Mirage headliner Terry Fator has welcomed Wounded Warriors to his Veteran Day’s salutes for about four years.
As emotional as they are, nothing prepared him for what happened in October.
A U.S. soldier who had attended Fator’s 2011 “Salute the Troops” show had emailed that he couldn’t attend the November tribute. The veteran said he would be in Las Vegas in October and wanted to know if he could propose during Fator’s show.
A surprise proposal.
“She was his nurse and they had fallen in love while she was nursing him back to life,” recalled Fator.
Of course, said Fator, who put the wheelchair-bound veteran, John, and his girlfriend, Stacey, on the front row.
At the appointed time in the show, Fator joined the couple below the front of the stage.
Fator included John in a hilarious bit that included a mic’d-up dummy mask. When it was over, Fator said to John, “I understand you have something you want to say.”
John, who had lost his arms and legs from an IED blast, turned to Stacey and said, ‘I’m sorry I can’t get on one knee’ and the crowd just gasped,” said Fator.
“He had an artificial hand and the ring was hidden in the hand and he said, ‘I can’t open my hand but I have something in there for you’ and she reached in and took it and everyone in the audience was crying.
“It was by far the most spectacular and moving and amazing moment in history of the show,” said Fator, who is featured in today’s Q-and-A interview.
A representative for American Airlines who works for military charities had heard about the proposal and flew the couple to Las Vegas.
The Mirage provided them with a suite.
Talk about your early years.
“I grew up in Dallas and when I was 14, I moved to Corsicana, Texas. That was really when things started taking off because I was heavily involved in all the community theater and different things. I had never done anything like that until Corsicana. That’s when I think I got the real bug. But I think I knew at three, I wanted to be an entertainer.
And how did that evolve?
“I grew up loving all different styles of music, all different kinds. That’s one of the things my dad made sure we did. I grew listening to the old ’50s doo-wop and things like that, with a love of music and comedy, watching Jerry Lewis and the Carol Burnett show. Being able to sing and mix all of the comedy together at a very young age was just something that I loved doing. I always knew I was going to be a comedian, but I also knew I was going to be a singer too.”
When did you get your first guitar?
“I never played guitar. I played piano a little bit when I was young. I was really more into the singing and the comedy aspect. I could never get the knack of playing instruments. I tried. I took piano and I took guitar but I just never could do it. It was just not my gift.”
When did you start working with a puppet?
“I was 10. That’s when I learned how to do ventriloquism. And my first puppet would sing songs. I named him Josh. Bought him at Sears. Interesting that Sears used to sell ventriloquism puppets. That’s how popular it used to be. That was my first foray into the world of ventriloquism.”
I recall an interview we did when you started at The Mirage (March 2009). And you mentioned you played Vegas years ago.
“That was the Excalibur. That was ’95. I was the lead singer, the frontman, for my band, Texas the Band. I did ventriloquism. We’d do 15-20 minutes of music then I’d pull out a (puppet) character and the character would come out and tell jokes and sing.”
As you were evolving in your career, what’s the best show business advice you got?
“I think the best advice I got was always make sure the audience is entertained. I spoke with a guy who was a vaudevillian entertainer and he had written a book on entertainment and putting together an entertaining show. I read his book and he said, ‘Make sure your show has hills and valleys. You don’t want it to be all laughs or too much of a downer. You want to have moments where people experience every emotion. I still live by that advice today. If you come to my show, there are wonderful poignant moments and times when you are laughing so hard you’re sides are hurting. And when you leave, you feel like you’ve really been through an entire range of emotions.”
I noticed you sang the national anthem at the National Finals Rodeo the other night. It strikes me that, with your Texas background and performing at a lot of fairs, you might have a kinship with rodeo folks.
“Absolutely. I’ve performed at a ton of rodeos because I grew up in Texas. And when Texas the Band came along, they would book us for different rodeos around the country. We did the one in Scottsdale, Ariz., and Mesquite, Texas, right up the street from where I lived.
“One of the things we used to do is play at the Stockyards at Fort Worth. It was always fun to go over there and watch the rodeo during our breaks.”
What would be your favorite getaway if you and (wife) Taylor (Makakoa) had a week off?
