Terry Fator always knew he’d be an entertainer when he grew up, he just didn’t know he’d be doing it as a ventriloquist or that he’d be one of America’s top — and top-paid — talents.
“It didn’t really matter to me as a kid what I did, I was either going to be a radio disc jockey, a TV or a movie star, a singer, a comedian, I didn’t know,” Fator says. “I dabbled in magic, hypnosis, balloon animals, anything that had to do with entertainment.”
Long before he won the second season of NBC’s “America’s Got Talent” in 2007, before his 10 years (and counting) on the Las Vegas Strip at the Mirage, prior to the unprecedented $100 million contract (at the time a Vegas record), he started putting in the work that would get him there and beyond.
“From the moment we saw him we felt this was a perfect fit for the Mirage,” says Franz Kallao, senior vice president of hospitality & hotel strategy, MGM Resorts Intl. “For us it was a great fit because he appeals to people from ages 8 to 80.”
The Mirage signed Fator to a five-year, $100 million deal, which has since been extended with Fator recently celebrating his 10-year anniversary, having racked up more than 1,800 performances for over a million audience members in total.
When he was 10 years old, Fator found a book at his school library that changed his life. Originally published in 1954, “Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit” by Paul Winchell was a revelation that provided a blueprint for him to follow.
Popular on Variety
The book “talked about the fact that you can make money by doing ventriloquism,” recalls Fator. “So I checked it out, read it and started to do it at home, just sitting there going over the different ways to say B’s and P’s and going through the alphabet and I thought ‘I can do this!’”
Within a week he went to Sears and bought himself a $10 puppet with money saved from babysitting and started putting on shows for his friends.
“Then I started performing at churches, and then VFWs, Shriners hospitals, different things like that and the bug bit me,” Fator says. “I realized this is what I want to do.”
Fator worked on his ventriloquism relentlessly, pursuing more books and tirelessly listening to records about the craft by stalwarts such as Edgar Bergen (“Laugh and Learn! Lessons in Ventriloquism”) and Jimmy Nelson (“Instant Ventriloquism”).
Fator found that he could double down on his studies by incorporating them into the everyday responsibilities. “When my parents told me to go clean my room or wash the dishes or mow the lawn, I would practice,” Fator says. “So my mind was engaged elsewhere while I was doing these menial manual labor chores.”
From there Fator continued working, honing his act. He spent time as a singer in a band, continued his studies and worked his way around the country doing fairs, schools, whatever venue would host him.
Impersonating real-life singers is a signature aspect of his act that he began working on while behind the wheel. “One of the reasons I learned how to sing as a ventriloquist was because I like singing in the car,” Fator told the Missouri Joplin Globe in 2008. “I’d see other people singing in the car, and they looked goofy, so I’d do it without moving my lips.”
His big breakthrough came in 2007 when he decided to throw his hat into the ring for “America’s Got Talent.” He hadn’t expected to win or even advance terribly far, hoping only for some exposure that could help his bottom line. “I just figured I’d get on a couple episodes and then I could raise my price at elementary schools and I was happy with that!” says Fator. “I didn’t want to tell myself that this could be my shot because there were so many times when I thought my shot had come and it went down in flames.”
Through it all, he kept his ambitions simple. “I was content where I was,” he recalls. “I said, ‘If I never get to be rich and famous, if I never get to have a fan base, I just want to be the best ventriloquist and best entertainer that I possibly can, for myself.’”
When Fator walked onstage for his first appearance, the judges didn’t expect much, with David Hasselhoff bemoaning, “Oh no, another ventriloquist.” Hasselhoff quickly changed his tune when Fator’s puppet Emma started belting out the opening notes to Etta James’ classic “At Last,” shocking and delighting the room.
From there he moved on to the Top 20, where he performed “What a Wonderful World,” a duet between himself (impersonating Louis Armstrong) and his puppet Winston the Turtle (impersonating Kermit the Frog). He kept advancing, week after week (singing the songs of Nat King Cole, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Garth Brooks and Roy Orbison along the way) until he reached the finale, winning the competition (and its $1 million prize) with a rendition of James Taylor’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”
“And then, kaboom!” Fator recalls. “Everything happened so fast that my head was spinning, ‘AGT’ catapulted me into a place I never dreamed.”
Next up was Las Vegas. Kallao was, at the time, the general manager of the Mirage. Fator played a limited run at the Las Vegas Hilton and the team from the Mirage liked what they saw.
“We benefit from someone like Terry because people make their decisions on where they’re going to stay, where they’re going to have dinner, where they’re going to do some gambling when they’re done,” Kallao says. “So really the real magic and the secret of all that is that it’s driving people to the property and to have a million people and 1,800 shows is significant for our company.”
