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Dreams Come True

It has to be one of the biggest rags-to-riches story you’ll ever see. When Terry Fator was a kid in Texas, he did janitorial work and painted houses for his family’s business. Even then, he practiced ventriloquism on the side. But who knew he’d someday get a $100 million contract doing his favorite thing?

Success never came easy. As an adult, he toiled for years on stages around the country, singing through his puppet characters, a routine few if any acts made as a career. As recently as 2007, he walked onstage in South Texas and spotted just one kid in the audience. One, lone 12-year-old.

“Man, I’ll tell you, it was unbelievably discouraging,” Fator, 43, says.

He started to perform for that kid. A few other teens sat down, but this wasn’t the positive development he thought it was.

“I’m thinking, ‘OK, good, I’ve finally got somebody else in here, so maybe we could actually build a crowd.’ Turned out they were the custodial staff, and about five minutes after they came in, they started folding the chairs up.”

So, Fator gave the kid a DVD and CD.

“I thanked him for being my only person, and then I called my wife and said, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore.’ “

Melinda convinced him it was a hard life sometimes, but she reminded him he had good days, too. This was right, he thought, and he kept working another day.

Soon after that, he made the cut of auditions for NBC’s “America’s Got Talent,” and he was a hit, singing via puppets “What A Wonderful World” (as the voice of Kermit the Frog), and Etta James’ “At Last” (as an Etta-ish puppet).

Next thing you know, he was a regular at the Las Vegas Hilton. Then, he signed a $100 million contract to perform at The Mirage starting in 2009.

“And now I’m the new headliner at The Mirage,” Fator says, sounding genuinely shocked still. “Wow, it’s amazing how life can change so quickly.”

One of the first things he did with his money was buy his wife a new wedding ring.

“I was too poor when we got married 17 years ago to actually buy her a real wedding ring. I had to buy her a $10 wedding band that I found in a pawnshop on the Strip in Vegas.” (He got the ring here, but they married in Colorado.)

“And she wore that until last year. And I said, ‘I’m going to get you a real wedding ring.’ She said, ‘No, I love that ring.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t.’ “

He’s always craved being the center of attention, and she’s always been right there with him.

“For years, when I was unknown, if we ever went to a party,” he says, “I would always tell her, ‘Make sure people know I’m a ventriloquist.’ And I would entertain people. I would bring karaoke tracks and do impressions.”

Once he hit it rich, Melinda Fator quit working at a veterinarian’s clinic after 10 years.

“I was able to give her early retirement,” Fator says, proudly, although the Fators will be doing charity work for the no-kill animal shelter, Best Friends, in Utah.

“She wants to actually drive up occasionally and volunteer with the cats and dogs, and we’re going to be donating money to help them build more buildings and keep that place running.”

Some people ask him for money. Some family members have asked him for jobs. He responds, “I don’t hire people at The Mirage. If you want to work at The Mirage, you have to ask people at The Mirage.”

He could use some of his money to upgrade his puppets to, say, Disney-esque automatons. But that would be dumb, he says.

“We’re not trying to make the flashiest show,” he says. “We’re just trying to go back to old-time Vegas, and just have a guy up there with a lot of talent doing things people enjoy seeing.

“If you looked at the season that I did with ‘America’s Got Talent,’ every other performer had flash pots (bright lights) going off, and sexy dancers going all over the place,” Fator says. “And when it was my turn, it was me and a puppet. I think one time they gave me fog on the stage.”

If there’s a lesson to be learned from Fator, it’s that he learned what he wanted to do early in life — at age 10 or so — and practiced. He got into ventriloquism after reading a book about it. He studied “Sesame Street” and “The Muppet Show,” which taught him “how lifelike a puppet could actually be.”

He got here without “any shortcuts,” he says.

People who wish to get famous fast, especially kids, “want to use a reality show as a shortcut to doing the work,” he says.

But, he cautions, he never would have developed his $100 million skills without surviving decades-long struggles.

“The reason The Mirage (signed) me is, I’m the only one in the world who can do what I can do, and I’m the best at it. That comes from the enormous amount of work I’ve put in, and the enormous amount of hours I’ve put into my craft, and learning how to be better. I don’t regret one second of the time it took me to get here.”

That’s the inspirational message of his autobiography, “Who’s The Dummy Now?” he says.

“I refused to let them get me down. I refused to let them beat me. I said, ‘No. I’m not giving this up.’ In the most discouraging times, I said, ‘No. I’m gonna keep plugging.’ Even when I gave up the dream of ever becoming famous at it, I said, ‘I’m going to be the best for myself. Even if I never hit it big, I’m gonna be the best for myself.’ “

And that’s the true rags-to-riches story of the $100 million man.

Doug Elfman’s column appears on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 702-383-0391 or e-mail him at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He also blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.

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