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John Katsilometes

Danny Gans was a gifted, unique figure in Las Vegas entertainment history

6 May 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- At this writing, I'm sitting off in a corner of the Roasted Bean at The Mirage, looking out toward a stream of people heading toward what used to be the Danny Gans Theatre. They are about to see a performance by the next Danny Gans, hot-selling ventriloquist Terry Fator. During the performance, Fator will tell them that he is dedicating this show to Gans, who died early Friday morning at his home in Henderson. He was 52, and anyone who saw him perform would say he was a youthful 52 (Gans' autopsy has shown no cause of death, and it could be up to a month before the cause of death is specified).

I am remembering Gans, with ample effort, as a man I honestly did not know well. Few did, I feel. But his passing is nonetheless a shock, in the order of the Roy Horn tiger attack, and I'm attempting now to pinpoint the moment I actually met Gans in person. It was one night prior to a show at The Rio, I think in 1998. I was with my then-wife, whose name is Adrienne. Chip Lightman, Gans' longtime friend, sidekick and manager, introduced us. Gans heard the name "Adrienne," and beamed. I could feel what was coming next. We all could:

"Yo! Adrienne! It's me! Rocky!"

I wanted to groan, but it was a pretty good on-the-spot impression of the man Joe Bob Briggs dubbed Sly Rocky Rambo. Gans even shifted his weight from side to side when delivering that line, just like Rocky.

So corny, that Gans. He was everyone, and no one. I covered him intermittently for more than a decade and met him a few times and found him to be benignly pleasant. He was unfailingly nice, but I was always ready for him to slip into the cloak of someone else. I knew very few people who claim to know the real Danny Gans, but they loved the dozens of impressions he seemed to master so effortlessly.

Gans ascended so remarkably fast on the entertainment scene in Las Vegas that you could barely keep track. In 1996 he was a veritable apple-cheeked upstart at the Stratosphere, an entertainer the equal of any headliner in town who you could see for just $30. What a deal! Word spread so fast that before I could ever catch Gans at the Stratosphere, he was off to The Rio. The tickets cost more there, $40.

Over time that ticket price became a serious point of contention between Gans, Lightman and the hierarchy at The Rio. Gans was fiercely protective of his image -- especially as it pertained to his value as an entertainer -- and he and Lightman chafed as that price climbed to the then-unheard-of $99 mark. We'd been waiting to see who might crack the $100 barrier in Las Vegas, and it turned out to be the guy who used to play the Stratosphere. The ticket cost was such a distraction, and the thought was that if Gans were going to command such a lofty price, he might as well move to the Strip and vacate the crummy Rio showroom (one night the stage crapped out, canceling a Gans performance and sending 750 fans away with a free drink and an IOU). Soon after, Gans was sharing a podium with Siegfried & Roy at The Mirage during a 1999 news conference announcing Gans' 10-year contract with Steve Wynn to headline at the resort.

It was then I started hearing what would become the mantra as it pertained to Danny Gans: No one outside Las Vegas knows who he is. Tourists would spot the gargantuan Mirage marquee showing Gans, the size of King Kong, and ask, "Who is Danny Gans?"

What more could he do? Gans released a CD in his own voice at that time, "Brand New Dream," but it was all Christian music -- not exactly a widespread audience if you want to establish international recognition. For a time, Gans was in talks with Aaron Spelling to develop a sitcom based on his zany life as a Vegas performer -- I believe he was to play the role of a preacher by day, Vegas headliner by night -- but it never came to fruition.

Even so, expanding his fame beyond Vegas remained a goal of Gans. Today during an appearance with Dave Berns and a host of local journalists (freelancer Steve Friess, the R-J's Doug Elfman and Mike Weatherford and myself), Lightman said Gans was working on an autobiography and was due to release a new CD in about a month. The first single was going to be a cut of "What a Wonderful World," with Gans singing in 10 different voices and Brett Ratner producing the video. Gans was also planning to entertain acting roles -- his most famous appearance was 20 years ago, a bit part in "Bull Durham" where he played a nondescript Durham Bull, one of the boys on the bus. But he planned to redouble his efforts and even cut back his schedule to make time for these projects. With Steve Wynn bringing in an assortment of rotating headliners at Encore, including Beyonce and (reportedly by my colleague Robin Leach) Liza Minnelli and Whoopi Goldberg, there was ample opportunity for Gans to diversify.

Even as he attempted to incorporate new voices, such as Jason Mraz and Five for Fighting, Gans' show was often derided as being outdated. I remember Penn Jillette saying, two years ago, "If you go to a show on the Strip in 2007 and see someone doing a George Burns impersonation, you are not going to want to see another show on the Strip." Pretty clear who he was referring to, as the Burns impression was a Gans hallmark. But there is no argument that Gans was a consummate entertainer, even as he appealed to the great mean. He was also a solid citizen, a born-again Christian who was always said to have lived a Christian existence. In an effort to maintain his vocal edge, he protected his voice to the point where he would spend entire days not talking, writing notes and using hand movements to communicate with his family -- wife Julie and children Amy, Andrew and Emily. He was said to be an egg-white-favoring health nut, but Gans' physical appearance started to seem unnatural, his bulk suggesting the use of supplements.

And he was not always Mr. Sunshine, either. Gans could be biting when dealing with his contemporaries as the competitive spirit of a would-be L.A. Dodger sometimes broke through. A couple of years ago, I asked him for comment about fellow impressionist Gordie Brown, who had just opened at The Venetian. Any advice for Gordie? I asked Gans. Through a spokeswoman, he replied: "My advice to Gordie is to do something unique and different that the Strip has never seen before. For example, while doing his trademark Garry Shandling impression, have a sad clown walk by while three midgets on pogo sticks juggle pink French poodles on a high wire. I'd also change the name of his show to Cirque du Gordie."

I tried to reach Brown, now at the Golden Nugget, today for comment about Gans' death. Nothing.

Gans forged a mystique among his fellow Vegas entertainers -- even newcomer Fator noted that today -- that set him apart. Many of his colleagues found him to be something of a mystery. I remember one of his fellow Strip headliners once telling me that Gans went to see this person's show and left before the end. There was none of the customary meet-and-greet chitchat after the performance. But Gans did send a note saying that Vegas was big enough for him and this person, and welcoming this new face to the Strip. It was at once classy and standoffish and, fair to say, typical of Gans.

Gans' legacy as an entertainer will be measured largely through his philanthropy and his appeal onstage. Over the years, his various charitable work netted $2 million. He sold out everywhere he performed and thrilled multitudes of visitors to Vegas.

On that level, the level that would matter most to Danny Gans, he will be terribly missed.