Minister of comedy
Terry Fator talks about his religious upbringing, an overbearing father and the power of laughter
Thu, Mar 12, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
Guy is everywhere. Terry Fator on a 215 billboard. Terry Fator in the airport gift shop. Terry Fator on the behemoth Mirage sign. Who even knew who this guy was a couple of years ago? Now that picture is everywhere—Terry Fator, trim goatee; Terry Fator, dimples; Terry Fator, sly eyes saying, “Well, what do you think of me now?”
Even inside Terry Fator Theater—when you know who you’re there to see, right?—the name is spelled out three times across the front of the stage, all caps. It’s as if someone’s making a concerted effort not just to market, but also to make sure you don’t forget: This is Terry Fator’s theater, Terry Fator’s moment. TERRY FATOR! When the lights go down before the show, the curtain splits—splits his stacked name in half, so that TER goes left and RY goes right, FA goes left and TOR goes right, and there, at the top of a dramatic staircase, in a spotlight, is a man and a doll.
The band strikes some high, long jazz notes, and the doll, Emma Taylor, starts singing Etta James’ “At Last”:
At last, my love has come along
My lonely days are over
And life is like a song
And you forget him.
Sounds just like her. You think, I love Etta James. What a song. What a voice. And when they’ve descended the staircase—the man in a black jacket whose lips never move and the campy/creepy ventriloquist’s doll (depending on your deeply held convictions about the matter)—you try to adjust your senses. What you’re seeing and what you’re hearing are on different planes artistically, emotionally and logically. What is it? Is it great singing? Is it cornball comedy? Is it some kind of impersonating magic trick variety hour?
As soon as they knock that out, the entertainer, whose lips have yet to move except for a quick, irrepressible smile, sets Emma Taylor, whose mouth has been working every word, inside an onstage cabinet. He pulls out a smaller puppet, Winston the Impersonating Turtle—a green plush toy that the showman’s wife bought retail. Winston breaks into “Crying” by Roy Orbison. Sounds just like Orbison. You don’t know whether to laugh or be moved—I mean, Orbison’s song is heart-wrenching, but you’re watching a still-faced man and a stuffed turtle on a Vegas stage.
Soon enough, you’ll be laughing. Maybe crying. Wondering who this guy is.
In 2007, he performed those two songs on America’s Got Talent, won a million bucks and got a gig at the Las Vegas Hilton, and now he is opening as a headliner at the Mirage this weekend with a multimillion-dollar contract.
Fator comes walking through the casino like anybody else, a guy in a nice shirt, with a good haircut. But there’s an immediate sense about him: happy. He’s not overwhelming—no backslapping, joke-telling, show-offing—but a little grin comes up on his face almost between sentences. “I’m the luckiest guy on the planet,” he says when we walk into his dressing room, newly redecorated for him in forgettable browns.
On his dresser are two bottles of hair spray, the kind I use, Sebastian, and somehow we get to talking about hair spray—and even at this he seems giddy. His voice is energetic, and he’s eager to tell me about this new hairstylist who turned him on to a different brand, and without pausing he gives me the bottle of Sebastian. To keep. But not before autographing it: Terry Fator.
His story is so Cinderella that you’re left wondering about the veracity of fairy tales, and pondering: a.) how a person can develop a real identity under all those characters; and b.) how a guy whose dream comes true handles it, really.
He grew up working-class in a bunch of little Texas towns with Nightmare Dad in a super-Christian milieu. Now he lives in a posh condo at Turnberry Place in the center of Sin City. But he’s still a Christian.
He recently traded his Prius for a Lexus. But, he quickly adds, he liked the Prius. He bought his wife of nearly 20 years, Melinda, a former veterinary assistant, a classic ’66 Corvette.
He’s just started spending mornings working out, because he saw the initial publicity photos and decided he looked pudgy. It’s the first time in his life he’s had a gym routine; he’s lost a few pounds already. He loves it. “It’s different for me to be in one place. For 26 years I was on the road,” he says about his time performing at county fairs and corporate events and small theaters, “and now I’m able to wake up in my own bed every day.”
He’s wanted it for years. He’s gracious—“I’m honored to be the guy who was chosen to do this”—and you know he’s still pinching himself now and then. Ever since he won a million bucks on America’s Got Talent, he’s been comparing his life to the end of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: “What happens to the boy who suddenly got everything he ever wanted? He lived happily ever after.” Fator tells me this three times in one day.
