Tommy Ryan: Entertainer of many ventures
He sang Big Band, acted, owned a restaurant, dealt in coins and knew
By Kristen Kridel
Tribune staff reporter
January 4, 2008
Once a singer in a popular Big Band and a hit Broadway musical,
Tommy Ryan left show biz in the 1950s. But the Chicago-area
businessman never gave up entertaining.
"He knew how to deal with people," his son Steven Levine said. "As a
Big Band singer, it was your job to entertain the audience until the
new act came out. That's what he was good at. That was his strength."
Mr. Ryan, born Nathan Levine, died in his Florida home Thursday, Dec.
27, of pancreatic and liver cancer, his family said.
Mr. Ryan, 86, had successfully pursued multiple hobbies and careers --
from rare coin dealing to harness race driving -- with time left
over for retirement.
His wife, Rhoda Levine, said she always encouraged her husband to
pursue his heart's desires. And he loved a challenge.
"My husband and I were very gutsy people," she said. "If you don't
succeed, you try again. If you still don't succeed, you try again and
Mr. Ryan started singing for a radio station in the 1940s, his son
said. So when he joined the Air Force, he did the same on national
radio, where Big Band icon Sammy Kaye heard his voice.
It wasn't long before Mr. Ryan became a lead singer of Swing and Sway
with Sammy Kaye. Knowing Mr. Ryan's given Jewish name wouldn't be
popular at the time, the group tossed a bunch of names in a hat and
he drew the name that stuck with him the rest of his life, his son
But he's the same man, said his son, who still shows off the albums
his father sang on.
"He always talked about it," his son said. "He sang at every event,
like our bar mitzvahs and weddings. He really did have a beautiful
In the early 1950s, Mr. Ryan landed a spot in "Top Banana," a
Broadway play starring Phil Silvers. Although Silvers offered him a
spot on his 1950s sitcom, his son said, Mr. Ryan decided to tour with
the play in Europe, where it flopped.
When he got back to the States, Mr. Ryan became entertainment
director for hotels in Miami, where one guest caught his attention.
Six days later, he was married to Rhoda Levine.
The couple opened several steakhouses, where someone paid for a meal
with a rare double-denomination note, his son said. Fascinated by the
value of the bill, which had $20 printed on one side and $10 on the
other, Mr. Ryan decided to leave the food industry and go into the
rare coin business.
He opened his first shop -- Tom Ryan's Rare Coins and Jewelry -- in
downtown Chicago in 1962, his son said. When the riots of 1968 hit
the city, however, Mr. Ryan closed the store. He moved to Morton
Grove and opened two shops in Yorktown and Randhurst shopping centers.
He loved making the deal, his son said. But he never saved
anything. "He said you can't be a dealer and a collector at the same
time because you'll fall in love with your merchandise," his son
said. "It's too bad because he's had some amazing, amazing things."
Around the same time he ran the coin shops, Mr. Ryan started buying
and breeding horses. He would own 10 to 30 at a time, his son said.
Mr. Ryan, at one time the president of the Aurora Downs Racetrack,
even got into harness racing, said Herman Brickel, race secretary at
the track in the '60s and '70s.
"He was all right for an amateur," said Brickel, 68. "He just loved
horses. He liked training and fooling with 'em."
In the 1970s, Mr. Ryan, who thought veterinarians overcharged to care
for horses, went to Japan for several months to learn acupuncture for
the animals, his family said. The first horse he worked on when he
came back won its next race, his son said.
"My dad never finished 4th grade. To go to Japan and learn something
as intense as that, I thought that was really neat," he said.
Mr. Ryan kept his last coin shop open until 2003, then retired to
His wife could not say which activity was his favorite.
"Each one was a big challenge," she said. "It would be hard to say
which one he really loved the most."
Mr. Ryan also is survived by another son, Michael Levine; two
daughters, Pamela Musgrave and Amy Krueger; a sister, Rose Cantor;
and six grandchildren.
Services were held.