and your mom had affection for me. I’m saying this because I don’t want you to think that we were some one-night stand, back seat of a car kind of thing. Now, if you want, you can go tell the world. That’s your decision. It will ruin your mother’s marriage and it’ll ruin mine, but you’re entitled.”

The boy says nothing.

“And I didn’t talk to Frank for a long time,” Dreesen says. “I was angry and I was disappointed and confused. I was desperate to talk to somebody but who could I talk to without ruining everything?”

He escaped all of this–Dickens now dancing with Freud–by enlisting in the Navy. For four years he traveled the world, fell in lust with an older woman in Brazil who taught him the art of lovemaking, and fell in love with books, a good many about what he calls “the powers of the mind,” namely positive thinking and self-determination.

“I read everything I could get my hands on but in all the reading I did, there were two words that made no sense to me: ‘unconditional love,’ ” he says. “I would roll that around in my head: ‘love without conditions.’ But the moment I saw my first child born, then I knew.”

That first child, a daughter named Amy, was born when he was in the service. “I had met Maryellen Subock, a girl from Harvey, when I was home on leave. We met at Tony’s Pizzeria, where a lot of us used to hang out. It was one of those boy meets girl, girl gets pregnant,” he says.

They married. Amy arrived. He got out of the Navy, and quickly there were more kids, Tom and Jennifer.

“I went from job to job to try to support the family. I poured concrete for sidewalks and basements, 12, 14 hours a day, coming home sopping wet, falling asleep at the dinner table. But sometimes, a lot of times, I went out, trying I guess to catch the childhood I’d missed. I’d go out with the guys and hang out or, you know, whatever the street guys do, played basketball, 16-inch softball.

“But I always worked two jobs, usually construction and bartending, always bartending. I remember sitting in the bars and thinking, ‘I’m not supposed to be here. I don’t belong here, but where do I belong?’ ”

He would ask God, “What is you want me to do? There must be something other than this.”

He was fearful of going the same dead-end drinking route as his father. But then older brother Glenn, back from the Navy and starting his own career, convinced him to sell life insurance policies and to join the Jaycees.

“That was when my life began to change. The Jaycees were gentlemen of action. I’d been hanging around bars where everybody moans and complains but does nothing about it. The Jaycees attitude was, if there is a problem in the community, let’s solve it.”

Dreesen created a drug-education program for grade- school students and began to speak in front of classes and assemblies. He was soon joined in these “shows” by another Jaycees member, Tim Reid, who had recently moved to the Chicago area from North Carolina and was working as a marketing representative.

They used humor to get through to the kids and eventually became funny enough that students and teachers started telling them, “You guys should have a comedy act.”

And so in 1969 was born Tim & Tom, the first (“and sadly the last,” says Dreesen) black-and-white comedy team.

One of their bits was called “Superspade and the Courageous Caucasian” and they started getting booked–this is before there were comedy clubs–at such nightclubs as Mister Kelly’s, the Blue Max and the Playboy Clubs. Their biggest paycheck, though, was $750, split two ways. The act broke up in 1974, when Reid moved to Los Angeles.

“He always wanted to be an actor,” says Dreesen about his old (and still) friend Reid, who would go on to become a successful actor, director and producer, perhaps best known for his role as the supercool midnight deejay Venus Flytrap on CBS’ “WKRP in Cincinnati.” (The Sun-Times sports columnist Ron Rapoport is working on a book about the team). “But I was heartsick,” he adds about the breakup.

Instinctively, he sought solace in a Harvey tavern. “So it’s 1:30 in the morning. I got two beers in front of me somebody bought for me, and another beer that I was drinking. So now I was sitting there thinking, what am I going to do? I felt cornered. I figured I had three options. I could quit the business and get a job in a factory like my wife wanted me to do, bring home a check every Friday. I could find another black guy and do the same act that Tim and I had. Or I could go it alone. I was scared. I started asking myself, ‘If I want to go it alone, what could stop me?’ ”

The answer arrived minutes before last call: “Booze.”

He pushed the two unfinished beers toward the bartender, who had the perfect bartender name of Jimmy LePore.

“Finished for the night?” said LePore.

“I quit,” said Dreesen.

“For the night, Tommy?” asked LePore.

“No, that’s my last drink,” said Dreesen. “I quit, and I mean it.”

Within days, and after a few heated arguments with his wife, he was on his way to L.A. It would be six years before he would touch another drop and even now he drinks sparingly.

During his first month in Los Angeles, his “home” was an abandoned car. He washed at the gas station bathroom across the street and lived on $1 a day, enough to buy “what was called Corn and Cluck at KFC. Ninety-nine cents for two little pieces of corn, two pieces of chicken. To this day when I go by KFC, I genuflect. They kept me alive.”