So after his workout, the guy with a thousand characters gets cleaned up and takes that Lexus to El Pollo Loco—a star’s gotta stay grounded—and heads to the office. On the way in, every day, he sees himself all around. First, the billboards. It’s a mirror game, or a riddle: Who does an impressionist/ventriloquist see when he looks in the mirror? When he swings into the Mirage, he drives directly under a huge marquee of himself. As he walks through the casino, he passes a hallway display of his show behind glass, and people crowd around to watch the video of him inside. He passes the Terry Fator Store, which, the store attendant tells me, caused Fator and his sister Debi to cry when they first saw it.
Then he steps into the Terry Fator Theater and disappears.
The crowd is laughing hard, mouths wide open, belly-bending laughs; a teenage girl with a high, hyena sound is just getting louder, and that makes the people around her laugh that much more. Onstage, Fator is speaking in a spot-on Michael Jackson falsetto and wearing a red Thriller jacket and black curly wig. On his left hand, he’s got the white Jackson glove, and every so often he does the MJ crotch-grab. On his right hand, he’s wearing Walter T. Airdale, a country-western character—his first ventriloquist’s dummy, one his mother saved to buy him for his 18th birthday. The two, Airdale and Jackson, are having a back-and-forth. Jackson, who proclaims he’s suddenly a country-western fan, is cooing over the legendary country singer Airdale; Airdale, in his country twang, is leery of Jackson and doesn’t want any part of it. Somewhere in the middle of their comic romp, Airdale speaks in Jackson’s voice—whoops. And then Jackson speaks in Airdale’s voice. And then Fator, whom you’ve forgotten is up there, because you always do, even though he’s the only one up there, starts laughing in his own voice. He’s screwed up. So as he laughs, he makes the characters joke about it—Airdale acknowledges the weirdness of speaking in Jackson’s voice; Jackson is surprised at the twang coming out his own mouth. Fator is winging it, laughing at himself, and the crowd is laughing even harder than when the schtick was on-script. He’s let them in on it. There’s a childlike goofiness to the whole thing, a feeling that you’re just sitting with some guy cutting it up in his living room. Only he’s bizarrely talented.
“Oh, I make mistakes, yeah,” Fator says backstage. “In my late 20s I’d just panic. Then I thought, the guys who booked me are not asking for a perfect show, they’re asking me entertain the people. If I make a mistake, I’ll let the audience in on it, and we’ll all just have fun. I’m still entertaining them.”
But the truth is, Fator is relentlessly perfectionistic. Every hair in place. If he’s winging it, he’s practiced winging it. As a kid, Fator would spend countless hours practicing voices while cleaning floors and scrubbing toilets, which he did a lot, because his dad hired him and his sister and brother out as a janitorial service. Sometimes overnight, they’d clean apartment complexes or K-Marts, top to bottom, and all there was to do while cleaning was sing, or work on ventriloquism, or, ultimately, both.
“We would work long, long, long dreary hours doing that, sometimes 60 straight hours with no sleep. We’d start on a Friday afternoon and have 38 apartments that had to be ready to rent by Tuesday. My parents didn’t hire anybody to work—they had three kids to do it. My mother worked with us, but my father didn’t. My father is a lazy piece of—wait, don’t quote that. Well, you could. I wouldn’t care. My father was amazingly lazy, and he put all the work on us.”
When Fator was a child, his father told him his calling was to be a minister. The family was devoutly Christian, a conflicting context for a dad that Fator says was physically and mentally abusive. “So I did seriously consider being a minister, but it was never something I had a calling in myself for. My dad believed that God wouldn’t call anyone to do anything but ministry. But I felt differently. When I was 6, I thought maybe God put me here to make people laugh. I was good at that, even when I was as young as 3, singing to people, and I loved it. I remember thinking, ‘Maybe that’s why God put me here.’
“I told my dad, and he went absolutely crazy and said, ‘No. God does not make people laugh, God puts people here to minister and spread the Gospel,’ so I said, ‘Well, okay, that’s what I’ll do.’
“But part of me inside said, ‘You know, I think that’s my calling, God put me here to lighten people’s loads.’”
He kept working on his singing skills: “I bought karaoke cassettes of Christian music, and I would sing it at church, just like the singers sang it. So if it was Amy Grant, I would sing it like Amy Grant, not ike Terry Fator. I just thought that’s what singing was. If it was Michael W. Smith, I would sing it like Michael W. Smith.”
Around that same time, he sent away for a back-of-the-comic-book instruction manual, Be a Ventriloquist and Fool Your Friends.
“It came pretty easy. I was doing it within a couple of hours. I immediately started using the techniques, and then I would listen to audio tapes of myself, and I would think, ‘I don’t like how that B sounds,’ and I would experiment with the inside of my mouth,” he says.
