It's a good thing Terry Fator is an irrepressible optimist. The new headliner at the Mirage is one of those overnight sensations that was a quarter-century in the making.
As a ventriloquist-impersonator, Fator can make a faux turtle sing like Roy Orbison or coax the voice of Etta James out of his Emma Taylor puppet. And he is a comedian of impeccable timing who knows how to work a room.
But Fator spent many years honing his skills, developing material and living in anonymity, paying his dues doing dead-end gigs that offered little beyond the opportunity to perform for an audience.
"For years and years and years and years I was doing county fairs and state fairs," Fator says. "They always put me on the worst stage, like in the middle -- that is impossible for a ventriloquist; I am all about jokes and impressions -- with a band playing on one side and rides going on the other. But I was getting a paycheck, and so I was very happy. I performed my act just like I was headlining in Las Vegas."
That's because being a headliner in Vegas has been his goal since he was 15, growing up near Dallas.
In October 2007, at age 42, Fator performed his debut headlining show at the Las Vegas Hilton. Although it was the first time he'd done a full 90-minute performance, material was not a problem." "I'd been working over 25 years, and a lot of the material built up over the years. I created some new material too, but I had about four hours of material by the time I won 'America's Got Talent.' " And that is where the overnight sensation part comes into play: Fator had won the competition on NBC just a couple of months before his first Vegas showcase.
Fator sold out that show, so another was added -- and it sold out too. The Hilton signed a one-year deal with him. After that, Fator scored a five-year deal at the Mirage, where Siegfried & Roy once reigned, and his show opened last month. It features new material (and some new puppets), along with the stable that audiences will recognize from "America's Got Talent."
Fator's puppets still sing like Orbison, James, Axl Rose, Garth Brooks and Rod Stewart, to name a few. The most significant change is that Fator now performs with a live band and vastly upgraded production values.
Part of what makes his show successful is a masterful use of various traditional novelty acts (puppetry, voice-throwing and celebrity impersonations) in a new way, combined with his comic delivery. It is the sort of funny that loses a lot in the telling and needs to be seen.
For example, Fator transforms a male audience member (always a manly looking man) into Cher for a duet on "I Got You Babe," in which the participant wears a face mask. Fator controls Cher's voice through the mask -- no matter what words the man wearing the mask wants to come out of his mouth. How does Fator do it? The ventriloquist is the one with the live microphone, after all.
On a recent Wednesday, traditionally a slower night for Vegas shows, Fator packed the room. When the show was over, after a standing ovation, hundreds of people waited in two lines for a chance to meet him. The first line had VIPs who had paid extra to get a souvenir photo with Fator; the other line, just as long, consisted of regular audience members who simply wanted to meet the performer or get an autograph. Fator routinely stays for more than an hour after each show talking to each person in both lines.
His success has been a notable bright spot during a dreary and economically challenging time for new Vegas production shows. One recent show at the V Theatre in the mall at Planet Hollywood did not last a week; another show just closed there after a few months. It is an especially tough time for untested talent. Fator knows this and makes a joke at one point in his show when he lifts a puppet up in the air and then allows it to gently descend back into the chair:
"I just saved you folks $100. Now you don't have to go see Criss Angel."
The joke about the headliner of the most ridiculed new Vegas show gets a loud laugh. But Fator's humor is meant to make people laugh, and only that; he does not intend jokes as social commentary and has no desire to offend anyone. Unlike Angel's dark and brooding "Believe" at the Luxor, Fator is clearly aiming for the middle of the market, trying to make a comfortable show with no rough edges.
When Fator opened at the Mirage, some reviewers complained that a joke about President Obama was too partisan and briefly ruined the fun. Fator says he has not read the reviews, but audience members told him the same thing. Fator weighed the laughs the joke got against his sense that it might cross a line he does not want to cross.
"I just thought it was a neutral joke that could apply to any politician," Fator says. "But when people were telling me they did not like the Obama joke, I took it out. I don't want to upset anybody. My show is about making people feel joy and feel entertained."
In talking with Fator, "entertain" is the word that comes up again and again. He is not trying to be grandly ambitious like the Cirque shows or worthy of a MacArthur Award like "Penn & Teller." Nor does he attempt to make theater drama out of life like "Jersey Boys."
Fator has no more ambition than to make his audiences forget their problems for 90 minutes. In these tough times, that may be a more challenging goal than ever before.
For more Las Vegas coverage, go to the Movable Buffet blog.