For veteran comic Tom Dreesen, opening for Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra were life-changing events. But his life changed even before then, when he appeared on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”
“After one appearance, I went from the unemployment line, right into Las Vegas,” Dreesen says of his debut with Carson in 1975. “That was the question you were asked, if you were a comedian, ‘Have you been on Johnny Carson?’ If you hadn’t been, it just wasn’t worth being a comedian.”
Dreesen is making another debut Friday night with his comedy/storytelling show at the Italian American Club Showroom (doors at 6 p.m., dinner at 6:30, show at 8, contact the club for info).
The club is steeped in Vegas history, as Sinatra himself was a charter member in 1961. The famous story is that Sinatra hosted a fundraising gala a the Riviera in which a Cadillac was raffled off. The $6,000 raised paid for the 1.8 acres on which the Italian American Club sits.
Dreesen is best known for opening for Sinatra for 14 years. He also worked with Davis. He never worked the comedy clubs after is first appearance on “The Tonight Show.” He logged more than 60 appearances, and also was a favorite on “The Dinah Shore Show,” “The Mike Douglas Show” and “Late Night with David Letterman.”
Dreesen also forged a symbiotic stage act and friendship with actor/comedian Tim Reid, who played Venus Flytrap on “WKRP in Cincinnati.” The “Tim and Tom” tandem was recognized as the first biracial stand-up comedy tandem in the country.
Either with Reid, opening for Davis or Sinatra, or as a headliner, Dreesen played the showrooms of all the famous Vegas resorts: the Sands, Caesars Palace, Desert Inn, Riviera and Golden Nugget. He didn’t like Circus Maximus at Caesars, where he competed with dinner servers rushing food to the tables.
“I was playing to waiters and waitresses, doing jokes between the constant interruptions,” Dreesen says. “The more intimate the room, the better the comedy.”
Dreesen witnessed Sinatra’s undeniable impact on casino business. “Back in the day, the question after a night was, ‘What was the drop?’ from the pits,” Dreesen says. “When Frank headlined, the drop was quadruple what it normally was. The high rollers came in and sold out the Sands, or wherever he was, and also sold out the hotels around his hotels.”
Dreesen is often asked to weigh in on Sinatra’s ongoing iconography. Those who knew him still revere his talent, personality and impact on entertainment culture. Dreesen says Sinatra, in his heyday, appealed to all demographics. “Women wanted to make love to him, if they were older they wanted to make love to him, if you were a kid, you wanted him as your parent,” Dreesen says. “Guys wanted to hang out with him.”
Dreesen, at 82 a rare Sinatra contemporary who is still onstage, says, “He was not just the greatest pop singer who ever lived, he was larger than life.”
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.