Dillon, Tom

Tom DillonTom Dillon (1918-2005) was Shepherd of The Lambs from 1969-1986. The actor and singer was the longest serving Shepherd. Assuming the post in 1969, he gave his heart and soul to steer the club through the difficult years of the 1970s. In 1986 he retired as Shepherd and thereafter became president of the Actor’s Fund of America where he rendered distinguished service. Dillon was named to the list of Immortal Lambs.

(as published the cover story of The Lambs’ Script, Spring of 2005)

With the Spring election of 1969, comedian Jack Waldron became Shepherd with Tom Dillon as the Boy. Less than a year later, November 21, Waldron died of a heart attack. The helm of the ship now passed to Tom Dillon, the youngest to hold the office of Shepherd. But with this great honor came the desperate job of trying to save a club that was about to go under.

Thomas Joseph Dillon was an improbable person to become Shepherd. In a fraternity built around drinking and smoking, he did neither. Asked to name his poison, he would quip “A Coke – straight up.” In a club where members were routinely reprimanded for rough language, his oath was “gee.” In a club of actors “trying to become gentlemen” Dillon was a gentleman. Arrow straight, he had been a Catholic choir boy and married his hometown sweetheart. He had a razor-sharp mind, a letter-perfect memory, and seemed to know everyone in New York on a first name basis. There was about him an unimpeachable integrity. He was one of the boys, but he wore a halo.

He was a man without enemies and a lover of mankind if ever there was one, and totally without prejudice. When Harry Hershfield, a Jew, was Shepherd, someone at The Friars tried to slur The Lambs by asking, “Oh, are you a member of that ‘Gentile Club,’ aren’t you?” Tom replied, “Gee, I can’t wait to get back and tell Harry Hershfield.”

Tom Dillon was born September 3, 1918, in Brooklyn, where, except for a stint in the Air Force and occasional tours, he lived all his life. At a young age he began singing at St. Augustine’s Church. An angelic child-soprano voice placed him in demand around the city. Performing the “Cantique de Noel” at Columbia University, his voice cracked on a high B-flat, ending his soprano career. He took to boxing and considered becoming a physical education instructor, but, at seventeen discovered, unlike most child sopranos, he had developed not a baritone but a dazzling tenor voice, and for the next four years sang in oratorio.

Enlisting in the Air Force in World War II, he was chosen from 7,000 candidates for the cast of Winged Victory, the big Air Force relief show. At the first rehearsal, director Moss Hart surveyed the cast and said, “I need someone…” and pointed to the redheaded, freckle-face kid with good Irish looks, said “You. You look like the all-American boy. There is a scene here, a very serious scene, and you walk in and are told that your buddy’s been killed in an air crash.” Tom was instructed to reply, “I know, Joe.”  Tom joked that he carried the show with that one line, “I know, Joe.

Winged Victory played at the Shubert Theatre in Boston for a month, and the 44th Street Theatre in New York for seven. On October 17, 1943, during the Broadway run, Dillon got permission from Moss Hart for a night off and married his girl, Alice Parker. Thereafter when he ran into Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s wife, he would exclaim, “See what you did to me!”

20th Century Fox made the Hollywood film version with many of the original cast of 300 remarkable actors such as Karl Malden, John Forsythe, Red Buttons, Gary Merrill, Mario Lanza and Eugene Connelly. Stars Jeanne Craine and Judy Holiday were also in the cast. When Winged Victory closed after a lengthy tour, Tom was dispatched on an 11,000-mile tour of the Pacific, entertaining troops with a pocket-sized variety show.

After the war, he took advantage of the GI Bill to enroll in the Professional Training Program of the American Theater Wing, studying voice and piano for four years. “I will never forget the first day. Karl Malden was in line, and John Forsythe. It was a wonderful opportunity for free.”

He entered The Lambs in 1949 as a Junior Member, a category introduced that year to encourage new, younger members.

“Some of the fellows went out and borrowed the $35, which was a lot of money in those days, especially if you were just out of the service,” said Tom. “There were thirty or forty of us. We were dying to get into the Club. People like Hal Prince and Don Murray came in at that time. They accepted us kids cordially but told us that we were on trial and had better prove ourselves worthy of being Lambs. They gave us a night to put on a show all by ourselves. We produced and directed it and acted in it. It was a very successful night and really set us up solid with all the older Lambs. Anyone who had talent got up and performed. We were all gung-ho.”

