Tom Dreesen: Dreaming a life and living it well

By Gregory Harutunian for Chronicle Media

Comedian Tom Dreesen backstage before his performance at the John and Nancy Hughes Theater in Lake Forest. (Photo by Gregory Harutunian/for Chronicle Media)

Comedian Tom Dreesen is a master storyteller, and his performance on Sunday, Sept. 17 at Lake Forest’s John and Nancy Hughes Theater included nearly 30 minutes of Las Vegas-style jokes, followed by an hour of recounting his 84 years of life, so far.

Seated at the side of the stage, next to table with a whiskey bottle and glass, it represented the setting he is most known for. Visuals and audio clips helped tell the story: his Chicago roots, the nightlife, Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas, late-night talk shows, the celebrities, and touring the world with Frank Sinatra for more than a decade.

Before the success, came dire times. Growing up in Harvey was not easy, nor was the climb to success.

“I came home, after serving in the military, I did manual jobs, moving concrete, working in a bar … I was praying, praying to God to show where my place was,” he said.

Backstage, before the show, he elaborated on how his “inner journey is much more interesting than the outer journey.”

“When I was growing up, we had a family of eight brothers and sisters, we lived in a shack, we had no bathtub, no hot water, and this wasn’t during the depression,” Dreesen said. “Me, my brother, and my sister, went out and we sold newspapers, shoveled walks with snow. I had a paper route, set pins in bowling alleys, caddied in the summertime, just to feed my brothers and sisters.

“None of this, do I regret. I think it’s the greatest thing in the world that ever happened to me; it builds character. Some people have that instinct in them, to do that, maybe they need a little encouragement. Others, they won’t awaken it.”

Dreesen’s older brother served as a role model for him.

“I have a little card that sits on my desk to this day, ‘if it is to be, it’s up to me.’ My brother was three years older, he took me to help sell newspapers, he taught me how to shine shoes, worked in a bowling alley, I followed my older brother. He went into the Navy, I went into the Navy.”

In addition to being a comedian and author, Dreesen gives motivational talks at corporate seminars, high schools, and colleges.

“I talk on four subjects … all of life is about perception, visualization that whatever the mind can see and believe it will achieve, self-talk because the most important person you’ll ever talk to is yourself, and to develop a sense of humor, to laugh at your misfortunes.

“I tell them, ‘before this is over, I’m going to give you the secret, you have the power to empower yourself … the secret is you.’ Some people, you have to be knocked down a few times to realize that you can’t succeed until you get back up again.”

He finds high school students to be vulnerable and tries to instill direction.

“One of the things I teach at high schools is ‘don’t let them tell you that you’re a victim, don’t let them put you in that victim mode.’ Once they convince you that you are a victim, they can control you, ‘they’ whoever they are, governments, corporations, whatever.”

Dreesen pointed to his own upbringing as an example of stepping outside of bad circumstances.

“A guy like me (couldn’t) succeed,” he said. “I was a high school dropout, I went into the Navy at 17, I had a perfect excuse not to succeed … because it was safe there. It’s safe to be a victim … someone had it 10 times harder, and they overcame it, you can too.”

Talking about Chicago, also rekindled some memories of Wrigley Field, and how things can change.

“My brother and I would shine shoes, and we’d take the money home, our mom would put nickels in a cracked cup. When we had enough money, we’d take the ‘L’ downtown and sit in the bleachers, where the poor people sat. I’d always fantasize about what it’d be like being a bat boy.

“Well, in the 1980s, (manager) Jim Frey would let me be a bat boy. I’d be appearing at a club, and they had day games. All the players and their wives would come to the club at night — Greg Maddux, Jamie Moyer, Rick Sutcliffe, and those guys. For four days, I’d be a bat boy, they’d let me hit batting practice, go into the outfield and catch flyballs.

During the performance, he tells the story of selling newspapers as a boy at the corner of 155th Street and Lexington Avenue, his regular spot, when he hears the roar of a crowd. He rushes to find a parade with Lou Boudreau, being honored for his World Series win in 1948. Dreesen wondered if he’d ever have a parade like that someday. In 2006, the town named the intersection for Dreesen, and Boudreau gave the remarks.

What happened after that night that he prayed in the bar? He got involved with a civic group giving motivational speeches at schools partnering with Tim Reid (who played Venus Flytrap in “WKRP In Cincinnati”), which evolved into a comedy team, Tim and Tom.

“Once upon a time, there was a young Black man and a young white man who were so naïve and idealistic that they honestly believed that if you could get people to sit down and laugh together, maybe they could live together,” said Dreesen.

When the act broke up, he went to Los Angeles, slept in an abandoned car, and pushed for a shot at a comedy club, which led to an audition for the Tonight Show.

“I ended the routine with ‘if you’re a Protestant, say a prayer for me, if you’re Catholic, light a candle, if you’re Jewish … somebody in your family has a nightclub, tell them about me.’ Since that night, I’ve never been without work.”

A chance encounter with Sinatra’s manager led to a short booking to open for him, which was extended. A lifelong friendship developed, as well as mentorship. Dreesen wondered why they always performed in tuxedos.

“He (Sinatra) said because the audience is royalty. That guy out there might have saved up all year to come here tonight. It’s always a command performance.”

Dreesen also told the story of a benefit in Chicago, where Sammy Davis Jr. was booed by the crowd. The entertainer was out of favor with Blacks and whites over his photograph hugging then-President Richard Nixon.

“He flew like 3,500 miles and was to sing three songs. He stood there, and they booed … he walked to the piano and took one songsheet. He sang, ‘I gotta be me,’ and won the crowd back, giving him a standing ovation.”

The audience at the Hughes Theater applauded, too, a testament to Dreesen’s gift as a storyteller.

At a meet-and-greet afterwards, he waited until every person had shaken hands or had taken a photo.

Tim Seedin, the program’s promoter, said, “You know where he got that? Frank (Sinatra)?”

Dreesen, later said, “You know what I really get a kick out of is helping people. I needed help.”