Sinatra’s favorite “saloon comedian” Tom Dreesen in spotlight as PPB honoree

Tom Dreesen (photo by Margie Barron)

Tom Dreesen honored with the Art Gilmore Award from the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters (photo by Margie Barron)

One great entertainer, comedian Tom Dreesen stood in the spotlight on stage for about 90 minutes mesmerizing the folks gathered in the Sportsmen’s Lodge ballroom last month in Studio City, California. It was at the Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters awards luncheon and it was a departure from the usual big dais of VIPs toasting the honoree.

Before Tom Dreesen received the coveted Art Gilmore Career Achievement Award from PPB president Alan Perris, he shared his comedic gifts with the crowd. He performed selections from his “An Evening of Laughter and Stories of Sinatra” one-man show that has toured around the country to glowing reviews.

“I’d like to take you on a journey to places I’d never thought I’d go, with people I’d never thought I’d meet, and lessons that I learned along the way,” Dreesen said launching a funny, educational, and inspiring afternoon. He explained that he learned many lessons from Frank Sinatra. But that afternoon everyone at the PPB luncheon learned important lessons from Dreesen too—that anything is possible, that dreams come true, and that the world would be a better place with good people like Tom Dreesen.

He has a sense of pride about his humble background. Tom said, “I grew up in Harvey, Illinois, in a neighborhood where the core value was very simple—that was ‘you only deserved in life what you worked for.’ I sold newspapers and shined shoes in the neighborhood taverns listening to Frank Sinatra on the jukebox singing, ‘Come Fly With Me.’” Years later he would be flying with Frank Sinatra for 13 years as his opening act. And Harvey, Illinois would throw him a parade and dedicate “Tom Dreesen Street” in his old neighborhood. “That proves dreams come true,” said the Navy veteran turned comic.

He started doing comedy to help community race relations in 1969. “I thought if we could laugh together, we could live together,” explained Dreesen who teamed with Tim Reid (WKRP) and they were the first black and white comedy duo. It was groundbreaking, and efforts are underway to get a movie made about the experience.

When Dreesen went solo he became a popular guest on The Tonight Show, and was a favorite of David Letterman, guest hosting for him. He was also a regular in the showrooms of Las Vegas, Tahoe, Reno and Atlantic City. Tom had great stories about working with Sammy Davis Jr. and others, but his tales about his friendship with Sinatra were the most poignant as well as very funny. Clean humor, which Sinatra always expected from Dreesen.

Frank Sinatra once told an audience, “If I’m a saloon singer, then Tom Dreesen is a saloon comedian.” Tom noted, “We’re both a couple of neighborhood guys.” They toured together and played some of the greatest venues in America, and Tom was a frequent guest at Frank and Barbara Sinatra’s Rancho Mirage home. Along with interesting anecdotes, Dreesen had photos and film clips reflecting the special moments they shared.

After talking about his life experiences and charity efforts (he founded “A Day for Darlene” named for his sister to benefit Multiple Sclerosis research), Dreesen received a tremendous PPB ovation. And Tom stayed afterwards to chat with old friends, pose for pictures, and share a few more stories with the pioneering crowd of broadcasters. #

Margie Barron has written for a wide variety of outlets including Gannett newspapers, Nickelodeon, Tiger Beat and 16 Magazine, Fresh!, Senior Life, Production Update, airline magazines, etc. Margie is also proud to have been half of the husband & wife writing team Frank & Margie Barron, who had written together for various entertainment and travel publications for more than 38 years.