He began making the rounds, forging a career in vocal quartets and choral work, finding plenty of work in radio and the emerging television business. He was a regular on The Firestone Hour, The Milton Berle Show, The Martha Raye Show, Phil Silvers’ Sgt. Bilko and others. He worked with Smith & dale when they played The Avon Comedy Hour and he appeared in a sketch with Bert Lahr on The Ed Sullivan Show. With Bert Wheeler he formed the classic act, “Wheeler and Son” in which he played Wheeler’s wise-cracking son, that lasted for thirteen years on the night club circuit and TV gigs, and even played the White House. Besides Winged Victory, his film credits include Slaughterhouse Five, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, Anastasia and Family Business. Tom’s singing career also included performances at the Miss America Pageant and at Carnegie Hall. But his most unlikely role was in a burlesque show.

In 1959, the famous stripper, Ann Corio, put together a show based on her recollections. This Was Burlesque, a fumigated version of the raunchy strip shows of the past, played a large theater on lower Second Avenue for over 1,500 performances. Corio attempted to convince Public Works czar and impresario Robert Moses to present her at the 1964-65 World’s Fair.

“You know, we’re really quite mild compared to what children are exposed to on television—topless bathing suits and all. It’s comedy, pretty girls, bubble gum, stepping on toes, the kind of stuff you can leave your brains home for. We do nothing you wouldn’t write home about to your aunt in East Cupcake, Ohio,” Corio claimed. Moses was unconvinced.

Neither was Tom Dillon when, in the 1970’s, she tried to rope him into playing straight man for her show. The shrewd burlesque queen knew that Dillon’s wholesome persona was the antidote to the overripe material in her show, so she telephoned his wife: “I am sick of trying to talk to Tommy into this,” she complained to Alice, “so you tell him. I think he has this idea that this is a dirty show that I do. But especially the one I’m going out with now; you could bring kids to.” Dillon went into the show.

“The eight weeks turned into 36 weeks,” he said. “We ended up in the Henry Hudson Theatre on West 57th Street. It was a great experience.” The Robert Moses World’s Fair entertainment spectacles folded early; This Was Burlesque ran for another twenty-six years.

During his burlesque career, Dillon was asked to sing the National Anthem at a big event at the American Hotel on Seventh Avenue (later the Sheraton New York). With him on the dais were Harry Hershfield and Monsignor O’Brien, who inquired, “What show are you in?” Dillon replied, “I don’t want to tell you. I’m afraid you’ll excommunicate me.” The devilish Hershfield leaned over and whispered to the priest, “He’s with the Corio show.” The Monsignor lit up and said, “Can you get me a couple of tickets?”…”You’re my kind of guy,” replied Tom. “Come and have lunch with me tomorrow at The Lambs.” O’Brien became a much-loved Lamb.

In the wee hours one bitter cold winter evening as a Lambs’ event was breaking up, someone accidentally walked off with the Monsignor’s coat. The newscaster Tom Dunn offered to drop him off at the rectory. No one could be roused to let him in, so they went to Dunn’s apartment up near Lincoln Center to put him up on the living room sofa. The two tip-toed in so as not to awaken Dunn’s wife, but as Dunn went to fetch a blanket, an angry Mrs. Dunn appeared, “What’s going on here?” she demanded. “I have someone in here. You’ll never guess who.”  “Jesus Christ!” she exclaimed. “No, but you’re close.”

In 1960 Tom Dillon was given a LambBaste, a sure sign of affection. Admission was $5.00. Hershfield “atom-bombed” the clubhouse with his opening line, “Sure, I’ll pay tribute to a Gentile—but $5 worth?!”

Shepherd Dillon

Tom Dillon was an enormously popular and caring Shepherd who would personally deliver rent checks from the Club’s charitable Foundation to indigent Lambs and saw to it that they had groceries on the table, even if it meant doing the shopping himself. Nowhere in the records of the Club is there mention of this quiet, selfless service.

Alice Dillon remembers the day Tom came home and to her dismay said, “Women are picketing all the clubs. I think we should allow women.” Alice felt that men should have their private clubs and disagreed. “I finally came around,” she said. “So, Tom is the one who brought women in.”

