Numbers are the engine that runs the entertainment industry. In television, it’s about ratings. At concerts and shows, it’s about the number of people filling seats.
Ventriloquist Terry Fator knows all about these numbers.
For starters, there’s the number $21.5 million. That’s how much money Fator has made in 2015, according to Forbes Magazine’s recently released highest-paid comedians list. That places Fator third, behind only Jerry Seinfeld at $36 million and Kevin Hart at $28.8 million.
But it was less than 15 years ago that Fator played before one paying customer in a 1,000-seat theater. For the record, Fator performed that show until the theater personnel stopped the show about halfway through.
“That was a low point,” Fator said by phone recently from his home in Las Vegas, where he has performed since 2008 after signing a $100 million contract to perform in a theater named after himself at the Mirage Hotel & Casino.
In a career now filled with many more highs than lows, Fator frequently brings his family-filled show of 16 ventriloquist dolls and more than 100 impersonations across the country on weekends.
That includes a stop in Reno when Fator and his entourage take the stage at 8 p.m. Nov. 20 in the Grande Exposition Hall at the Silver Legacy Resort Casino.
After a lifetime of performing and working on perfecting his craft, Fator competed in and won season two of “America’s Got Talent.” It was a major surprise to Fator and a lot of people who looked down on ventriloquism as a performing art for kids, too juvenile to entertain adult audiences.
Fator played a major role in changing the way people view ventriloquism.
“People’s perception of ventriloquism has completely changed face since I won ‘America’s Got Talent,’” he said. “Don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking credit for that. But if you look, there’s Jeff Dunham who’s selling out arenas all over the country and a ventriloquist, Paul Zerdin, just won this season’s ‘America’s Got Talent.’
“And I’ve had one of the top shows in Vegas now for seven years running. What that happens, people’s perceptions have changed.”
Fator has performed more than 1,000 shows at the Mirage and is an attraction for people to visit Las Vegas. He said people frequently tell him that they planned their Las Vegas vacation around seeing Fator’s show.
“It’s really amazing,” he said. “To have come from where I’ve came to where I am now, it’s truly amazing.”
Born in Dallas, Fator’s fascination with ventriloquism began when he was a preteen. He bought a book on the art, “Ventriloquism for Fun and Profit” by Paul Winchell, and studied and studied, something he continues to do every day.
“I knew when I was 14 I wanted to perform for a living, I wanted to perform in Las Vegas,” Fator said. “I made it my goal in life.”
The idealistic dreams of a talented teen whose finest talent lay in the hands and nonmoving lips of the art of ventriloquism, considered one of the least respected performing art forms at the time.
“Most people saw ventriloquists at church or schools,” Fator said. “These people never intended to be Vegas entertainers. They were doing it as a fun hobby or teaching tool, which is great. But it created a perception that ventriloquism wasn’t more than that. And that was hard to overcome.”
“I am fortunate to have a gift and dedication,” Fator said. “I’ve seen so many people that I was on the road, who had the same dream as me, fall by the wayside because it’s a hard life. They gave up and got a job.
“By the time I won ‘America’s Got Talent,’ I was on the road 11 out of 12 months trying to make a living and working on my craft. I always feel I can get better. That was my dedication.”
Fator gave himself until the age of 40 to pursue his dream of becoming a professional headliner.
“I decided when I turned 40 that my dreams of being rich and famous were done,” he said. “I absolutely thought no way a ventriloquist is every going to do anything to capture the public’s attention. So I just focused on the audiences I was playing for and getting better.”
In 2007, when Fator was 42 years old, he finally got a chance on season two of “America’s Got Talent.” He didn’t feel he had a realistic chance to win, but he knew he was good at his craft and was going to give it a shot.
“I had been doing ventriloquism for 32 years by this time,” he said. “When you do something you’re passionate about for 32 years, you get pretty good at it. I was floored when I won. Absolutely stunned.”
The former lead singer of a band, Fator had taught himself to do impressions and impersonations of singers through the use of his puppets. That means his impressions come through the mouth of the puppet – Fator’s lips nary make a move.
“As long as the material is funny and entertaining, as long as your lips aren’t moving and your puppets are coming alive, you will find an audience,” he said.
Therein lies the secret. While anyone can learn ventriloquism, Fator said, only a handful can do it at a world-class level.
“It’s like singing,” he said. “Lots of people can sing, but there’s only one Celine Dion or Barbra Streisand. There has to be a natural gift and passion and dedication to succeed. I’ve got five different gifts given to me by God. I’m a comedian, a singer, a ventriloquist, a puppeteer and an actor. I can do all of those things. But I have tried, with utter futility, to try and learn to play an instrument. I just can’t do it.”
But he can entertain, to which his sold-out shows at the Mirage can attest. Fator also has a little something else going for him – a connection with his audience before his show even begins.
“Because I was on ‘America’s Got Talent,’ people feel the have a vested interest in my success,” he said. “They actually took part in it because had they not gotten on the phone – and I agree with this – I never would have won. So, there’s a connection with the audience before the show even starts. It’s an amazing feeling.”