There’s ventriloquism and then there’s Terry Fator – a master impressionist of over 100 different celebrity voices and counting. Fator has taken ventriloquism to a whole new level, a level that seamlessly mixes puppets, impressions, and popular music. This remarkable combination helped him win Season 2 of “America’s Got Talent” in 2007, as he perfectly blended his own voice, the voice of Winston the impersonating turtle, Winston impersonating Kermit the Frog, and Terry himself impersonating Louis Armstrong for an amazing rendition of “What a Wonderful World.”
Says Fator, “There are all kinds of levels of success. Some people enjoy it as a hobby. Some will only be able to make a living at it. And others, like myself, just happened to be in the right place at the right time when the clouds opened. If it hadn’t been for “America’s Got Talent,” I’d probably still be playing at elementary schools.”
Following his first place finish, Terry Fator did a brief stint at the Las Vegas Hilton before signing one of the most lucrative entertainment contracts in Las Vegas history (five year, $100 million) as a headliner at The Mirage. Since that time, they’ve extended his contract through 2016 and renamed their main theater after him – something that not even Celine Dion or Elton John can claim.
Earlier this year, Fator celebrated his 1,000th show, released his own album of original music, and returned as a guest performer on “America’s Got Talent” during their Top 12 results show. Regularly adding new material and puppets to his live show, Terry keeps things fresh and exciting, incorporating jokes and songs by Adele, Justin Bieber, Lady Gaga, Michael Buble, Miley Cyrus, and many more. Backed by the sounds of a big band, it’s truly, a one-of-a-kind experience, winner of the Best Overall Show by the Las Vegas Review.
But surprisingly, all of this might never have happened.
Born and raised in Dallas, Texas, Terry Fator gravitated toward music, comedy, and ventriloquism early on, getting his first ventriloquism dummy at the age of ten and performing in front of friends, family, and his church. After graduating high school, he went on to combine his love for comedy and ventriloquism for several bands (Freedom Jam & Texas the Band), but ultimately decided to go solo.
“As much as I loved singing and music,” says Fator, “comedy was my passion. Ventriloquism was something that I wanted to do and I wasn’t willing to give that up to be in a popular band.”
Over the next twenty years, he continued to tour and refine his characters and performances. The sweet taste of success was opening for acts like Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, and Styx. But the reality of failure was always lurking, as a performance at a 1,000 seat theater in 2007, right before landing on “America’s Got Talent,” had him in front of a crowd of one and contemplating a different career all together.
Make no mistake about, Terry Fator is not a fly by sensation. At 48, he’s just now hitting his stride. And doing so with lovable characters like Walter T. Airedale (country crooner), Emma Taylor (a little girl with a big voice), Maynard Thomkins (Elvis impersonator), Julius (soul singer), and Duggie Scott Walker (Fator’s annoying neighbor).
One of the most humble, charitable, hard working, and sincere entertainers around, Terry Fator stopped by after a recent performance at the Mirage to talk with us about life as a ventriloquist, his career changing television run, and his stellar Vegas show that you absolutely must see. A lifelong Dallas Cowboys’ fan, we even discovered a little Peyton Manning love.
Growing up in Texas, you pick up a copy of Paul Winchell’s book, you buy a Willie Talk dummy, and begin performing. What intrigued you about ventriloquism as a little boy?
It was just something different. I was always an entertainer, struggling to find out exactly what I wanted to do. And I went through everything that one does when they want to be an entertainer. I sang. I became a magician at one point. I bought the little hypnosis coin that they advertise in comic books. And of course, I also bought the little ventriloquism thing where it has the picture of the person saying, “Help, let me out,” but it ended up being just a bird call whistle.
Who or what inspired you early on? In music or comedy?
Growing up, I discovered my dad’s record collection: Bill Cosby, Jose Gimenez, Hudson and Landry, etc. He had all of these old comedy records. “The 2,000 Year Old Man” with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.
It was interesting because I grew up loving music, but I loved comedy so much more. And spent most of my time listening to all of those guys. Any time I would see a comedian on television, I just loved it. I was interested in comedy more than anything else growing up.
So you went on to become the lead singer for Freedom Jam and Texas the Band, got to perform at high schools and state fairs and were even on the verge of a recording contract. With all the talent that you have as a natural singer, how did your singing career not pan out?
It really was my choice. We were on the verge of a record contract. Warner Brothers had sent out a groomer to get us ready to become the next big band. And it really was a choice. I don’t know if my band mates will ever forgive me, but I told them that if they wanted to go ahead and continue without me, they were welcome to. But I just wasn’t interested because one of the first things they said to me was, “You gotta quit doing the ventriloquism and the comedy in your act.” And I had so much fun with our act. Not only would we sing, but I would do impressions – Garth Brooks, George Strait, Ozzy, etc.