“I figured out how do make it sound better. I learned. It’s just practice, practice, practice. Taping myself, listening, saying, ‘No, that doesn’t sound like a B‚ either,’ so I just experimented with my tongue. Ha—that sounds a lot worse than it is.”
there are two microphones. one is in front of the black-clad Fator, with his water bottle attached. The other is in front of the hot older-woman doll Vikki, aka the Cougar. She’s singing Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab”:
Try make me go to rehab
And I said, No NO NO
Every move she makes is well-considered; when her head-swinging passion flops her hair into her face, she reaches up to brush it away. She’s feisty; after the song she flirts with the crowd and tells a (slightly) dirty joke; she hisses at Fator’s stage assistant, a beautiful young woman who wears red, white and blue hot pants.
The Cougar was added to Fator’s routine recently to amp up the Vegas element a little; there’s also an Elvis impersonator and a British Beatle, meant to allude to the Mirage’s other show, Love. When Fator’s producers suggested the Cougar character, he didn’t know what the term referred to, and when he introduces her onstage, he asks the crowd for a show of hands as to whether they know what a “cougar” is, as if to gauge his pop-culture naivete. About half.
If Fator, along with comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham and veteran ventriloquist Ronn Lucas, has thrown himself at the task of making ventriloquism cool again—although few of us recall handily the days when it was cool—it wasn’t by design. He was a kid feeling around for an identity that suited both his mixed-up surroundings and himself.
In fact, sitting with him backstage, you see he’s still a guy caught in some odd culture clashes, but with a heroic sense of the magical, determined to write the ending as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’s happily ever after. He’s a guy who can make people believe anything, right?
“I’m trying to find a church home in Vegas, and I will,” he says. “I’m not big into organized religion, but I’m a very spiritual person. But I do like church. I like the people. You meet good people,” he says.
You wonder how a guy so apparently clean-cut will fare here, Texas church boy made big, temptation now at every turn. “I don’t think I’m going to have a midlife crisis,” he says. “Vegas is great.
“I don’t see bad in anything. My sister calls me Terryanna, like Pollyanna. If you look for the bad, you’re always going to find it. I just don’t. I just don’t care. I don’t pay attention to the [escort] billboards, I don’t pay attention to the negative, I think about the positive, I accentuate the positive. That’s just me. That’s my personality. ...
“I love Vegas, I don’t feel that it’s a dark city. I had a friend who was a very devout Christian guy, and he’d been to Vegas twice, and the sin overwhelmed him, and he couldn’t visit anymore. He said, I can’t, and then I got him to, and we had a great visit, and afterward he said as long as he was around me it didn’t affect him. If you’re not always looking for the negative, you can ignore it, and it doesn’t affect you.
“I do have a little bit of edgy material in the show, but it’s all appropriate for children. I tap-dance on the line.”
Sometimes you forget about Terry Fator. He knows that. You’re caught up in the Cougar and the Turtle and Walter T. Airdale, and they’re buoyant and alive and hilarious; Fator’s just a guy. So now he puts them all away, and takes the mic, and walks around the stage, alone, and tells us that he can sing. “People forget,” he says. It’s as if the puppets have taken over the show. So he tells a little story about being on the road when he was playing small gigs around the country.
In the late 1980s, Fator sang with a country band called Texas, and worked in his ventriloquist act here and there—not always to the delight of the other band members. After that he took his solo gig on the road, playing at county fairs and schools, corporate events and private parties. He’d spend 10 months a year, minimum, on the road—from Florida to California—a routine that wore him out. One night he was flying home, listening to his iPod, when he came upon Michael Bublé’s “Home,” and, he says, he played it over and over nonstop for the three-hour flight.
So then, on stage, he launches into that song, and his lips move, and you feel like he’s revealed something of himself, and it’s a little dramatic relief from all the comedy. For a second, it’s sad. Not so much because he was on the road all of those years, struggling with his dream, defying his father’s wishes, not because he and his wife had to put up with lonely distances and little money, but because the reveal is, as a reveal must be, unmagical. A return to reality.
He tells me backstage that he has not spoken to his father since well before his success as a singer-impressionist-comedian-ventriloquist.
“We’ll never be in touch again, ever. And that’s not by my choice; he’s the one who broke off the relationship.
“It’s too bad, but I got to a point where I was able to not care. I didn’t need his approval anymore. It was what drove me for a long time, in those hours there was nothing to do, while rolling the brush or cleaning the toilets, I would sit there and practice ventriloquism.
