Mimic, Vocalist, Ventriloquist
Is Coming to Windsor
Story by Matthew St. Amand
Photography by Tom Donoghue
The stage can be a lonely, exhilarating, terrifying, enthralling space. Stepping out before an audience, performers know in about three seconds whether they’re on top of Mount Everest or on the chopping block. Step into that space with a ventriloquist’s dummy and the floor tilts against you. Deliver or run.
Ventriloquist Terry Fator delivered, first gaining national attention in 2007 by winning the second season of America’s Got Talent. In 2008, he appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show with Simon Cowell, American Idol judge and AGT creator and executive producer. On that program, Simon Cowell said that Terry was one of the “two most talented people on the planet.” When Terry brought out his dummies—country singer Walter T. Airedale who performs a Garth Brooks song, Winston the impersonating Turtle who sings a Bee Gees song, and Julius who performs a Marvin Gaye song—he recalls that “[Oprah] had this look on her face, wondering what I was about to do. Once I started into Marvin Gaye, she fell out of her chair.”
Making Oprah Winfrey a believer is no easy feat. Terry managed to top that, soon after, when he signed a five-year, $100 million contract to perform nightly at The Mirage on the Las Vegas Strip. If that wasn’t enough, the venue where he signed to perform was renamed the Terry Fator Theatre.
Who’s the dummy now?
And none of it might have happened without Terry’s vision of his future and strong work ethic.
“I was unhappy as a child,” Terry recalls. “My parents had a janitorial business and had us kids working, sometimes six to eight hours a day, inside buildings, cleaning toilets.”
Terry’s ventriloquism career began when he was in fifth grade, giving him reprieve from the hard work. His teacher asked the class to write a report on Valentine’s Day. As he searched for a book on Valentine’s Day at the library, Terry ran across a book on ventriloquism. This was a fortuitous find. Instantly enthralled by the artform, Terry dipped into his savings a few weeks later and bought a “Willie Talk” dummy from the Sears catalog.
“We always had a radio playing while we worked,” Terry continues. “As I cleaned, I practiced singing along with the radio without moving my lips. While vacuuming, I wrote routines in my head. When you’re passionate about something, you find a way.”
It was during those marathon shifts doing janitorial work—going thirty-six hours straight, cleaning out whole apartment buildings that had been sold, over a weekend—that the radio came to Terry’s rescue.
“I grew up in Dallas and a local station played old time radio shows all night long,” he recalls. “I listened to those old shows while I worked. That’s how I heard Edgar Bergen for the first time. From Edgar Bergen, I learned about creating distinct voices, characters that were very different from his character, all of their mannerisms. I learned that ventriloquism was more than throwing my voice, it was creating characters.”
Terry also drew inspiration from Sesame Street, watching how the puppets interacted with the children. He was a devoted fan of the Muppet Show, too.
“I grew up in the 1970s, and stayed up to watch ventriloquists on The Johnny Carson Show, when they appeared,” Terry remembers. “When I got my first VCR I filled eight-hour tapes with the Muppet Show. I recorded some of Jeff Dunham’s routines and watched those every single night for two years. I knew his routine backward and forward.”
Terry started in show business touring as the lead singer of the band Freedom Jam in 1987–88, produced by Young American Showcase. With them, he performed in more than 200 high schools and middle schools across America and Canada, averaging approximately three performances per school day.
“Even in the middle of doing something I didn’t want to do, I worked on my craft,” Terry says. “When I was traveling by myself, driving 100,000 miles a year in my car, all over the country, spending eight and ten hours at a time on the road, I practiced.”
Although Terry was doing what he loved, doing 300–330 performances a year became a grind. Some years he made as little as $12,000. Even when his career appeared to be going nowhere, Terry remembered the old saying: “Do what you love for a living and you’ll never work a day in your life.”
“No matter what small venue I was performing,” he continues, “whether it was an elementary school, a church or a county fair, I performed like I was at Carnegie Hall. I gave it my all. I never knew who might be in the audience. There could be thirty people, but who knows, there might be someone from Hollywood or a major booking agent.”
As it turned out, people from across the country who saw Terry perform in those small venues wrote letters and email messages to the producers of America’s Got Talent. One day, Terry received a call from a producer from the show asking if he would like to audition.
The rest is history.
On Friday, April 14 at 8 pm, Terry will perform with his cast of famous dummies at Caesars Windsor as part of his On the Road Again tour.
“I love my Canadian fans,” Terry says. “Every time I go there, it’s such a joy. And people should know that I’m bringing stuff that’s never been seen outside of my Vegas show.”
Terry often ponders his long, winding road to success, and the overriding emotion it arouses in him is gratitude. Although he has reached the pinnacle of success by every measurement, he still loves performing, still loves sharing his gift, entertaining people.
“I love what I do,” he says, simply.
To learn more about Terry, and see some behind-the-scenes preparations for a performance, visit his website terryfator.com. His autobiography, Who’s the Dummy Now? is available on Amazon and other online retailers.
For tickets to this or other shows, go to caesars.com/caesars-windsor/shows.