Despite the money and long-term security, Fator hasn’t rested on his past achievements. In fact, he works harder now than ever, constantly adding new material and characters to his show. “I’ve probably rewritten the show 17 or 18 times,” Fator says of his decade at the Mirage. “I’ve had people come and see me 13 times and said they’ve never seen the same show.”
Along with original, crowd-pleasing characters such as Winston the Turtle and Wrex, a crash test dummy who is also an Uber driver, Fator has incorporated puppet versions of real-life celebrities, including Elton John, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson and others. To up the ante in his 10th year, he’s also added puppet versions of Las Vegas Rat Pack legends Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, with a Frank Sinatra puppet on the way.
For the season between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, Fator’s show takes on a nostalgic, holiday theme. “We do a re-creation of the old Christmas specials that I grew up with,” he says. “My wife comes in with freshly baked cookies and, for my stoner puppet [Colorado resident “Duggie Scott Walker”], freshly baked brownies.”
While Fator appeals to audiences of all ages, he’s not doing a children’s show. “I’m a very clean entertainer, but my jokes are written for the adult intellect so they’re very sophisticated jokes,” he says. “The kids love the puppets but adults love the fact that my humor is sophisticated and funny, not corny and silly.”
Fator is constantly working on his show at the Mirage, continuing his charitable work and traveling to Hollywood to pitch television show ideas. “I feel like my brand of entertainment and the style I have is perfect for the flyover states,” Fator says. “I want to do something where, if there’s four generations sitting and watching my TV show, all four generations are enjoying themselves and are engaged. I want to do something that is wholesome and fun and heartfelt just for the fans who are desperate for it.”
On Giving Back
Being one of America’s highest-paid talents wasn’t part of Terry Fator’s life ambitions, so giving back and helping people is a priority to him.
Fator says, “I’ve been incredibly blessed with the lifestyle that I have and the money that I make and all the excess can go to help other people because that’s really all that you get to take with you, the help you give others.”
Since the success of winning “America’s Got Talent” in 2007, the lucrative Las Vegas runs that followed and continue to this day, Fator has donated money and time to a wide array of charitable causes and organizations, including the American Cancer Society, the Arthritis Foundation, the Nevada Blind Children Foundation, Shriners Hospitals for Children, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and USA Hockey.
The Terry Fator Foundation (terryfatorfoundation.org) raises money for causes through online auctions of puppets from Fator’s shows and he assists organizations through personal performances and appearances. He donates all the profits he receives from sales of T-shirts, puppets and other merchandise, from his online store as well as in-person at the Mirage, to his foundation.
Some of the charitable work is personal to Fator, such as his work with the Arthritis Foundation since his late sister, Debi, suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. He’s hosted the Nevada Arthritis Walk as well as years of Voices for a Cure fundraisers. He also hosts an annual Taste of the Town fundraiser for the foundation in Hawaii, with the Mirage donating packages for their silent auction.
Franz Kallao, senior vice president of hospitality & hotel strategy, MGM Resorts Intl. notes that giving back is a big part of the chemistry between Fator and the Mirage. “It’s a very reciprocal relationship, meaning that when we ask Terry if he would help us at a company fundraiser or welcoming guests, he’s always willing to do that,” Kallao says. “And likewise, we’re always willing to support the things he’s involved with too.”
Kallao points to the USA Hockey Warrior Classic, held each October in Las Vegas (2019 will be the fourth year of the event). USA Hockey is the parent organization that runs the U.S. Olympic team but also has sub-leagues for young people, people with disabilities and disabled veterans. The Mirage worked with Fator on rooms and tickets.
Fator was a sponsor of the Ladybug Ball, a fundraiser benefiting the Nevada Blind Children’s Federation, as well as visiting and performing for patients at the Shriners Hospital in Honolulu. He also supports military and veterans organizations, such as Snowball Express, which serves the children of fallen men and women in uniform.
“I’ve been focused on the military because I’ve seen so much happening with our veterans, it just breaks my heart,” Fator told Luxury Las Vegas in 2017. “To see PTSD and suicide rates off the charts and so many challenges facing those who serve in our military. We have to support them and let them know, personally, by grabbing them by the hand and looking them in the eye to thank them for the courage they have shown.”
Adds Kallo, “When you’re in the business we are, we have lots and lots of quote-unquote partners, but Terry is a true partner, he’s a true entertainer, he’s a spokesman for our company, he’s a spokesman for the city, he does a lot for the community here in Las Vegas and we couldn’t be prouder of our relationship with him.”