“With our dogs. We used to go to Hawaii all the time (where Taylor grew up). Now that we’ve built a little home for ourselves, and there’s no place we’d rather be than right there, waking up at home with our dogs. We like stay-cations.”
What are your dogs’ names?
“Oh my, we have six of them. We have Ziggy. We have Rebel. Koa. He has a Hawaiian name. He’s a mastiff. Rebel is a German Shepherd. Ziggy is a mix. We’re not sure what he is. We think he’s part minipin (miniature Doberman pinscher) and part Chihuahua. My wife says he’s an angel straight from heaven. Than we have Oopsey Bear, who is our senior citizen dog. He’s 11 years old and sweet as he can be. He’s a Pomeranian. Paco is a Chihuahua. And there’s Ekolu, another Hawaiian name. And he is a minipin.”
Talk about the turning point in your career.
“When we were Texas the Band, we had developed just a small following around the country. But we could pull ‘em in. But there were times when I went solo as a ventriloquist where I really, really struggled. From about 2001, when I went solo, to 2005, it was when I started doing singing impressions and ventriloquism. That is when my audience started to grow because people were fascinated. From then on, I really started developing an audience.”
Danny Gans and Las Vegas played part, I recall.
“I was performing at the Clark County Fair and I took one of my days off. I was still performing during afternoons. It’s about a 45-minute trip. I got in my car and I had scrimped and saved every penny I could and I went and saw Danny Gans. And it’s funny, I always did impressions and I always did ventriloquism and I always did them together, but I never made it the focus point of my show until after I saw Danny Gans. And after I saw Danny Gans, I realized just how much people loved people who could do impressions in shows that had impressions in them. It was then that I said, ‘okay, I’m going to make every single puppet do an impression.’ It took me about six months but I started writing right after I saw Danny Gans that I started writing a show that really all about impressions and ventriloquism.”
The story goes that the realization hit you during a long drive to Montana from Las Vegas when you heard Garth Brooks on the radio.
“This was in 2005. It was right after I saw Danny Gans. I was driving to Butte, Montana, and Garth came on the radio and I started singing along to ‘Friends in Low Places’ without moving my lips.
“I thought, I know this song, I used to do it with my band. When I got to Butte, I was doing a corporate party. When I got to my room in Butte, I downloaded the karaoke track of ‘Friends in Low Places’ and I put it on iPhone and I hooked up my iPhone to the sound system. I did the show and right in the middle of it one of my characters said, ‘I can do an impression of Garth Brooks’ and I said, ‘Oh really, I want to hear that.’
And I started the song and I did Garth Brooks right there without my lips moving. It was really the first time I had done Garth Brooks. I had done other characters. I had done Hank Williams Sr., and Dwight Yoakam and Buck Owens without moving my lips.
“For some reason, that really resonated with the audience. There were 50-60 people in the audience and they went nuts. After the show, they’re like oh-my-gosh, I’ve never seen anything like that. It was then that I realized I am really onto something. People really liked it. It was a short time later I added Etta James and Louis Armstrong and Kermit the Frog. I was just basically going through my repertoire of songs and thinking, ‘OK I can do this impression because I had always done impressions.’ But I had never done them without moving my lips as a fulltime thing. One song here, one song there and I said, ‘OK I’m going to do an impressions show and my puppets are going to be the ones doing the impressions.’
“That was in 2005 and boy, right after that things just started happening really quickly.
There was another Las Vegas connection.
“I started getting bigger bookings at fairs. I would do showcases. If you want to do fairs, you go into a showcase and do 20-30 minutes of your act and they get fair buyers from all over the country. You might do the Iowa Fair showcase or the Rocky Mountain Fair showcase. Once I had the impressions and ventriloquism, oh my gosh, they started booking me in bigger stadias and better venues. I did the showcase in Vegas in early 2007. I put together a showcase at the Rio with some of the top producers who had produced a lot of the shows on the Strip. We invited them to a corporate party I was doing in front of maybe 800 people.”
Afterwards, he said, “all three of them told me there was no way I was ever going to be an entertainer, that it just wasn’t right for Vegas. It didn’t deter me. It just made me more determined.
“And just a couple months after that, I went on ‘America’s Got Talent’ and it changed everything.
