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Las Vegas entertainer, 52, dies at home; foul play not suspected

Usually on show nights, Danny Gans joined his band and crew for a short prayer. But on Friday night, for the first time in years, they prayed without him.

They held each others' hands — tight, so tight — a circle of 16 in the Green Room, near scores of framed photos of Gans posing with old Vegas (George Burns, Bob Hope, Ray Charles) and new Hollywood (Paula Abdul, Tito Martinez, Ben Stiller.)

The 52-year-old impressionist died at his Henderson home early Friday. The cause of death is unknown.

Police conducted a death investigation at the home Friday morning following department procedure, and Henderson police spokesman Todd Rasmussen said investigators don't believe foul play was a factor in Gans' death.

Rasmussen said police received a call about 3:45 a.m. from a woman inside the home in the exclusive Roma Hills gated community off of Horizon Ridge Parkway in Henderson. The woman said that a 52-year-old male was having breathing problems. When officers and paramedics arrived they found the man unresponsive. He was pronounced dead at the scene.

A Clark County coroner's office official said an autopsy was performed on Gans' body Friday. The cause of death is unknown pending toxicology studies, which could take between two to four weeks.

Gans' manager Chip Lightman texted with Gans on Thursday.

"Everything seemed fine. The only difference was, on his day off, he would usually run errands and stuff, and he was exhausted. He hadn't slept well the night before. He laid down in the late afternoon."

Gans' wife woke up in the middle of the night, rolled over and touched Gans.

"She didn't feel him breathing," Lightman said.

She called paramedics. They tried resuscitating him to no avail.

Gans was an athletic and animated performer, an avid golfer who had turned to show business only after a career-ending injury in minor-league baseball.

But he also had undergone surgeries on his neck, shoulder and wrist over the years. The most recent was in November, almost immediately after he ended his long run at The Mirage.

In a statement, Lightman said: "Danny Gans will not only be remembered as a Las Vegas entertainer, but as a man who loved his family, loved God, and loved the city of Las Vegas.

"Danny Gans has been my partner and dear friend for over 18 years, I will truly miss him. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife of 28 years, Julie Gans, and three children, Amy, Andrew and Emily."

Wynn Resorts Chairman Steve Wynn also released a statement about the entertainer.

"Elaine and I and all of us in the company are devastated at the loss of our brilliant, talented and loving friend. One of the most unique human beings and entertainers in the world has been taken from us in an unexpected moment. A profoundly tragic event that leaves us all sad and speechless. The loss of Danny to his wife Julie, his children Amy, Andrew and Emily is at this moment impossible to comprehend. We will all try to go on with our lives without our dear friend. At this moment it seems almost impossible."

"It's the equivalent of a Sammy Davis Jr. Somebody who's multitalented. He can't be replaced," Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman said Friday. "There are some people whose memory and reputations will live on, and Danny was one of those people.

"He lived the life he preached. It was always a clean show, it was always a wholesome show. That's the way he really lived. That's unusual in and of itself. Most people are a little bit phony about that, but Danny Gans was not a phony," Goodman said.

Gans was the rare entertainer who, in the fashion of Wayne Newton or Siegfried & Roy, enjoyed a fame nearly unique to Las Vegas, rather than coming to the Strip as an established star.

Instead, the impressionist launched his first headline residency, at the Stratosphere in May 1996, after years of lucrative work on the corporate and convention circuit.

"It was really a fairy tale," he told the Review-Journal in 2000, when he was preparing to open a dedicated new theater at The Mirage.

Gans was born in Los Angeles on Oct. 25, 1956, and raised in Torrance, Calif. His father, Sid, had been a Catskills musician and comedian (before he died in 2003, he was quick to stand up and sing a little when his son would introduce him in the audience at The Mirage).

Gans often related to interviewers and audiences that he turned to his knack for mimicry — "a fun guy to have on a long bus ride," as he once put it — after a severed Achilles tendon ended his one-season career in British Columbia, with the Class A Victoria Mussels of the Northwest League in 1978.

He scored a few minor acting roles, including a brief appearance in the movie "Bull Durham," but found more success on the circuit of corporate entertainment. By the time he briefly performed on Broadway in late 1995, he already was fielding interest from Las Vegas.

Gans opened at the Stratosphere in May 1996, and word quickly spread about the impressionist who reinvented a dusty old genre by imitating then-contemporary stars along with the more traditional voices. Some of them were even female: A showstopper was his re-creation of the "Unforgettable" duet with the voices of both Nat and Natalie Cole.

Gans quickly moved to the Rio, where clashes with management resulted in an offer from Wynn to convert a Mirage ballroom into a dedicated theater. He opened in April 2000 and became a fixture there for more than eight years.

The impressionist reunited with Wynn — who had agreed to sell his properties to the company that became MGM Mirage just as Gans opened — to take over the Wynn Las Vegas theater vacated by "Monty Python's Spamalot," branding the venue with the new sister property Encore.

Gans launched his new show there Feb. 6. He had performed four times weekly for nearly 12 weeks.

Physical problems occasionally interrupted Gans' eight-year run at The Mirage, as did the stress of losing both his parents in the same year, 2003. An auto accident injured his neck and left hand that same year, requiring neck surgery. In late 2005, he took a three-month break from The Mirage for surgeries on his right rotator cuff and left hand.

Lightman said Gans seemed as healthy as could be. He worked out every day. Every night after a show, he would eat egg whites, spinach and apples. He never ate fried foods. He rarely drank.

"Danny might have drunk two bottles of red wine in a year," Lightman said.

"He was really very health conscious" — largely to stay in show shape.

"These people paid their hard earned money to see the show, and he would say, 'I'm gonna give them everything I've got,' " Lightman said.

Sens. Harry Reid and John Ensign also released statements reacting to the entertainer's death.

"Danny Gans brought joy to the lives of the millions of Nevadans and tourists who came to Las Vegas to see his show. He was a talented performer who used his celebrity to give back to our community and those in need. Las Vegas is a better place because of Danny Gans. He will truly be missed," Reid said.

"Danny Gans was a talented entertainer and a valuable member of our community whose contributions to help those in need will be greatly missed. Darlene and I will keep his family in our thoughts and prayers as they mourn such a sudden loss," Ensign said.

Gans hosted charity golf tournaments and the Danny Gans Champions Run for Life to benefit children's charities. He started the Danny Gans Junior Golf Academy to introduce youngsters to the game. During his Mirage run, he had "locals appreciation" shows with discounted ticket prices and the proceeds donated to charity. In February 2008, he donated money from one performance to Opportunity Village.

Encore officials said any current tickets purchased on credit cards automatically will be refunded without the need to visit the box office. Services for the entertainer are pending.

"There is a hope of reunion when every one of us is reunited with Danny," the Rev. Gary Morefield of Green Valley Christian Center told the band and crew during Friday's prayer meeting, reading them part of Psalm 119. "It's the hope that will sustain us."

Then Gans' pastor appealed to God. "We need you in this hour more than ever."

And they prayed. And they mourned.

Review-Journal writers Maggie Lillis and Alan Choate contributed to this report. Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

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