So, they wanted me to quit doing the impressions, quit doing the ventriloquism, and quit doing the comedy. But I was having way too much fun. And I realized if I had to do nothing but stand there and sing, I would rather quit and become an insurance salesman or something because to me, singing by itself wasn’t any fun. It’s never been my passion. As much as I loved singing and music, comedy was my passion. Ventriloquism was something that I wanted to do and I wasn’t willing to give that up to be in a popular band.
What convinced you to go on a show like “America’s Got Talent?”
Well, I watched the first season and didn’t want to go on the show until after I saw what it was all about. The way it was described to me was like “The Gong Show.” And boy, the last thing I wanted to do was that, where they X out the acts. So, watching the first season, there was a ventriloquist named Kevin Johnson, and he was amazing and did really well. They were really respectful of him and his talent. And that got me all excited. I thought it might be a show I could actually do.
At the time, I was working eleven months out of the year and traveling everywhere, performing at different schools. The chances of me being in a city where they were actually doing auditions was slim to none. But there I was, in LA, when they were auditioning for the second season. And one day, after my last performance, I went over to the LA Convention Center and auditioned. It just all fell together after that.
What stands out most to you about the whole experience?
The entire experience was my favorite memory. And it’s so funny because it’s been five or six years since that time and they still use me as an example each year when they get all the contestants together. They talk about my attitude.
At that time, I was 42 years old. I had struggled my entire life. And there I was, on a national television show, exposed to millions of people each week. I was so delirious and so happy to be there.
When they would tell all of the contestants, you have to be here at 5:30 in the morning, you have to do all of these silly dance routines, everyone would groan. But I would have the biggest smile on my face. I never complained. I never got upset. I was intent on having a good time because I knew this was it. I could get kicked off at any moment and just wanted to savor every second I was on the show. And I did. I relaxed and enjoyed everything I was doing.
You celebrated your 1,000th show earlier this year, your millionth guest, you have your own theater, and you keep packin’ them in through 2016 now. What do you do to keep the show fresh and exciting – not just for the audience, but for you?
Well, I’m always changing the show. I don’t change it as much as I used to because I’m starting to get a little tired. I’m working too hard, too much. And I need to take more time to relax and enjoy my family and Las Vegas. But at least, every year to year and a half, I’m going to be putting in new puppets and creating new characters. Our fifth anniversary comes up in March and by then, the whole show is going to be completely different from what we’re doing now.
Also, any time something new hits the airwaves, usually that night, it’s going to be in the show the next day. I’ve thrown in a Miley Cyrus twirking joke, an Anthony Weiner joke, etc. If it’s making big headlines or a celebrity is making the news, we’re going to get it in there. That way, it’s much more fun for people. They know I’m not just resting on my laurels and telling Bill Clinton jokes (laughs)!
Speaking of audiences, why should folks from Denver and around the world come see your show?
The wonderful thing about my show, I think, is that it’s universal. And the reason it’s universal is because music is universal. One of my absolute treasured moments from “America’s Got Talent” was when I received an email from Roy Orbison’s wife, after I performed one of his songs with Winston the Turtle. She said, it was such an unbelievable joy to hear her husband’s voice again after all those years. And that was really special to me. It’s what captivates the audience and makes them want to see the show.
You get to hear voices that have long been gone. And current ones too. You may not be able to go see Justin Bieber or Adele in concert, but you’re going to hear them in my show. It’s this universal thing that we all have, where we love these artists and their unique voices. And so, when you come to my show, you get to hear them live.
How do you go about creating an impression?
First, I decide what voice I want to do. Then, I decide which character is going to do that voice. So, if I’m going to do an impression of Barbara Streisand or Cher, I look through my characters to see if I have one that can do that. And if I don’t have one, I create one. In this particular instance, I needed a character who could represent these icons, known for being a little flamboyant. And ended up creating a new character named Berry Fabulous.
But if all else fails, I have Winston, who was created specifically for Kermit the Frog and named The Impersonating Turtle. I can pretty much use him as a catch all.
Have any of the artists like Garth Brooks or Adele commented on your impersonations of them?
Not really. I was able to tell Tony Bennett, which was cool. And Garth Brooks, Elton John, and the Pussycat Dolls are all aware that I do impressions of them. But really, the great thing about the show is that it’s positive and uplifting. We’re not making fun of these performers. We’re paying homage to them.
