Ventriloquist Terry Fator branching out with road show

You can’t go back in time to see Terry Fator before he was famous, sporting a (real) mullet or a (fake) ZZ Top beard as the lead singer in a show band.

But you can go out of town and see it.

On a recent afternoon, The Mirage headliner introduced a new, autobiographical retrospective to an invited audience of friends. So far, it was the one and only performance of “It Starts Tonight” in the Las Vegas theater that carries his name.

The ventriloquist has spent much of this year working through an ambitious plan. He wrote and rehearsed this new effort he calls “the road show” for the 40-plus dates he wants to book out of town on weekends each year (he cut back his Mirage schedule to four shows a week to make room).

Fator figures that if the content is 90 percent different, it will avoid any question of cannibalizing ticket sales at The Mirage by performing an identical show across the country.

The road show is “a feeder,” Fator says, one that says, “Here’s how I got there. Now come and see me at The Mirage. It’s like an hour-and-a-half lead-in to the show at The Mirage.”

But it’s also more compelling and personal than the ongoing showcase, a skilful reworking of his variety act as a theatrical memoir.

It begins with Fator re-enacting his days as a night janitor in a Texas bank, dreaming of fame. After unleashing his inner Dean Martin and Ethel Merman (who knew?), the entertainer charts his rise to fame by winning “America’s Got Talent” in 2007.

There is one point of intersection with the ongoing show at The Mirage. Both shows feature Fator singing more in his own voice, including some original songs.

He went to Nashville, Tenn., to record an album, also called “It Starts Tonight,” which will be available at his shows and through digital sales in the next few weeks.

Fator wrote two of the songs and chose the others “very carefully,” he says. “Every single song is something that is very important and dear to me. ... I really want songs about positivity, about life-changing moments.”

That’s the theme of the new show, which the 48-year-old otherwise acknowledges comes a bit too early “to say, ‘Hey everybody, let’s look back on everything I’ve done.’... I’ve got a lot more left in me that I’m going to be doing.

“The whole purpose of this is to be enlightening and uplifting and to let people know that if you’re struggling, it doesn’t matter what age you are. If you continue to have a commitment to your art or what you love, you never know what can happen.”

Fator’s story, even simplified as a stage show, illustrates just how unlikely his success remains.

Nightclub DJs have only increased their dominance on the Strip after Fator landed in 2009, and newer headliners — Frankie Moreno or impressionist Veronic DiCaire — have learned how big a challenge it is for traditional performers to attract attention.

The new show doesn’t pretend Fator emerged from total obscurity. Instead, it offers vintage photos and resurrects routines from his days fronting Texas the Band. The show band made him a steady-working pro in the 1990s, as it traveled the state-fair circuit and played suburban casinos such as Texas Station in North Las Vegas.

Fator used his ventriloquist puppet characters even then, but says he did not yet realize he was an impressionist. He would just try to make his voice match the songs he was covering, whether they were by Garth Brooks or Guns ’N Roses.

Even as he disconnected that skill from ventriloquism — “It just did not occur to me that this is something people would pay to see” — he made the tough decision to leave the band and pursue solo bookings as a ventriloquist.

“I was terrified. I was absolutely petrified,” he says. “I was convinced it was the camaraderie that we had that was why we were as popular as we were, and able to make the kind of money we were making.”

And his fears were confirmed when he rented a 1,000-seat theater for a solo show and only one person, a 12-year-old boy, showed up.

But the game-changer, he tells audiences, was seeing the late Danny Gans (although he doesn’t mention him by name) on the same Mirage stage where he now works.

“I realized, I do what this guy does. It’s just, I have to figure out how to do it in a different way. I just didn’t realize how fascinated people would be by that, the fact that I can do these (voices) without moving my lips.”

Audiences quadrupled on the fair circuit, but that turned out to be just a buildup to “America’s Got Talent” in 2007.

Fator’s new show skillfully mixes TV footage of the judges (then Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne and David Hasselhoff) with onstage re-creations of his contest performances.

“It was like magic. It truly was like there was this magic dust that was floating around at that time,” he says. “If you look at ‘America’s Got Talent’ now, I truly, honestly feel like I would not win it if it was this season (because) the dynamics have changed so much.”

Fator maintains that his “middle America” fan base has tuned out “because they don’t like Howard Stern (as a judge). They won’t even give Howard Stern a chance. My fans don’t watch the show anymore. When I was on there, I had that entire block of middle America, and what I did transcended ages and years.”

And Fator stays loyal to them. The puppet characters get less stage time in the road show, but he says he will never drift too far from his role as straight man to Walter T. Airedale or Winston the Impersonating Turtle.

“I’m a creative person and I want to continue to explore my abilities, but I’m always going to dance with the one who brung me,” he says. “I’m branching out, I’m not abandoning.”

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@ reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.