If you ask performer Terry Fator what his specialty is, it appears the answer could be a number of things. While ventriloquism sits comfortably at the root of what he does, the truth is that Fator’s act contains a vast amount of other facets that make seeing his shtick all the more fun. Comedy, singing, ventriloquism and of course, impressions; perhaps it’s better to coin him merely as an “entertainer” – as he puts it.
No matter the label or title, it’s not only Fator’s mastery of the art of ventriloquism that has set him apart from his peers and gives him notice; it is also the impressions he so effortlessly performs… and winning “America’s Got Talent” probably didn’t hurt either.
I recently spoke with Terry for The Smoking Jacket about his beginnings, losing the care and need for fame and fortune, his upcoming DVD, Terry Fator: Live In Concert, and naturally, how it felt to snag the win on “AGT.”
The Smoking Jacket: Your act is filled with so many things: ventriloquism, impressions, comedy, singing; what do you consider yourself first?
Terry Fator: Honestly, I consider myself an entertainer. I just feel like I was born to entertain, and I try to utilize every part of my personality and any gift that I might have been given to do what I was born to do… to entertain.
TSJ: What was it about ventriloquism in particular that attracted you?
TF: I was about 10 years old and was looking for something I could do. I tried magic, which was fun but it didn’t work out for me. Plus, so many kids were doing magic at the time. When we’d have talent shows, a lot of kids would do magic. So, one day in in my school library I stumbled on this book about ventriloquism. It looked interesting and no one at school was doing it, so I thought this would give me something totally different. And after trying it for just a few hours I realized that I was able to do it rather well. It was a natural inclination for me, and just a few weeks later I bought myself a puppet. Then I started doing shows at school, at birthday parties and at church too.
There came a time when I stopped caring about getting rich and famous and I turned my attention to the audience in front of me.
TSJ: In my mind, the thing that sets you apart is the impressions you do. You’ve seemed to find a way to master two things that are near impossible for so many people: ventriloquism AND impressions. So, where did the interest in impressions come from?
TF: You know, it’s funny; I didn’t even realize I was am impressionist until my late 20s. Someone had to actually point it out for me. I was once in a bar listening to a band… and they were just horrible! I said, “Why don’t they just sing it like the original artist?” My friend looked at me with this funny look and said, “Terry, I think you’re the only person I’ve met who does that.” I was probably 28 and just had no idea no one else did that; it was that natural for me. I guess I didn’t realize I was doing impressions. [laughs]
When I was about 14 I worked for my parents janitorial company and I quickly realized I did not want to do that for my life. So, I would listen to the radio all the time and just try to impersonate the singers I heard on the radio. And I already had an interest in ventriloquism so I would practice singing like the singers without moving my lips.
Also, I was in a cover band for about 15 years and I’d never sing the songs with my own voice. I was doing impressions without realizing it initially. Then I visited Las Vegas and saw an impressionist who was making millions, and I thought to myself, I’m not making millions! [laughs] So I thought maybe I could do that he does but make it different… with puppets! That’s when everything exploded for me. It just kind of happened.
TSJ: Musicians always get accused of lip-syncing. Do you ever get accused of that—which is funny because you don’t move your lips.
TF: [laughs] They used to when I wasn’t focused on the fact that I was an impressionist. But now that I focus on that, nobody does. I would get accused when I was in the cover band A LOT because I’d do impressions as I was singing.
TSJ: Are there any impressions you’re trying to crack today?
TF: I’m always looking for new exciting impressions. I love voices that are unique and different, ones that have a totally different sound.
I just mastered Adele and am honing a Taylor Swift song. I was doing a Justin Bieber impression but he’s not as popular anymore. Who knows what will be popular in the next coming years, but I’m always looking for something new!
TSJ: You’re also not doing impressions most people do. You’re not doing a Jack Nicholson, Johnny Carson, etc.
TF: That’s true! Plus, I’ve never been good at speaking roles. I don’t know what it is but I can’t get them down. It could be that I’m not interested. I can do cartoon voices but doing normal people just bore me. Singing the impressions has always been interesting to me.
I also love the image of a chubby white guy doing Barbra Streisand and not moving his lips. [laughs]
TSJ: I think everyone would agree that ventriloquism is a hard gig to make a living. Every artist finds him or herself going through times thinking why am I doing this and why keep going? So, what kept you going when you knew this was such a tough nut to crack?
TF: The thing that kept me going was the fact that was doing what I loved and I was making a living. I was never going to get rich; I was never going to get famous or get out of debt, and I didn’t care. When I got onstage I didn’t care what the venue was. I loved what I was doing.
There came a time when I stopped caring about getting rich and famous and I turned my attention to the audience in front of me. Whether it was first graders or people at a fair I started thinking that it’s all about being able to do that. Even if I didn’t get rich or famous, it didn’t matter because I was doing it. I was doing what I loved!
There are entertainers out there who have years of experience under their belt who are still doing it, and it’s because they love the hell out of this job. We were born to do this.
TSJ: Do you think it’s harder to gain respect in the industry when doing ventriloquism in your act?
TF: No doubt about that! I don’t think its ventriloquism, however, I think it’s the perception. People perceive puppets as being just a thing for children. The Muppets really helped change that and gear it more towards a family art… even somewhat adult. And I think guys like Jeff Dunham and myself are really making people understand that ventriloquism can be a vehicle to entertain all ages and all types of people; it just depends on what you do with it.
TSJ: So many people so you on “America’s Got Talent.” How was your experience on that show?
TF: It was phenomenal! I Was 42 when I went on “America’s Got Talent.” They worked us to death. [laughs] There was so much involved but I loved every minute of it! I had a smile on my face the entire time. I never expected to win it. I was just so thrilled to be there and to do what I do. It was such an incredible experience!
TSJ: And your new DVD comes out May 20, correct? Your second one. How do you feel about it?
TF: I’m so excited and not nervous at all, believe it or not. I know it’s a quality product. And what’s great is that my show in Las Vegas is completely different material. So, if people buy the DVD and then come see the show they’ll see completely different material.