Speaking of positive, one of the things that really stood out to me after seeing your show was your dedication to charity – Ronald McDonald House, Heaven Can Wait (Animal Society), Salute to the Troops, the Arthritis Foundation, St. Jude’s, etc. You incorporate it beautifully into your show and everything you do. Why is it so important to give back?
I’m of this attitude where I understand my mortality. I understand that the purpose of life is not to get as rich as you possibly can because when you die, you can’t take it with you. The only thing you can take away is what you give away. So, it’s always been important to me to give back. I have no desire whatsoever to die the richest man in America or the richest entertainer in America. I just want to have enough so my wife and I can have a comfortable living where we can support our families and help them if they need it. Then, use the rest to help others.
You’re also involved in giving back to the ventriloquist community (scholarships). Why do you think it’s so difficult for ventriloquists to be taken seriously?
I think it’s because most of us have seen ventriloquists at our church or a birthday party or a school and it’s not been very good. Maybe they’re doing it as a hobby or it’s something fun for them on the side, but they’re not the ones who want to be the next Paul Winchell or Edgar Bergen. And unfortunately, what happens is the entire universe of ventriloquism gets pigeonholed into those hobbyists who never really want to do it professionally. So, for those who really want to take it to the next level, they have to struggle against that perception, i.e. the guy who performed at children’s church a couple of years ago who had a wonderful ministry, but was not a very good ventriloquist. We tend to relate that to all ventriloquists. And it’s not.
What can you tell me about “It Starts Tonight?” And through these 100s of impersonations and puppets, how difficult was it to find your own voice and identity for the album?
Incredibly hard! Very, very difficult. The problem is I don’t like my own voice when I sing. I listen to it and the songs are amazing, but I don’t like the way I sound. There are many positive reviews of the album and I’m glad, but I much prefer doing impressions. Finding my own voice was difficult. I’m glad I did it and don’t regret it.
I actually put together a companion show that is a road show, completely different from what I do in Las Vegas. It is the story of how I went from being a janitor in a small town in Texas to headlining my own show in Las Vegas at the Mirage. It incorporates a lot of the songs from “It Starts Tonight” and is a lot of fun! It was fun to write and perform and I look forward to every single road show!
How frequently are you doing the road show?
About 2-4 shows a month. I went down to 4 days in Vegas specifically for the purpose of doing more road shows. The show isn’t a competition with the Mirage, but rather, a lead in to the Mirage. So, at the end of the show, I get the Mirage contract and say, ‘Come on out to Vegas if you want to see new puppets, new impressions, and a whole lot more!’
Will you be coming to Denver?
Absolutely! Duggie would looooove it in Colorado (laughs)!
Well, we’re not people who like to go out and do a lot of things in public. Occasionally, we’ll go out and see some shows. There are just some that you have to see, like Celine. Carrot Top is our favorite comedian in town. We’re friends with him and we’ve seen his show five or six times and recommend it to everyone because it’s hilarious. But we have six dogs and love to play them.
We like to go up to Mount Charleston and go hiking. The dogs love it and it’s great exercise for us. Not many people realize it, but if you break away from the Strip, you’ll see that Las Vegas is surrounded by mountains. It’s absolutely beautiful, peaceful, and we love it.
Say, I hear you’re an NFL fan. How are you handling the Cowboys’ season so far?
(Laughs) I’m such a diehard Cowboys’ fan. But every week, it’s so frustrating with Romo. It’s not that I don’t like him, but I just don’t know if he’s going to win us a Super Bowl. And of course, you’re from Denver. You guys are so lucky! You got one of the greatest QBs of all time! I’m such a huge Peyton Manning fan!
Sure. Even though I’m a Cowboys’ fan and bleed silver and blue on Sundays, I’m also a fan of the NFL and its players. Legendary players, whoever they play for. I hate the Eagles with a burning passion because they’re such a rival for us, but when you have Reggie White and he’s an Eagle, I want Reggie White to win a Super Bowl, even if it means the dreaded Eagles win. I’m just one of those guys that roots for the greatest players.
And man, that Peyton Manning is something else! I would love to see Denver get a Super Bowl with him because what Indianapolis did to him was horrible. I would love to see Denver beat Indianapolis in the AFC Championship Game. That would be the ultimate sweetness, wouldn’t it?
Mark Sells is a nationally recognized film/entertainment journalist and Critic-at-Large for 100.3 FM The Sound (Los Angeles). In addition to his blog on 303, you can follow The Reel Deal on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook for the latest entertainment news, reviews, and interviews.
*Photos courtesy of Terry Fator (terryfator.com).
Terry Fator – B-Roll & Soundbites