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[The Strip Sense]

Finding the fun in Terry Fator’s gay puppet

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Berry Fabulous and Terry Fator.
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This was supposed to turn out differently. I had planned this column out weeks ago, knowing precisely how I’d react and what I would have to say. All that was left was to find the gory details that would entertain and appall all of you.

I’m allowed to do this. Yes, reporters are expected to be unbiased, but not columnists. We can make assumptions, bring our personal baggage to bear, set out to prove our hunches correct, make arguments and take sides.

Still, sometimes reality presents itself and we must admit we were misguided. We must, however painful and embarrassing it may be, acknowledge that we had it wrong.

So here goes: I love Barry Fabulous.

Okay, maybe I don’t love him. But I like him. And I can’t, as I had so expected to, beat up on his master for being divisive or insensitive.

When the Review-Journal first reported that Mirage singing impressionist-ventriloquist Terry Fator would debut a gay puppet, it struck me as one of the truly worst ideas I’d heard in quite a while. Seeing a picture of Barry, with his spiky blond hair, sculpted brows, shiny blue silk shirt and rack of gold chains was bad enough, but the description was even worse: “He’s a fabulous man who believes that his childhood idols Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Cher lend themselves quite well to the world of rap. He considers himself the hip-hop Liberace.”

Oh, brother. It’s not that gay humor is somehow inappropriate or off-limits on the Strip, but this sounded like paint-by-cliché-numbers. Fator had announced himself as a conservative when he debuted at the Mirage in March 2009 by making jokes about how scary Barack Obama was at a time when the new president actually had a 70 percent approval rating. In that same performance, Fator donned a Michael Jackson getup to do hackneyed gay and pedophile gags, too.

So Fator wasn’t the guy I’d want with his hand inside a flamboyant puppet of a different sexual orientation. The odds were pretty good, it seemed, that he would try scoring cheap laughs off his Middle America audience at the expense of the gays.

Terry Fator's Second Anniversary

This called for a stealth investigation. Rather than attend on media night, I bought a ticket to check out the act incognito. I didn’t want Fator to know I was coming for fear he might tone down whatever vamping Barry did, so no publicists were notified.

Minutes into the show, however, something unexpected happened: I giggled. I don’t even remember what corny thing Fator did—maybe it was the Octomom gag—but I involuntarily laughed at something and the chip on my shoulder began to cantilever. I grudgingly admitted his ability to sing such a diverse oeuvre while barely moving his face was impressive, and he came across as a far more self-assured performer than I recalled. My mom, I realized, would really like him.

Still, Barry Fabulous had yet to appear. He rolls onstage inside a closet, see, and we’re told he comes to us direct from Manitoba, Bangkok, Gay Paris and Manchester. His voice is unmistakably that of Siegfried & Roy, too, and when he emerges from the chest in his gleaming get-up, I was ready for some mockery.

But there really wasn’t any. Fator doesn’t seem interested in demeaning his creation or its ilk, and none of the gags were lewd or offensive.

Rather, Barry Fabulous was created specifically so that Fator could segue to performing classics from a cadre of performers—Cher, Barbra and Judy among them—that otherwise would be hard to fit in. Barry Fabulous isn’t an attack on gays, it’s an excuse to sing certain songs and perhaps be forgiven for the masculinity in his voice because, after all, that’s a male puppet on his arm.

It was clever and purposeful, not facile and gratuitous. And so I must give credit where it’s due.

Foiled again! Damn you, Darth Fator.

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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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