Las Vegas Sun

December 18, 2014

IN MEMORY:

Danny Gans: A star of our own

No other current entertainer was identified as closely with Las Vegas as Danny Gans

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Leila Navidi

Singer, impressionist and comedian Danny Gans, shown performing at the Encore Theatre on March 20, died suddenly Friday at his home in Henderson.

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The sign outside the Encore on Friday carried a message in remembrance of Danny Gans.

Danny Gans

Singer, impressionist and comedian Danny Gans, shown performing at the Encore Theatre on March 20, died suddenly Friday at his home in Henderson. Launch slideshow »

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  • Russ Fons, Las Vegas Broadcast Center Bureau Chief, interviews Danny Gans in 1996
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  • Gans talks about leaving the Mirage for Encore and working for Steve Wynn. (Jan. 2009)
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  • Gans talks about how the show's format allows for flexibility. (Jan. 2009)
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  • Danny Gans on how the economy is affecting the show. (Jan. 2009)
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Danny Gans at Encore

Terry Fator had a great seat Friday afternoon in what was once the Danny Gans Theatre at The Mirage: middle section, second row, third from the aisle. But the stage sat still as Fator, seated nearly alone in a darkened theater that today is named for him, absorbed the news that the man who inspired him to move to Vegas had died.

“It’s funny how life works,” Fator said, shaking his head and running his hand through his tightly cropped brown hair. “A couple of weeks ago I asked the theater manager here (Roy Bailey) to get me Danny’s number. I wanted to have dinner with him, maybe play some golf, talk to him about being an entertainer in Las Vegas and get to know him. I wish I’d known him better.”

Fator took over residency at The Mirage after Gans moved up the Strip to Steve Wynn’s Encore Theatre in February. The two had met just once, when Gans attended one of Fator’s performances at the Las Vegas Hilton in November. It was a brief meeting, just five minutes, between one of the Strip’s top entertainers and the man who would be his heir apparent. From the moment Fator debuted his enormously popular show, a blend of ventriloquism, comedy and music, two years ago at the Hilton, he stated openly that he wanted to be the next Danny Gans.

Now he occupies Gans’ old theater.

“I saw his show for the first time four or five years ago. I sat in this theater and thought, ‘I want to do that,’ ” said Fator, a past champion of the competition TV show “America’s Got Talent.” “He really was an incredible entertainer, one of the best I’ve ever seen. If his legacy lives through me, I’d be the most honored person you’ll ever know. I respected him as a person, as a family man and as a representative of Las Vegas.”

During a phone conversation Friday, Gans’ longtime friend and manager Chip Lightman was almost speechless in describing his sense of loss.

“It’s awful, awful. I can’t event think right now,” said Lightman, who partnered with Gans in Gans’ show and is the producer of the Donny & Marie show at the Flamingo. “It doesn’t seem real. He was my best friend and business partner.”

Funeral arrangements are pending. Lightman said he plans to have details finalized by this morning.

Despite efforts to appeal to a more widespread, national and international fan base, Gans was recognized primarily as a Las Vegas entity. A former pro baseball player who reached the Double-A level in the Dodgers’ farm system before an injury to his Achilles tendon halted his playing career (his baseball background help land him a bit role in “Bull Durham”), Gans toured the country for 15 years while performing corporate gigs and had his own one-man Broadway show before making Vegas his home.

He spent 13 years performing on and off the Strip, launching his Vegas career at the Stratosphere in 1996 as one of the city’s top per-dollar-value acts at $30 per ticket. Within two years he had moved to the Rio, which expanded its nightclub to seat 750 and gradually edged his ticket prices skyward, starting at $40 and ending at $99 as Gans was in serious talks with Wynn at The Mirage. That made Gans the first headliner to command a $100 ticket in the city (“O” was the only other show in town with a price that high.) But he continued to fill the Rio showroom, and in 1999 Wynn signed Gans to a 10-year contract reported to be worth $10 million annually to join Siegfried & Roy in residence at The Mirage.

Gans and Wynn reunited this year at Encore, and Gans showed in his opening performance in February he planned to keep his act fresh; one of the chief complaints about Gans’ show was that such impersonations of Frank Sinatra, George Burns and a singalong with Kermit the Frog made the show stale and irrelevant. But the more than 30 impressions Gans performed that night at Encore included more contemporary artists, snippets from John Mayer, Five for Fighting and Jason Mraz. He also performed for nearly three hours, interspersing three encores into his act, and seemed physically built to last. He was known to spend full days without talking to protect his voice, using hand gestures and notes to communicate with his family.

Through the years, Gans had also developed a reputation for being something of an introvert among the city’s celebrities. Many Vegas entertainers had high praise for his talent and performances, but hardly knew him. Particularly noteworthy was Gans’ absence at the 2001 USO benefit show after the attacks of 9/11. It was a show brimming with the city’s top entertainers of the time — Wayne Newton, the Scintas, Clint Holmes, Lance Burton and Amazing Johnathan among them — and was assembled organically, largely through those performers’ personal relationships. Gans’ explanation for his not taking part was that he had a show that night, and Lightman noted that for weeks Gans had been donating $1,000 from each of his shows to the Red Cross 9/11 relief effort. Gans’ philanthropy was considerable — his official Web site tabulates that he raised more than $2 million over the years for local and national charities — but characteristically, he rarely trumpeted that facet of his life.

“I think he was a person who liked his mystique,” Fator said. “But he was so comfortable onstage. That’s what matters. He gave 100 percent into every show, and that’s what I’ll always remember about him.”

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