Thursday, October 9, 2008

Q&A: Ventriloquist Terry Fator

Posted By on Thu, Oct 9, 2008 at 5:08 PM

Photo by Richard Faverty
  • Photo by Richard Faverty

Ventriloquist Terry Fator really knows how to “throw” his voice. He made that clear on NBC's America's Got Talent - and he even won $1 million. His act features a variety of puppets that he uses to impersonate music stars like Garth Brooks, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Tony Bennett, Elvis, Nat King Cole and plenty more. And, he's not even moving his lips. You can see him in action when he visits Charlotte for a performance at Belk Theater on Fri., Oct. 10. Read Creative Loafing's interview with Terry Fator below.

Creative Loafing: You became interested in ventriloquism at an early age. Can you tell me a little about it and exactly how old you were when your interest began?

Terry Fator: Certainly. I was 10 years old, but a ventriloquist had come to my church when I was 8 years old and I hated him. He was terrible. Even at 8 years old I thought, ‘This guy is really bad at this.’ But it didn’t make me want to be a ventriloquist. When I was 10 years old I was browsing through the library and stumbled on a book about how to do ventriloquism and I thought, ‘Well, this looks like fun.’ I’d also never forgotten that bad ventriloquist when I was 8 years old, because I said ‘I never want to be like that. I always want to be really good if I’m going to do it.’ It only took me a couple of days to kind of get it down and I started saving up for a little puppet. I knew when I was 10 or 11 years old that I was going to do this as a career. There was never really anything else that I wanted to do.

At what point did you decide to do impressions by using the puppets?

I have been doing impressions since I was about 5 years old and throughout my career I had occasionally had puppets do impressions as singers. But, it really wasn’t anything I did full-time in my career until about three years ago. Then I decided I was going to turn my show into an impersonation show and I was going to do it through the puppets. It’s funny because from that point on my career really exploded.

I can imagine that it’d be hard to do these impressions even with your mouth open, but it has to be even harder to do it with your mouth closed and without moving your lips. Do you practice a lot?

It is a lot harder to do an impression without moving my lips than it is to do it with my lips moving. I have to learn how to do the tones properly and I have to do different things with my tongue and my throat, in order to recreate the tones. It’s very complicated and it takes a lot of time and effort to do, but it’s so incredibly worth it because people are just really blown away. And to my knowledge, I’m the only person in the world who can do it. I’ve never even heard of someone else and I’ve looked online and I’ve tried to find anyone that can do it, but I don’t think there’s anyone else that can do it. My throat doctor has told me that what I do should be physically impossible. He has no explanation and can’t figure out how I do it and neither can I. In order to reach certain tones you have to open your mouth wide. For some reason I don’t and I can create those exact tones with my mouth almost closed.

How did the idea come about for you to enter NBC’s America’s Got Talent?

The first year my attitude was that ‘There’s no way I’m going to go on America’s Got Talent.’ Because I was thinking, ‘It’s just a little talent show,’ and I was already a professional, but I was an unknown professional doing corporate gigs. There was a ventriloquist on the first season and within just a couple months of the show he was on The Late Show With David Letterman. Well, I’ve been trying to get on David Letterman since I was 18 years old and I immediately told my wife, ‘Hey, that ventriloquist on the first season got on David Letterman’ and I made the decision then that I was going to try out. I set up an audition and went in, never in a million years thinking I would win. I just assumed I was going to get on two or three episodes and then hopefully get on The Late Show With David Letterman. As the show kept going further and further and I didn’t get kicked off the show, I started thinking ‘Wow, I could actually win this thing,’ and sure enough it happened.

After winning did you ever think about stopping for a while to relax?

Absolutely not. I said ‘I want to turn this thing into a career that will last me the rest of my life.’ And, you know the people that would win $1 million and then sit back and take a year off are the people that will never be heard from again. I went into this saying ‘If I win this thing (And I didn’t think I would) work starts.’ I will work harder than I ever have.’ And I have. I have never worked so hard and I have never had so much fun.

Your autobiography Who’s The Dummy Now? is set to be released on Oct. 27. What made you decide to write it? Also, when did you start writing it and how long did it take?

First, I want you to know I wrote every single word. I did not get a ghostwriter. Every word of that book was written by me. I was never considering writing a book. I have a massive Attention Deficit Disorder and I usually can’t concentrate on anything for more than a few minutes. I got a call from the publishing company who said they were getting inundated with requests for an autobiography on me. They asked if I could write one. I said ‘Well, I think I could. I don’t know. I’ve never really written anything.’ After that I signed the deal and started working. It took me about six months to write it. I love to play video games, so I told myself that until the book was written, I wouldn’t play video games. I only broke that rule once.

Do you think your popularity as a ventriloquist has influenced the future of ventriloquism?

I think it has had a significant impact. First of all, that was a huge goal of mine. I always wanted to kind of change the perception of ventriloquism. Ventriloquists have gotten such a bad reputation and I don’t think it’s an unfair reputation. I think it was deserved and the reason I say that is because of the kind of ventriloquist that came to my church when I was 8 years old. He was a bad ventriloquist. If every ventriloquist you see is horrible, then you’re are going to start expecting that all ventriloquists are horrible. I wanted to raise that bar, first of all to get the bad ventriloquists to start working harder on their acts and secondly to show the world that there are really good ventriloquists. I think that has happened. I get more emails all the time from ventriloquists who tell me they’re making more money and booking more performances since the show last year.

Ventriloquism has also been associated with children audiences and not so much with adults.

Right, but the funny thing is that even when I was performing for children, and for years that was the only work I could really get because of the perception that you are talking about, I still refused to dumb my show down. I remembered being 8 years old and being insulted by a terrible ventriloquist. His jokes were corny, they were not well-written and I think he just assumed, ‘Well, they’re kids, so it doesn’t matter.’ But, it does matter. So I made sure all my routines were sophisticated, well-written and well executed. I didn’t care if I was performing for kindergarteners or for the president of the United States, I was going to give the best show that I possible could. It’s amazing because I get way more adults than I do kids at my shows now. The show is appropriate for all ages, however it is really written for the adult intellect. It’s not that it’s dirty, but my jokes and a lot of the dialogue is sophisticated. The kids love it because it’s puppets. I mean, what kid is going to know who Nat King Cole or Tony Bennett is? The kids love hearing the puppets sing “What a Wonderful World,” even though they don’t know who Louis Armstrong is. It’ s kind of a win-win situation. The adults love it because they love the songs. I probably have 85 percent of adults in my audience and sometimes 100 percent adults. But, the show is written for everyone.

For information on tickets for Terry Fator's performance at Belk Theater, you may call 704-372-1000 or visit www.blumenthalcenter.org.

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