Aaron Mayes/Las Vegas Sun, via Associated Press
Danny Gans performing at the Mirage in Las Vegas in 2000
Fascinating life story.
May 2, 2009
Danny Gans, Impressionist, Dies at 52
By WILLIAM GRIMES
Danny Gans, whose seemingly bottomless repertory of impressions, some of them spoken but most of them sung, made him one of the top headliners on the Las Vegas Strip, died on Friday at his home in Henderson, Nev. He was 52.
The death was confirmed by Jennifer Dunne, a spokeswoman for Wynn Resorts, which hired Mr. Gans early this year to perform at its new Encore resort.
A Clark County coroner’s spokeswoman told The Associated Press that an autopsy was pending, but a police spokesman, Todd Rasmussen, said that foul play was not suspected in Mr. Gans’s sudden death.
Mr. Gans was a show business anomaly, virtually unknown outside Las Vegas but a superstar on the Strip, performing to capacity crowds at one hotel-casino after another since being hired by the Stratosphere in 1996.
Aggressively promoted on billboards, taxi-top advertisements and a marquee at the Encore measuring 70 feet by 70 feet, Mr. Gans was an inescapable name and face for the millions of tourists and gamblers who visit the Strip each year, and one of the hottest tickets in town.
Five nights a week, 46 weeks a year, he took the stage and treated audiences to a carefully calibrated mixture of song and comedy, delivering, like a human iPod, as many as 60 vocal impersonations of singers as varied as Frank Sinatra, Rod Stewart and Anita Baker.
“In his performance uniform of dark suit, red socks and black-and-white spectator shoes, Gans comes across as a friendly, eager-to-please fella, with a bright perma-grin,” The Las Vegas Sun wrote in a review of his act at the Encore in March. “His niche is comfort-zone entertainment, avoiding anything even faintly controversial, usually aiming for the sentimental jugular.”
That combination earned him an estimated $15 million to $20 million a year.
Mr. Gans grew up in Torrance, Calif., and set his sights on becoming a third baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers. In pursuit of this dream, he played baseball in the late 1970s at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., and California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo.
While playing third base for the Victoria Mussels in British Columbia, a Class A team that is now defunct, he was spiked in the Achilles tendon and, hobbled, gave up on baseball. His father, Sid, who had once entertained in the Catskills, encouraged him to use his talent for mimicry to develop a stage act.
Mr. Gans tried his luck in stand-up clubs, but he hated the hours and the dirty jokes, which did not square with the Christian beliefs he had embraced while recuperating from his injury. Instead he began offering his blend of comedy and impressions to audiences at corporate events. His clean, inoffensive humor and grab bag of impressions translated into a lucrative, if uncelebrated, career.
He appeared in small roles in films and on television, most visibly as Dean Martin in the 1992 CBS mini-series “Sinatra.” Doing double duty, he also provided the singing voice for the actor playing Sammy Davis Jr. On film, he finally realized his baseball ambitions by playing the role of Deke, third baseman for the Durham Bulls, in “Bull Durham.”
In 1981 he married Julie Russell, who survives him, as do their three children, Amy, Andrew and Emily, and his sister, Peggy Gans of Los Alamitos, Calif.
In 1995 Mr. Gans took his act to New York, in the one-man show “Danny Gans on Broadway.” It closed after six performances, but he struck gold when the Stratosphere hired him the next year as its permanent headliner.
As it turned out, audiences were hungry for a good impressionist, a niche left vacant since the heyday of Rich Little. Mr. Gans freshened the genre by including contemporary acts like Aaron Neville and Hootie and the Blowfish, along with standbys like Tony Bennett and Louis Armstrong. He could pluck the heartstrings with a tribute to George Burns, channel Kermit the Frog in a heartfelt rendition of “The Rainbow Connection” and chew the scenery as Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.”
Mr. Gans moved on to the Rio Hotel, then in 2000 took up residence in his own theater at the Mirage. In February he moved to the Encore Theater, where audiences paid $90 to $120 to see him and, routinely, rewarded him with a standing ovation.