Tom Dreesen’s one-man show, “An Evening Of Laughter and Memories of Sinatra,” a benefit for the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center Dec. 12 at the Helene Galen Performing Arts Center at Rancho Mirage High School. Most people know Tom Dreesen as Frank Sinatra’s opening comic. He toured with him for 14 years and spoke at his funeral. He’s hosted the Frank Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Gala since it began in 1989. “I do standup comedy and tell stories about my friend, who I knew. There are some people who have met him once and they’ve made a lifetime out of that story. That’s OK. The difference between my show and any other show is I actually was with him. I’m going to tell you stories you have not heard before. I’m going to give you insights to this great man.”
Here are a few of Dreesen’s Frank Sinatra stories thanks to the Desert Sun.
“I was working at Caesar’s in Lake Tahoe with Smokey Robinson, and I had toured with Sammy for three years. Frank Sinatra was appearing at Harrah’s, which is next to Caesar’s, so, after my show, I bolted off the stage and went running over to Harrah’s to watch Frank’s show. I’m running through the lobby and the vice president of Harrah’s, Holmes Hendrickson, was talking to a heavy-set guy with a cigar. Holmes said to me, ‘Tommy, come here.’ So, reluctantly I went over and he said, ‘This is Mickey Rudin.’ I recognized the name as Frank’s lawyer, and 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 because he had heard that a million times. He winked at the vice president and I caught the wink. He said, ‘Hey, kid, if I gave 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 said, ‘I like this kid.’
“A week later they gave me a call and said, ‘Would you like to work one week in Atlantic City with Frank Sinatra at the Golden Nugget?’ I thought, ‘Yeah, I’ll go one week. I’ll get my picture taken and I’ll hang it in every bar back in Chicago and that will be the end of that.’ On the second night, Frank and his wife, Barbara, took me to dinner and in the middle of dinner he put down his knife and his fork. He said, ‘Kid, 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 said, ‘Yeah!’ and it turned into 14 years, 45-50 cities a year.”
“The thing you had to learn about him, he was never, ever, ever, ever late. If you said be there at 9 o’clock, he was there at five to nine. And if you weren’t there at 9:01, he might leave. He said, ‘Tommy, if someone tells you to show up at 9 o’clock and you show up at 9:15, you just told them your time is more important than theirs.’
“He was the most impatient guy I ever knew. But he worked harder than anybody I knew and you’d better know your job because he knew his. The show was most important. Party all night long if you can, but come show time, everybody does their job. If you wanted to play with him, he hung out ’til 6 o’clock. He went to bed when the sun came up whether you were on the road or off the road. He could play as hard as anyone I know.
“I tell a funny story in the one-man show. We were doing one-nighters all around the country and we flew to Las Vegas to open at the Desert Inn. We did two shows that night and it’s like 4:30 in the morning. Frank’s hanging out with a bunch of us guys and you can see it’s going to be another one of those stay-out-’til-dawn nights. At 4:30, I couldn’t take it anymore and I got up from the table. He said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’m going to bed.’ He said, ‘What for?’ I said, ‘I’ve got to get up early in the morning and go to the cemetery to visit those guys.’ He said, ‘What guys?’ I said, ‘All those guys who died trying to stay up with you every night.'”
The real Sinatra
“First of all, there was no middle with Frank Sinatra. He couldn’t do enough for his friends. If he loved you, he worshiped the ground you walked on. In a lot of ways, he was like a father to me. I didn’t have a father that really cared that much where I was and what I did. But Frank would give me advice and counsel and then he was a buddy in a lot of ways. I thought the world of him.
“A couple of drinks and he got a little cantankerous sometimes. (But) the only time he ever got mad at me was in the ’80s. His office contacted me and said, ‘Here are the dates for the next six months.’ There was one gig at the MGM Grand (in Las Vegas) where we were going to work from the day after Christmas to Jan. 1. I said, ‘I have a New Year’s Eve contract in Tahoe with Glen Campbell. If you want to get somebody for that whole week to sub…’ They said, ‘No, no. We’ll get somebody to sub that one night, New Year’s Eve.’ I said, ‘OK,’ thinking Frank knew that. They got Brad Garrett and when I came back, Hank Atani, Frank’s road manager said, ‘By the way, the Ol’ Man’s really upset.’ I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because you worked in Tahoe.’ ‘But everyone knew at the office!’ ‘Yeah, but I guess they were afraid to tell him. He was pacing the stage, waiting to go on and he heard a different voice.’
“He said, ‘Where’s Tommy?’ They said, ‘Tommy had a gig.’ And Frank said, ‘This ain’t a (bleeping) gig?’ So, when I heard about it, I went up to his suite as soon as I got back: ‘Frank, the office knew, the staff knew.’ He said, ‘Ah, don’t worry about that.’ So he was only mad for that moment.”
The Rat Pack
“Dean Martin was the toughest of the three. Frank was a scrapper — a Billy Martin-type barroom scrapper. Dean was a tough guy. He fought in the ring as Kid Crossetti. In my opinion, Frank Sinatra respected Dean Martin more than any man alive for a lot of reasons. For one, he was the brother he never had. Two, Frank longed to be a tough guy and Dean was a tough guy. Dean didn’t take any crap from anybody, especially Frank. If Frank said, ‘Hey, we’re all going to stay up until dawn,’ we’d all stay up until dawn. If Dean wanted to go to bed, Dean would go to bed. It would piss off Frank, but he did what he wanted to and I think subconsciously, Frank respected that more than anything because he was his own man.
“Sammy (Davis Jr.) used to tell me a story. Frank was appearing at some theater in New York and he was struggling. He went to Harlem and saw the Will Maston Trio and was blown away by how talented Sammy was. He went back stage and told Sammy to come and see him where he was performing. About a week went by and Frank went back to Harlem and and went back stage and told Sammy, ‘I’m pissed at you. I came to see your show a second time. You never came to see my show.’ And Sammy said, ‘Frank, I did. They wouldn’t let me in.’ Frank went back and tore his contract up and left. And he needed the gig.”
“Frank did not give a damn about money. If you wanted to make Frank Sinatra turn and run, start telling him how much you own, how much money you had. He tipped $100. If you brought him a pack of cigarettes, you got $100. If you brought him a Jack Daniels, you got $100. He didn’t show off, he’d slip it to you. I think he wanted to take care of everybody. He told me once on a private jet that he wanted to make sure that everyone was taken care of in his life. He said, ‘I don’t want any fights at my funeral.'”
What: Tom Dreesen’s one-man show, “An Evening Of Laughter and Memories of Sinatra,” a benefit for the Barbara Sinatra Children’s Center co-chaired by Louise Korshak and Ursula Gari
When: 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 12, which would have been Frank Sinatra’s 99th birthday
Where: The Helene Galen Performing Arts Center, 31001 Rattler Road, Rancho Mirage
Information: (760) 773-1636