Every day he hitchhiked to the Comedy Store, one of the first comedy clubs, and begged to get on stage. The details of his first year in L.A. would make a fine first chapter of a book titled “Before They Were Stars,” as he became part of a gang of talented, struggling young comics. For a time at a club called Showbiz, “the bill every night was me, David Letterman, Jay Leno, Robin Williams, Gallagher and Michael Keaton. The girl waiting tables was Debra Winger. And there was a bonding experience. We would sometimes have to pool our money to get us all a cup of coffee.”

“Tom was older than the rest of us, had more experience,” says Letterman. “When I showed up in L.A., I didn’t know a thing. Tom taught me, taught a lot of us, what to worry about, what to care about. He helped find work for all of us, stuff like warming up the crowds for TV game shows.”

Eventually, Dreesen got a manager, Dan Wiley-“my manager to this day, more than 30 years on a handshake,” says Dreesen. The family moved out to California and he “started getting a job here and there, drawing unemployment and hoping to get a shot on ‘The Tonight Show.’ ”

It finally came and, in the parlance of the comedy business, he “killed.” Or as Dreesen says, “I blew the roof off. Incredible applause. Two bows. The high sign from Johnny Carson.”

In short order, there was a $10,000 check from CBS to hold him to a development deal. And then a new home in Sherman Oaks, jobs as an opening act on the road, $8,000 a week in Las Vegas.

The first time he played Vegas, one of his buddies from Harvey came to see him.

Says Dreesen: “T.J. had a life even harder than mine. Didn’t know who his dad was, an only child whose mom used to bring a different guy home every week. He became a paratrooper. Tough guy, great guy. He’s in the audience opening night and we walk outside and he stops at the sign at Caesars Palace that said ‘Sammy Davis Jr. and Tom Dreesen.’ He gets tears in his eyes.”

“What’s wrong? I can’t believe you’re crying,” Dreesen said.

“Tommy, don’t you get it?’ said T.J. “If your name is up there, that means all of us, we’re all up there. The whole neighborhood’s riding up there with you.”

That ride became jet-fueled one night in Lake Tahoe when, after finishing his show with Smokey Robinson, he went next door to see Sinatra. Standing backstage, he was introduced to Sinatra’s lawyer, Mickey Rudin, who had been hearing good things about Dreesen.

Rudin asked, “If I’d give you a week opening for Frank, would you want more than $50,000.”

“If I can open for Frank, would you want more than $50,000?” said Dreesen.

Dreesen would be Sinatra’s opening act for the next 13 years. His stories from that time are studded with stars: the night Sinatra and Gene Kelly got into a heated argument about whether Dreesen was Irish or Italian; the frequent dinners with Sinatra pals Gregory Peck and Kirk Douglas; an aged Bob Hope asking Dreesen to take over his emcee duties at the Hope Desert Classic golf tournament; sharing a dais with Henry Kissinger. Dreesen was a frequent guest at Sinatra’s estate in Palm Springs, where he hung around with Dean, Sammy and . . . well, everybody.

Dreesen’s fondest memories of that time are personal and intimate. Sinatra liked to stay up all night, sipping Jack Daniels until dawn, and Dreesen was usually the last one keeping him company. “We would have long talks about life and family. I told him the story about my real dad and he said, ‘Tommy, that kind of thing happens more than you could imagine.’ We shared a lot of feelings.”

And fun.

One late night in Palm Springs, they were sitting in a saloon called Chaplin’s. A woman came in and asked the pair if the bar had a jukebox.

Sinatra looked at her. “No,” he said, “but I’ll be happy to sing for you.”

The woman said, “No thanks,” and walked out the door.

Dreesen said, “She just didn’t recognize you, Frank.”

Sinatra smiled and said, “Maybe she did, Tommy.”

When Sinatra stopped touring in 1996, Dreesen continued to perform, this time as a headliner, in Las Vegas, Lake Tahoe and Atlantic City. He also has become a motivational speaker for corporations. A participant in the Celebrity Golf Tour, he was third in Golf Digest’s recent ranking of the Top 100 celebrity golfers. He is also a frequent guest on Letterman’s show.

Last year the late-night host invited Dreesen to join him and bandleader Paul Shaffer in entertaining the troops in Iraq on Christmas Day. “Tom was great,” says Letterman. “He is always up, pep talks to everyone. I can always count on him. I think you could drop Tom anywhere in the world, in front of any audience, and he would give them a great 40-minute performance.”

Not surprisingly, Dreesen is the softest of soft touches. As the late Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray wrote: “If you count the benefits he has performed without a fee, he has contributed more to charity than the Rockefellers.”

He lives alone on–believe it or not–Benefit Street in Sherman Oaks. His wife had never cared for show business, but they tried to make the marriage work. On their 25th anniversary, the couple renewed their vows at Ascension Church in Harvey. Among the guests were Frankie Valli, Smokey Robinson, Ernie Banks and boxer Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. The next year, they divorced. She now lives in Arizona.

