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[The Strip Sense]

Danny Gans: 1956-2009

Apart from Vegas, most of the country had no idea who Gans was—and odds are he’s just fine with that

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Photo: Beverly Poppe

Miles shook me awake last Friday at about 7:30 a.m.

“I need you to wake up,” he said. “You need to get up. Now.”

I was confused. I’d told him I didn’t need to be up until 8. But he looked grave.

“Danny Gans died in his sleep this morning,” he said.

Danny Gans Remembered

My bleary look gave way to a puzzled one. It was the only reaction to such strange and awful news. How does a 52-year-old health nut die in his sleep?

Here are my first and second comments, in this order: “Oh, that’s so sad.” Then, after a long pause: “But I wonder who’s going to care.”

Yes, that sounds cold. But I meant—and Miles got it immediately—who in the national media will recognize this passing as a significant story? That’s my job and to some extent my function in this community, to determine what of the local news rises to the level of broader significance and interest, and which publication is going to want me to document it.

And so it was that I was brought immediately back around to the central conundrum that was always the most baffling part of the Danny Gans story: How does someone become such a mammoth, wealthy star, entertain untold millions and grin for years from the largest billboard along the most-traveled American tourist thoroughfare and still remain largely anonymous in the broader popular culture? Just seven years ago, a Los Angeles Times profile of the impressionist was topped by a headline that summed it up perfectly: “Las Vegas Loves Who?” Heck, the Wall Street Journal scribe Christina Binkley, writing an exhaustive book on recent Vegas history last year, misspelled Gans’ name!

Indeed, none of the East Coast-based papers or magazines I regularly write for took an interest in this startling passing as a news event. The New York Times, which furnishes a large part of my meal ticket, shunted the matter to a staff obit writer who aptly referred to Gans as “a show business anomaly, virtually unknown outside Las Vegas but a superstar on the Strip.” The Agence France-Presse, a Paris-based wire service read largely in Europe and Asia, let me write just 200 words because, “I’m afraid if he’s not that well-known outside Las Vegas, it’s not going to make waves,” my LA-based editor wrote me. And a CNN anchor actually said—on the air—something to the effect of, “You ever hear of Danny Gans, the Vegas headliner? He died today.”

Farewell, Danny Gans

I wasn’t surprised, per my mental calculation, upon hearing the news. The coastal media don’t take much interest in Vegas entertainment unless Hollywood somehow infiltrates it—see Hilton, Paris or Lohan, Lindsay—or unless there’s something that fits a wacky Vegas stereotype. The onstage tiger attack on illusionist Roy Horn was sensational news because there was blood and animals and traumatized fans and bizarre costumes. Even then, though, I had to remind photo editors repeatedly which one was Siegfried and which one was Roy.

Danny Gans wasn’t Vegas in that sense. When I saw Gov. Jim Gibbons on the news referring to Gans as another “Mr. Las Vegas” it sounded really odd. He wasn’t ostentatious or outlandish like Liberace, dramatic and tragic and campy like Elvis, schlocky like Wayne Newton. Gans just got on stage night after night, did a bunch of impressions that Middle America loved to see and went home.

Still, clearly somebody cared. Hits to my blog, where I spent the day relentlessly covering the developments and reaction, skyrocketed. On Google News’ home page, “Danny Gans” remained in the top 10 most-searched terms all weekend. Twitter was awash in shocked condolence tweets. And Steve Wynn, who has now seen two of his best show-biz ideas—Gans and the Siegfried & Roy shows—abruptly halted in tragic manners without proper closure, was so distraught that he opted to join Larry King on Friday night by phone even though King was broadcasting from the Encore Theater in Las Vegas and Wynn lives down the hall. (King’s wife, Shawn, had been scheduled to perform with Gans over the weekend.)

I had often criticized Gans for his low profile and for a show I deemed as too static. (I did, however, praise his latest Encore iteration.) I just couldn’t figure out how such a versatile talent hadn’t done a sitcom in an era when Jerry Seinfeld, Ray Romano, Roseanne Barr, Bill Cosby, Jeff Foxworthy and countless other stand-up acts did. Heck, how about just showing up on Leno or Letterman once in a while or doing a voice for The Simpsons? It smacked of complacency.

On KNPR on Friday morning, Gans’ manager Chip Lightman said Gans was on the cusp of new ventures, from recording to acting. That seemed all the more sad, that he died at 52 and didn’t get to fulfill his potential as an entertainer.

A short while later, though, I realized I—we all, really—had misunderstood.

In honor of his death, I decided to reissue the interview with Gans that aired on my podcast in March 2006. I was listening through it again to remember what he had said, and there I was, badgering him about why he wasn’t more famous. Did it bother him?

“No, it doesn’t, because it is by choice,” he said. “I’m a family guy, and I really treasure my privacy. So it is more important for me to be home with my wife and kids and be able to play golf and be with my friends than be on the cover of TV Guide. I really love doing my show, but I don’t step out and say, ‘Okay, I’m going to do that sitcom and that movie and that thing.’ It’s going to take away from the time I have with my kids while they’re growing up.”

Gans went on to discuss the Aaron Spelling sitcom he once turned down because the Vegas-to-LA commute would have left him with little time for his family. And he recalled advice from a famous friend who told him, “Fifty years from now when you’re about ready to go on to the next side, do you want to look back at your life and say, ‘I had a fulfilling life because I had a successful marriage and raised three wonderful children, and I had a career that I loved to go to every day,’ or ‘My marriage didn’t last, and I don’t even know what the heck happened to my kids, but hey, man, I was on three sitcoms, and I did 17 films, people are gonna remember me forever now’?”

Finally, I got it. Danny Gans wasn’t just talking a good game—he meant and lived a set of priorities regardless of whether he was bypassing fame or fortune or critical acclaim. Were he alive today to comment on his death, he wouldn’t give a damn that he never got to release that album or that the national media took scant notice of his demise. He would only care that he won’t meet his grandchildren, that his wife is now alone, that his friends have lost a golfing buddy.

All those survivors may feel cheated by fate, but they’re not going to feel cheated by him. He gave them as much as he could. That’s what Gans was trying to say all that time. And if we finally get it—if we set aside our notions of what constitutes a successful life for someone in the public eye—then maybe, just maybe, this will be his greatest and most lasting impression.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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