AT&T Pro-Am 2008
The Industry Legend: Tom Dreesen survived abject poverty to pal with Letterman, Sinatra and Eastwood—and anchor the AT&T Clambake.
Thursday, February 7, 2008
People say a lot of things about standup comedian Tom Dreesen. That’s how it goes when you’ve been in the entertainment game long enough to spend 13 years opening for Frank Sinatra, 500-plus evenings on national TV with pals like David Letterman and as-many-as-possible afternoons lifting divots with golf buddies ranging from Tiger Woods to John Daly (see sidebar, pg. 30).
People say he’s damn funny. People like AT&T Pro-Am President Ollie Nutt say he’s a 3 handicap (he’s actually a 5 or 6). People like Letterman say Dreesen taught them a lot – including “what to care about” and “how to find a job” while young and struggling. And people like Sinatra – assuming there are any – said Dreesen was the master master of ceremonies.
All told, people say lots of different things about the 65-year-old comic, who says of himself, “I’m a comedian first, last and always.” And then there’s one thing they all say: that Tom Dreesen never forgot where he came from.
The reason for that is pretty simple. “If you were raised where I was raised,” he says, “you couldn’t forget.”
The young brothers would steal across the rail yard next to the factory behind their house, two small dirty shadows moving against a dark Southside Chicago backdrop. They’d wait for the train to creak to a stop, then scramble up to knock coal down from the freight train before it moved again, potentially pitching them to a filthy end as it did. The coal would help heat the thumbnail shack they and their platoon of eight siblings shared with a pair of alcoholic parents.
“Our home was rat-infested, roach-infested – eight brothers and sisters with five of us in one bed – no bathtub, no hot water, no shower,” Dreesen recalls. “It wasn’t the Depression – I’m not that old – but we were raggedy-ass poor.”
This weekend, in tee boxes at Spyglass, Poppy and Pebble, as Dreesen tells jokes and shares stories from his days opening for Sammy Davis Jr., Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight, among others, he will be surrounded not by soot, poverty and alcohol but celebrities, pro golfers and shiny accessories. It will seem a world away from Harvey, Ill. – but in at least one way, the two places aren’t so far apart.
Both the rollicking AT&T experience and the dive bars where a 6-year-old shiner-in-training followed his brother on his shoe-polishing circuit, laughter rained readily. The man at the center of the laughter at kid Dreesen’s local bar was a man who the child originally thought was his uncle but who he later learned was his real father.
“I’d get a Pepsi-Cola and wait for shifts to change in the factory,” he says, “and watch Frank Polizzi tell jokes behind the bar, with this vocal vernacular, this inflection that could cause this sound to come out of your body and fill room with great electricity. Sounds like a corny thing, but it’s true.”
At the AT&T Pro-Am’s Clambake super show for tournament volunteers and sponsors, Polizzi’s son is at the center of the laughter annually, deftly arranging and then directing a lineup that includes the likes of George Lopez, Huey Lewis and Ray Romano with no perceptible effort – while demonstrating his own grinning mastery of the vernacular.
“Clint’s idea of a good time,” he said last year, “is sitting on the toilet until his legs go numb.”
It sounds like Dreesen is still grinning when he picks up the phone at his Sherman Oaks, Calif., home.
“If this is about those pregnant cheerleaders,” he says. “I had nothing to do with it.”
In this and other far-ranging exchanges, he goes on to reflect on everything from growing up poor, Catholic and the only Caucasian on the football team (“Give the ball to white boy!”) to his constant motivational speaking gigs (“Whatever the mind can see and believe, the mind can achieve”).
The conversations help connect the dots between Harvey, Ill. and Pebble Beach, Calif.: After time in the military, and then time in hometown factories, Dreesen started selling insurance and joined the upstanding Jaycees, through which his humorous anti-drug presentation evolved into a successful comedy act that Dreesen ruefully describes as the “first and last” black-and-white comedy team in the country. When the “Superspade and Courageous Caucasian” split (his partner and friend, Tim Reid, would end up as a star of “WKRP in Cincinnati” and is now a high-powered director), Dreesen made for California, where he slept in his car and battled for his break while playing the Comedy Store with a logjam of losers named Robin Williams, Gallagher, Michael Keaton, Jay Leno and David Letterman.
“Tom was older than the rest of us, had more experience,” Letterman told The Chicago Tribune. “When I showed up in LA, 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.”
Before too long, Dreesen found a manager – who is still his man today – and nailed a “The Tonight Show” appearance that led to a gig opening for Vegas acts like Robinson and Davis Jr. By way of a backstage deal with Ol’ Blue Eyes’ lawyer, Sinatra soon would follow him.
Dreesen speaks reverentially about all he learned from Sinatra, humbly about how much the legend admired the guts it took to do stand-up, and laughingly about how The Voice liked to stretch his evenings until dawn.
“He stayed up all hours – never went to bed till the sun came up, whether we were on the road or not – and he wanted you to stay up with him. When he was finally ready to go to bed, I was ready for the Betty Ford clinic.
“One night after two shows in Vegas that ended at midnight, it’s 4:30am, he’s rarin’ to go, in the back of this restaurant telling stories. I want to get up and play golf, and he’s just in second gear. I got up, and he says, ‘Where you going?’
“I say, ‘To the cemetery to visit those guys.’
“He says, ‘Who?’
“I say, ‘All those guys that tried to stay up with you all night.’
Dreesen chuckles. “He made me tell that story a bunch of times.”
There’s a key element that led Dreesen from a shack by the train tracks to carrying Sinatra’s coffin – a journey explored in a one-man play written and performed by Dreesen called Shining Shoes and Sinatra. He discovered that element as a caddy.
“Golf is a part of my whole being,” says Dreesen, a superb golfer who has been ranked as highly as third on Golf Digest’s list of celebrity golfers. “Let me explain to you why: Both parents were alcoholic, I grew up in a shack and all I dreamed of was owning a bar or tavern. I thought that was epitome of success. It was all I knew – the bowling alley, delivering papers, it was all the same environment.
“The golf course – it was a totally different world – doctors, businessmen: ‘Maybe I can be more than a bartender.’ It makes sense to me when a young kid from the ghetto wants to be a drug pusher. He’s never seen other successful men.
“That’s what golf did to me: It helped me start to think beyond.”