“But I have to tell you, I was so discouraged because that was my dream to have the type of show that Danny Gans had, where I had my own theater and my own place and I didn’t have to travel anymore. I was discouraged but I still believed I had what it took to be a Vegas entertainer. I felt like I was going to prove ‘em wrong. And it’s not very often you get to prove somebody wrong that quickly. The funny thing is I don’t even remember the names of the people I performed for. I’m sure they know who they are.”
How did you connect with “America’s Got Talent”?
“America’s Got Talent’ was March or April of 2007. I had seen the first season and I was very interested. I thought it might be a fun thing to try out. My brother had called me and told me about the show. He had seen it in the paper. I was performing in Los Angeles, doing schools and my school shows usually were done about 2:30. Right after my last school show that day, I just packed up all my little puppets and went over to the Los Angeles Convention Center and they were having auditions. I got my little number and I went and stood in line and did my audition. I never expected a ton to come from it; I thought I might get on the show and get a few more fans. But I never thought I could win it.
“What happened was I was doing really well for just a solo act. I was making decent money. So once I found out I was on the show, I had to cancel the entire summer. Actually I had to cancel spring too because they told me the show was going to air in the spring so they told me to keep my spring open. I had booked my entire summer but I left my spring open. Then when I got on the show, I had to cancel the entire summer. I lost nine months of work. I was using credit cards to pay bills, racking up all my credit cards and thinking, ‘my gosh, this is really going to hurt.’ I was down at least 30 grand. But I looked at it as an investment. I had maxed out all my credit cards but had paid bills, car payments and (held onto) my house. I thought that even if I don’t win this thing –and I didn’t think I would — I figured I’ll get enough bookings just from being on the show to where I can get this paid off within a year. I wasn’t really worried but I was sweating a little bit.”
Then you won $1 million and landed in Las Vegas. Talk about the commitments you had cancelled.
“Apparently it’s unusual but it just didn’t seem unusual to me because if you make a commitment, you make a commitment. I did a little city in Montana and I had been booked there for $250 a day. The only thing was, normally, I would do three shows. After I won ‘America’s Got Talent,’ I said, ‘I’m going to do the shows and I’m not going to charge you any extra but I only want to do one show. I don’t want to do day shows, I want to do an evening show.’ That was the only stipulation.
“I wanted to be a headliner, because they would stick me on a little stage next to the petting zoo. I thought ‘I just won ‘America’s Got Talent,’ I don’t want to play next to the petting zoo anymore.’ It was interesting because I went ahead and played every single fair I had booked and almost every one of them told me they broke attendance records. There was one where it was as far as you could see. It was just overwhelming.
“Here I had gone from playing for 50 to 100 people at a time to, all of a sudden, I win the show and there was a sea of people in Montana as far as I could see. It was just unbelievable how everything changed.
“I did another in Odessa, Texas and I actually played in the arena that they had and packed the place out. I remember it was raining and flooding and they said when it normally rained during the fair, the people all stayed home. They broke the attendance that one day in the middle of this huge flood. It was such a whirlwind for me. Earlier that year, I had played a showcase in Vegas and was told I’d never been an entertainer in Vegas. The next thing I know I’m selling out an arena in Odessa, Texas. Few people get to experience something like this.
“I’ve always been a workaholic and I had spent those 25 years on the road and coming up with creating new characters and learning new songs, and now I get to do it in my own theater in front of my own fans.
“What a blessing.”
What’s coming up on your schedule?
“What’s interesting is on any given night, about 30 percent of my crowd is Canadian and I get tons of emails and fan mail from Canada. Now we’re trying to put together a Canadian tour. I want to appear on ‘Canada’s Got Talent.’ ”
Fator has a DVD coming out Feb. 18 and will launch the release with a major promotional tour, with appearances on David Letterman’s late-night show and all the major national talk shows.
The 90-minute DVD was filmed during a regular show last year.
In addition, he has a Christmas book out titled “Lamu, the Christmas Kitten.”
Norm Clarke’s column appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 702-383-0244 firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more at normclarke.com. Follow @Norm_Clarke on Twitter. “Norm Clarke’s Vegas” airs Thursdays on the “Morning Blend” on KTNV-TV, Channel 13.