But economic conditions during the 1970’s, and the changing cultural climate played havoc on club life. The Lambs was in serious trouble. Proposals of every description to save the Club were considered, every conceivable strategy was debated. Tom’s efforts were heroic. A Lamb remarked, “Tommy Dillon worked his heart out. I thought he’d have a heart attack.”

With its back to the wall, in 1973 the Club was forced to declare bankruptcy. Always positive, Tom wrote to the membership:

“Chapter XI should be viewed with optimism, since this gives us breathing time. Under Chapter XI, all our liabilities are frozen, and we are allowed normal operations… We have many things going for us if we continue, including our Centennial Year, 1974, the revitalization of the midtown area, and plans to increase the utilization of the building. So please stay with us and give us your confidence and your active, positive support.”

In January 1975, the clubhouse went on the auction block. With the loss of its home came plenty of finger pointing. Some blamed Hershfield for sitting on things until the slide was irreversible. Ed Herlihy, Boy of the Club during these critical years, said emphatically, “The blame goes to the rest of us who were know-it-alls. There were loud mouths on the Council. We should have been hollering for professional help. We didn’t know what we were doing. We couldn’t imagine. And things just went from bad to worse.” No one person had lost the clubhouse. The Club had lost the clubhouse.

Not long after the auction concluded, the Shepherd who had valiantly worked to save the beloved home of The Lambs, gathered up the last of his papers and memorabilia, and passed from its silent, haunted rooms, through its fabled doors onto the heat and confusion of 44th Street. Said Tom Dillon, “I never set foot in it again.”

The Rock of the Flock

After a brief stay at the Lotos Club in 1976, The Lambs relocated within the splendid clubhouse facility at 3 West 51st Street. The Club had survived. In April 1980, Tom was honored with a black-tie gala at the Biltmore Hotel. For the occasion, Al Kilgore drew a large caricature of the Shepherd with the bold inscription, “The Rock of the Flock.” The drawing is encircled with the signatures of many loyal, celebrated Lambs. It was recently cleaned and reframed. And is among the treasures of the Club.

Tom Dillon and The Actors’ Fund of America

In 1986, having served seventeen years, longer than any other Shepherd, Tom retired as head of The Lambs. For his unusual service, he was bestowed the special title of Shepherd Emeritus. He then devoted more time to The Actors’ Fund of America, where he had been a Trustee since 1970. In 1989 he was elected its President.

The Actors’ Fund, established in 1883, became the most important actors’ charity in the country. Its founding president was Lester Wallack, producer and owner of the country’s premier theater, and also a Shepherd of The Lambs. So began the close association of The Lambs and the Fund.

During his years at the Fund, Tom helped shepherd it through a period of enormous growth and accomplishment, including the expansion of the nursing home in in Englewood, NJ, the opening of the supportive housing residences in New York City and West Hollywood, and the advancement of essential service programs like The AIDS Initiative, and the Women’s Initiative. In the New York Times obituary, President of the Fund, Brian Stokes Mitchell, and its Executive Director, Joseph Benincasa, wrote, “You were our ‘true north’ and we were proud to set our compasses to you.”

Floreant Agni

Tom spent his last days at the Lillian Booth Actors’ Fund Home to which he had devoted so much, and where he died on March 14, 2005. He had been married to Alice Parker for sixty-one years. He was a member of Actors’ Equity, Screen Actors’ Guild, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the American Guild of Variety Artists. He was a member of the Tony Nominating Committee of the Antoinette Perry Awards and recipient of the Founders’ Award of the Theater Hall of Fame. In 2000 he was honored with a gambol at The Lambs.

At his funeral service on the 18th at St. Malachy’s, the Actor’s Chapel on 49th Street, Joe Benincasa remarked “It’s said that a man with friends is a rich man. By that standard Tom Dillon was the richest man in town.”  Former Shepherd of The Lambs and Trustee of the Fund, A.J. Pocock, noted, “The association that began in 1882 continues today, due to the leadership and hard work by people like Tom Dillon.” Brian Stokes Mitchell sang Tom’s signature, written by Lamb Fred Hildebrand and based on an old Irish blessing, with which Tom himself had brought tears to many an eye. He concluded with, “May the wind always be at you back, Tommy, down through the years.”

Incumbent Shepherd Bruce Brown ended his homage with, “We know you loved The Lambs, Tom. Know how The Lambs loved you. Floreant agni – may The Lambs Flourish.

–Lewis Hardee, Jr.