Meet Tom Dreesen, the ‘Man Who Made Sinatra Laugh;’ Diana Ross, John Fogerty: Two big names, one big night in AC; Indoor/outdoor fun at Bally’s

As one of the few surviving show business links to Frank Sinatra, Tom Dreesen had heard it all before.

dreesen

As one of the few surviving show business links to Frank Sinatra, Tom Dreesen had heard it all before.

“After he passed away [in 1998], I must have had, without exaggeration, 30 videos sent to me: ‘Hey, I do impressions of Frank Sinatra,’ or, ‘I pay tribute to Sinatra. Would you work with me?’” said Dreesen who, for more than a decade, was the immortal entertainer’s permanent opening act until health issues forced Sinatra’s retirement from touring. 

“I passed on all of them because I worked with the greatest singer of all time, you know? And while I really respected the fact that people were carrying on the music, I just didn’t want to do it.”

Nonetheless, Dreesen, 82, will share the bill with crooner/Sinatra acolyte Michael Martocci Aug. 27 when the pair co-star in “Sinatra: An Evening of Laughter, Music and Stories!” at Atlantic City’s Ocean Casino-Resort. So what changed his mind?

“Eliot Weisman, Frank’s manager, got a hold of me and told me about Michael,” he explained during a recent phone call to his Los Angeles home. “Michael had been one of the guys that were in touch with me, and I respectfully passed. But Eliot said to me, ‘Tom, I saw him and his show is really, really good.’”

While Martocci, who is an Atlantic City casino showroom vet, has won acclaim for his vocal talents, it wasn’t just his chops that convinced Dreesen to change his mind about doing this type of presentation. He recalled Sinatra telling him many years ago that he felt it was far more important that the music he performed—and loved—survived than his name. “And I said to Michael, ‘What I like about your show is that you don’t do an impression of Frank; you just pay respect to his music.’

“And this is what Michael does with a 20-piece orchestra. I was really overwhelmed and impressed by his show. I thought it is a great tribute to the music of Frank Sinatra, rather than someone doing an impression of Frank.

“So I said, ‘Well, let’s talk about it.’ We talked over the idea of doing a show together. And I said, ‘Okay, I’ll give it a shot.’”

When Dreesen was opening for Sinatra, who left performing in 1994 and died in May, 1998 at age 82, he would perform for 15 or 20 minutes, then cede the stage to the star of the show. But, he explained, the Ocean program will see a different format. Martocci, he explained, “opens the show and sings four or five songs, then I’ll walk out and [perform}.”

Dreesen said he will provide a truncated version of his one-man show, “The Man Who Made Sinatra Laugh,” which blends his standup comedy with often-poignant anecdotes about the man with whom, he said, he had a friendship that evolved into a father-son relationship. Then Martocci will return and the pair will close the evening together.

As one might imagine, Dreesen has a book-full of Sinatra stories. Many can be found in his 2020 autobiography,Still Standing…: My Journey from Streets and Saloons to the Stage and Sinatra,” which chronicles his classic American rags-to-riches tale from his impoverished childhood in the hardscrabble Chicago suburb of Harvey, Ill, to his early-‘70s days as a regular at the legendary Los Angeles laugh-lounge, The Comedy Store (where his contemporaries included Jay Leno, David Letterman and Richard Pryor) to his 1983 debut (at Atlantic City’s original Golden Nugget casino) as Sinatra’s audience-warmer and his subsequent life at the pinnacle of the entertainment industry.

A tale that still carries great meaning and importance for Dreesen is the one about the first time he played Chicago as Sinatra’s opening act. He recounted how he and Sinatra had finished a gig in Cincinnati, “and we got on his jet and we’re heading for Chicago to play the Chicago Theater.

“When I was a little boy, I shined shoes in that area. And I would take my shoeshine box up by the Chicago Theater, in the alley there. And I would try to shine shoes there because they gave bigger tips down there when the people were coming to the theater, or at intermission when they’d come outside.

“And now, Frank’s talking about how much he loves Chicago and going there. And he said to me, ‘We’ll knock ‘em dead, Tommy.’ And all of a sudden it hit me: Oh my God, I’m on [Sinatra’s] private jet; I’m going to Chicago, my hometown, where I used to shine shoes. And my name is gonna be on the marquee with Frank Sinatra.

“And I couldn’t talk. He kept talking and I was all choked up. Something came over me. I couldn’t describe it. It never happened to me again. But I was so overwhelmed with that moment. It was so unreal that I couldn’t believe this was actually happening.

“And I’m glad Frank kept talking because I think I would’ve burst into tears.”

For tickets, click here.

Better late than never

We finally got to The Yard at Bally’s Atlantic City, the music-and-drink emporium located in the courtyard of the casino’s Dennis Tower. 

The Yard is located on the Boardwalk level, a floor below the casino. Entrance is through the permanent indoor portion of the complex (site of the bar), which one traverses to get to a second space. This one is of significant size and resembles a greenhouse. It features windows on three sides, with the right wall being the location of the stage and DJ station. There is also a retractable glass-paneled roof. It’s this area that is The Yard’s signature.

From there, patrons can step into the courtyard itself. Here, you can sample the pub-ish menu, sip beverages (adult and not) and avail yourself (at no charge) of several games, including cornhole and giant versions of two beloved parlor games, Jenga and Connect 4. This space boasts its own performance stage.

It’s important to note that during our visit, the first two rooms were populated exclusively by patrons over 21, but the open-air section hosted several families with young children. 

Combined, these elements create a somewhat unique casino-saloon experience that gives The Yard its own turf on the Atlantic City casino-entertainment scene. 

Two legends, one night

A coincidence of scheduling will bring two pop music titans to Atlantic City on the same night.

Sept. 9, Diana Ross, who has been performing in the seaside resort since The Supremes appeared at Steel Pier in the mid-1960s, checks into Ocean as part of her upcoming “Thank U” tour (tickets here).

While Ross is making with the hits at Ocean, a few blocks west at Hard Rock Hotel Casino Atlantic City, singer-songwriter John Fogerty, the guiding light behind Creedence Clearwater Revival, will be performing. For tickets, click here.

    • Chuck Darrow headshot

      Chuck Darrow has spent more than four decades as a writer and broadcaster specializing in covering the Philadelphia region's arts, entertainment and casinos. He is still afraid he may one day have to work for a living. 

    More Popular Articles

    Upcoming Philly Events

    More Events