“Our kids paid dues along with me,” he says. “That’s the tragedy if you’re going to make it in showbiz. You’re never home. So I lay awake at night sometimes with that guilt of being on the road. I know I made mistakes, I know I could have spent more time with them.”

Not to worry. His daughters and son live within miles of their dad. They love him.

“I don’t care what he says, he was and is an amazing dad, an amazing person . . . so well-balanced,” says Jennifer, who has left a career in the music business to care for her 4-year-old son and 9-month-old daughter. Her husband, Don Garber, is a concert production coordinator. “He realized, because his parents weren’t available, how much his children needed his love. Family for him is the most important thing. We have a standing call. We will call each other every day at 7:30 in the morning. Every day, just to check in.”

Says Amy, a set designer who also helps manage her father’s career, “He is always there for everybody. He’s the shoulder to cry on. My son is 20 and he’s in the Marines [a 22-year-old daughter is in college] and so I have a lot of emotional days. My dad’s always available. Even my ex-husband is always calling him just to talk.”

All of which brings us up to January, when we find Dreesen standing backstage at the Center for the Performing Arts at Governors State University. He is the star at a benefit for Judy and Samantha Panozzo, a single mother and her teenage daughter, both suffering from cancer.

In front of some 1,000 people, he gives the first public performance of his one-man show, “Shining Shoes & Sinatra.” He calls it a work in progress but puts on a brilliant show, funny and poignant, ready right now for Las Vegas or maybe even Broadway, this 104 minutes alone on stage spinning the stories of his life.

“What Frank would always tell me when we were on the road is, ‘Now, here’s what I want you to do. I want you to go out there and stand in the middle of that arena and hold the attention of all those people. Not just hold their attention, I want you to make them laugh. Not just hold their attention and make them laugh, but I want you to do it with no props, no tricks, no charts, no special lighting. Just you and the audience. And understand this: Not one of them came to see you.’ ”

This night at Governors State, they all came to see Dreesen and their laughter embraced and empowered him. He says, “You have to accept reality, the tragedies in the world, and do something to ease the pain, to figure out a way to live with it. Ever since I can remember, I would gravitate to the sound of laughter.”

He’s gotten a million laughs, but still wonders: “Might I have been far more famous, maybe making movies? Did I sacrifice a different sort of career to stay with Frank? Every time networks came to me and said, ‘Do you want to do a series? What about a talk show?’ it would mean I’d have to stop touring with Frank. How could I do that?”

Letterman says: “By any gauge, Tom is a success, the consummate pro. But might he have been even more? Well, yes. He could easily be doing what I do.

“He’s been talking about this one-man show for years. I’ve heard excerpts. I hope he does take it further. I’ve seen [Billy Crystal’s “700 Sundays” on Broadway] show. I was knocked out. And Tom has had a life as interesting as Billy’s. There is no reason he can’t do the same thing.

“I can’t get enough of his stories. He really straddles eras and has respect from comics of any age. But I sometimes think he was born a generation too late. He should have been a member of the Rat Pack in its heyday.”

Sinatra, dead since 1998, continues to shadow Dreesen.

“Think about it,” he says. “Think about my real father and Sinatra. Both named Frank. Both cocky Sicilians. Both viewed as tough guys. Frank Polizzi owned a saloon. Frank Sinatra’s mother and father owned a saloon. I’ll tell you one of the greatest moments of my life came when I heard Sinatra say, ‘If I’m a saloon singer, then Tom is a saloon comedian. We’re a couple of neighborhood guys.’ ”

But it was more than that.

“In Frank Sinatra, I found a man,” says Dreesen. “I found a father.”

He is standing on 155th Street in Harvey when he says this. He is standing on a portion of the street that in 1992, with a parade and huge celebration, became Dreesen Street. And he is drawn back again, not to himself as a 6-year-old dreaming on the curb, but to a sad day in 1992.

“I want you to tell me something, Tommy,” said Frank Polizzi, in his Harvey hospital bed. “Do you have any regrets? Anything you want to get off your chest?”

“No,” said Dreesen.

“Tommy, I’m on my last legs and you know it. I don’t have long. I’m dying,” he said. “You gotta tell me, do you have any anger or rage?”

“No,” said Dreesen. “First of all, everything that I have, everything that I am, everything I’m about is because of you. I have no regrets whatsoever. But what about you? What do you regret?”

The tough old man sat up in bed, tears in his eyes.

“The only regret that I have . . . the only regret that I have,” he said. “It’s that every time I was in the bar and you’d come on TV. . . Tommy, I could never say, I could never say to anybody, ‘Hey, that’s my kid up there. Look at him. He’s a star. Hey everybody, put down those drinks and take a look. That’s my son.’ “