Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Exclusive! The first major review of the Danny Gans autobiography, The Voices In My Head

It took Amazon.com more than a month to deliver and it took us less than a day to read The Voices In My Head, the Danny Gans autobiography that was, as his co-author insists, completed the day before the Las Vegas headliner died unexpectedly and tragically at age 52 on May 1st.

The book could have used another draft.

The memoirs of this most unique entertainer, whose story encompassed the American pastime, Hollywood, Las Vegas, old school entertainment, standup comedy, corporate culture, Broadway and evangelical Christianity, glides over each aspect of this complicated life the same way Danny Gans would switch from voice to voice in his show: rarely illuminating, never explaining, ultimately leaving the reader wanting more-- and not in a good way.

This was a book we were looking forward to reading. The early preview of the prologue promised a tale of severe dysfunction and disappointment, with a father pushing his young son toward the professional baseball career that was denied him (and that we as readers knew would also be denied the son), resulting in a single-minded charge for redemption that would be doomed by the injuries, both physical and psychic, suffered along the way.

Sometimes there are hints bubbling between the lines, as when Gans describes his demanding father:

“To make things worse, he was an alcoholic, and when he was on one of his drinking binges, there was nothing I could do to please him.”

Yet, the line is followed by a throwaway:

“Still, there was no doubt in my mind that he loved me.”

And the story moves on from there, leaving the reader to hope that the son was getting revenge decades later when, headlining on the Vegas Strip in his own theatre, he had the old man dance like a monkey in the aisles to the song, Macho Man.

But throughout, Danny Gans’ autobiography leaves it to the reader to fill in the spaces. All but the smooth opaque surface of the mysterious Gans are left out. The details of life on the road as baseball player, his difficulties with Hollywood, how he dealt with the extreme Christianity of his bride-to-be and her parents, the births of his children, why he sabotaged his shot at a mainstream recording career by deciding to record a “Christian” album album, are among the biographical byways left untraveled.

This is a 226-page book whose first 97 pages are dedicated to baseball. And for all the talk of Gans’ Christianity and his habit of stepping off to pray with his wife before making any major decision, Gans’ life appears to be dedicated more to the worship of self than any higher power. The reader gets no explanation of when the evangelical fervor took over his life, or whether it was there to begin with.

Woody Allen's joke

Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist Mike Weatherford gave the book the biggest shot of local publicity when he made an impassioned rebuttal to a chapter in which he says he was depicted as a sleazy Vegas writer.

He shouldn’t have bothered. While he accused coauthor RG Ryan of being “sloppy” for misspelling the name of local critic Mike Paskevich, a read of the entire book shows that allegiance to the facts was never Gans’ intention.

The Woody Allen-style baseball joke that Gans takes credit for coming up with (“You know, if he stole second base would he feel so guilty he’d want to put it back?”) is, in reality, an actual Woody Allen joke we remember from his comedy albums: ''If you've never seen neurotics play softball, it's very funny. I used to steal second base and feel guilty and go back.”

Any fact-checker could have surfed to Google and pulled up Vincent Canby’s review of Gans’ one-man Broadway show, which the book quotes as:

“There’s no plot, no storyline, the comedy isn’t angry enough. And although the audience stood five times, he belongs in Vegas… not on Broadway!”

Canby’s review, published Thursday, November 9, 1995, is easily accessible online and does not resemble the encapsulation:

“Most of the impressions are short, lasting seconds only. The jokes are just racy enough to amuse Aunt Jenny without disgusting her … Mr. Gans tries to make up in tirelessness what he lacks in talent, spontaneity and decisive point of view…

“No glitzy Las Vegas nonsense here. This is show biz as it might be ordered by a cost-conscious, buttoned-down, out-of-its-depth executive committee.”

Did Danny Gans' baseball dream really end the way he book depicts? Did he really wind up sharing a hospital room with a messenger from God who was miraculously healed of cancer? Was there ever a strip club next door to the Comedy Store on the Sunset Strip? Did he really have nothing to do with the exorbitant ticket prices for his show at the Rio? Did he really write that Woody Allen joke?

It doesn’t matter. Just as it doesn’t matter what the last song Danny Gans really sang in his last show, or whether the book really was completed hours before he died.


What matters is that The Voices In My Head leaves too many questions about Danny Gans.

Among them:

Was he born a Jew?
Why is his mother barely mentioned in the chapters on his childhood?

What was his secret to getting multiple standing ovations in every show?

Why did the child of show business so hate Hollywood?

Why did he wear the red socks and black-and-white shoes?

How did he treat his own son differently than his own father treated him, as the boy followed the Gans baseball dream?

Why did his wife, alone, insist on calling him ‘Daniel’?

Did he turn to painkillers after his excruciating sports injuries and car accident?

Did he ever have to fight addiction?

The list goes on.

The book is a fascinating saga of disappointment, nonetheless, and there are many aspects of Danny Gans we learn. Sammy Davis, Jr. was his role model. Danny Thomas was his mentor. Steve Rossi gave him his break in Las Vegas. The scene in which he proposes to his wife in a Mexican restaurant is truly touching and cinematic. And the final chapters of the book begin to generate real tension as Gans and his manager maneuver to get the ultimate gig on the Strip.

Glory and Pain

The penultimate chapter, The Glory and The Pain, comes closest to explaining the pain that would have led to the drug use that was long-rumoured and ultimately killed him.

But then it all slams to a sudden end—as did Gans’ life.

In the end, it's not the Christian or the ambitious aggressive jock who applied his tenacity and competitiveness to show business who comes through. It’s the corporate entertainer, trying to throw in a little something for everyone, too careful not to offend or reveal.

That’s not what autobiographies are for.

Like the memoir Tabloid Baby, The Voices In My Head is divided into 40 chapters. But at 226 pages, punctuated with often poorly-reproduced photographs, it’s less than half the length, looks and reads like the product of a vanity press, and doesn’t get the reader anywhere close to the real Danny Gans.

Danny Gans was a unique American success story whose life, short as it was, transcends tragedy. His story has yet to be written.

We look forward to reading it.

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