“But now I wouldn’t have anything to do with him anyway—he’s a terrible human being. He’s the kind of guy who is incapable of apologizing, incapable of humbling himself in any way, shape or form. In order to establish a relationship he would have to say, ‘I was wrong,’ and he couldn’t do that.
“He couldn’t say that.”
And yet today, while his dad is absent from his success, Terry Fator can make anybody say anything. He can make a turtle sing. He can make an Elvis-impersonating dummy sing Aaron Neville. He can make a member of the audience say that he wears women’s underwear.
I ask him later whether being a one-man cast of thousands makes him feel schizophrenic, voices talking to each other in his head, acts working themselves out without his presence—Walter arguing with Michael Jackson, Julius the Lounge Singer cutting up with Duggie Scott Walker the Annoying Neighbor, the Cougar crabbing at the assistant—don’t you get lost in it?
“Not at all. Never do. I’ve never even come close to crossing the line between reality and fantasy. They’re always me. Each character I create has to be an extension of my personality,” he says. He compares himself to Mike Myers doing Austin Powers. “In order to immerse ourselves in a character like that, it’s somewhere an extension of our personality.”
So who’s the Cougar in him?
“I think the Cougar and Walter T. Airdale are extremely similar in that they are extremely confident sexually. Walter T. Airdale has no problem telling a woman she looks hot. He is able to completely express himself to women. Cougar is the same way. She knows she’s good-looking and knows she’s hot.
“I think that’s something I’ve never had in my entire life. I’ve never felt, sexually, like a sex symbol, what’s the word I’m looking for? Sexy. So the extension of the personality there says, ‘Boy, wouldn’t it be great to be sexy.’ I’m able to completely have two characters that exude that sexy confidence, and it’s fun. It’s fun to be able to do that. And I don’t get in trouble, nobody sues me.
“If I was a comedian and I was flirting with a woman in the audience, I would be in so much trouble, that husband would kick my butt. If it’s through a character, it doesn’t make any difference.”
Sonny and Cher are about to sing a duet. Full-sized people, not dummies. Cher is a large man pulled from the audience, now wearing a Cher dress over his clothes, and a wig, and a mask that allows the ventriloquist next to him to move his mask’s mouth regardless of whether the man chooses to speak or not; we can’t see his real face. The ventriloquist, dressed as Sonny in a mop-top wig, is controlling the whole scene. He’s made a puppet out of a grown man and is making him say embarrassing things—quips that wouldn’t translate to print—and the crowd loves it. It’s hysterical.
Then they break into song, Sonny sounding like Sonny and Cher sounding like CHer. The audience member singing to the ventriloquist, the ventriloquist singing to the audience member:
HER: And when I'm sad, you're a clown. And if I get scared, you're always around
HIM: Then put your little hand in mine. There ain't no hill or mountain we can't climb
BOTH: I got you babe, I got you babe
The crowd is singing along. And laughing uncontrollably—there’s just something suddenly so amusing about making people be what they’re not, and we’re on that ride now, a wild mix of emotions: We can’t believe this is all coming out of one man’s mouth, which, when it’s not his personality’s turn, is so still. That’s the whole freaky thing about ventriloquism—you start to believe the dolls are real.
It’s corny, it’s county-fair, and it’s absolutely amazing; and you laugh. Here’s what Fator told his dad once about his God-given calling:
“A good comedian or singer that makes us forget our troubles for a while is as important to our well-being mentally, spiritually, as someone who is going to tell us about the afterlife.
“It’s as important a job as any other job there is. To me it’s as important as a minister, or a doctor; it heals the heart and heals the soul.”
An hour and a half later, it’s time for the show to end. Winston the Impersonating Turtle comes out to sing the finale, “What a Wonderful World,” as Kermit the Frog, in a duet with Fator, who sings as Louis Armstrong.
Then the turtle turns to the audience and says, “I love you.”
And the ventriloquist says to the turtle, “I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
When the crowd leaves, many of them form a long line that wraps around the gift shop, where the showman will arrive shortly to sign autographs. He’s done this after every show in Vegas, and swears he’ll continue to do it, despite jaded opinions that he’ll tire of it soon.
And so in just a few minutes he walks out, through the casino hallway, a regular guy in a nice shirt, with a good haircut, through the crowd, a bounce in his step, takes his seat behind a table and begins meeting and greeting and signing and posing for pictures: Smile, flash, chat, sign, smile, flash, chat, sign. They tell him they love the show; he tells them thank you. And he autographs hundreds of photos, books, stuffed turtles, T-shirts: Terry Fator.