April 24, 2002 -- Danny Gans has his own 1,250-seat theater on the Las Vegas Strip, where he sells out night after night.
He has been voted Las Vegas Entertainer of the Year six years running and has a multi-year contract reportedly worth $150 million — putting him in the same league as the highest-paid stars of sport, music and Hollywood.
But Gans remains virtually unknown outside the casino circuit. Part of the reason is his musical specialty: he is a singing impressionist, singing other people's songs in their voice, not his.
In his show, he does skillful impressions of dozens of entertainers, ranging from Las Vegas legends like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. to newer stars like Garth Brooks, Bono and even Kermit the Frog. In one number, he takes on the voices of Nat King Cole and his daughter Natalie.
Gans says the breadth of his repertoire guarantees that there's something for everyone. "I joke and say that my show is like the weather in Hawaii. You don't like it, wait five minutes, it's going to change."
Bringing Back the Classics
But the heart of Gans's show is the classic Vegas entertainment of Sinatra, Davis and the other members of the Rat Pack, whose suave casino-hopping cool held sway over the city in the 1960s. Gans has a picture of the Rat Pack in his dressing room and says Davis is his favorite act to portray. "When I do it it's a real moment, because I think he was the best at what he did. He was such a great entertainer."
The hotels of the Rat Pack era were torn down during Las Vegas's building boom in the 1990s, as the city tried to reinvent itself as a general entertainment destination for families. Gans has helped revive some of the spirit of the old Las Vegas, according to Mike Weatherford, entertainment reporter for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
"Danny Gans reinvented the old school entertainer, the old headliners that were gone," Weatherford says. "You can't bring back Frank Sinatra, but you can have Danny Gans imitate him."
A Winding Road to Success
Gans had an unusual route to the stage. He started out as a baseball player, making it onto the Victoria Muscles, a farm team for the L.A. Dodgers. But after severing his Achilles tendon at the age of 21 — a career-ending injury — he had to find a new direction.
He had a sense that he could entertain people, but was not sure it would amount to anything. "I was just this fun guy to have on a bus ride. You know, I could do some voices, make people laugh, sing a little bit, but was this going to be a career?"
He gave it a try, starting out in small clubs and then moving into the unglamorous but lucrative world of corporate entertaining, performing at banquets, conventions and trade shows. But Gans, who is married with three children, found the constant travelling was taking a toll on his family life, so he decided to find something that would allow him to stay in one place.
After successful one-man shows in Los Angeles and New York, he came to Vegas. Starting out at the Stratosphere in 1996, he built a following among locals, which grew and grew until he was one of the most sought-after acts in town. Then, after a stint at the Rio, Steve Wynn lured him to the Mirage in 2000 with the promise of his own 1,250-seat theater and the reported $150 million contract.
Happy Where He Is
Gans says he is sometimes amazed at his own success. "How in the world can a guy come from doing a corporate date in Roanoke, Va., for Heinz ketchup and be the No. 1 act in Las Vegas three years later?"
Gans is aware that he could take his talents nationwide by appearing on television or signing a record deal. "I feel like I'm this big fish in a small pond here, because I don't have that album and this and that," he says.
But he has no desire to expand his success. He has turned down offers for lucrative television contracts, worried they would force him to spend time away from his family. "Ten years from now, am I really going to remember that show that was on for two years and got cancelled or that time I did that television special? No. I'm going to remember the time I was there for my son's 12th birthday party and how much fun we had and how I got to do the show that night."