Friday, June 20, 2008

Long-Derided, Terry Fator and His Puppets Get New Respect; the Turtle Does Kermit

After years of performing at elementary schools and state fairs, Dallas-based ventriloquist Terry Fator was on the verge of bankruptcy. Then last summer he earned some money and respectability by winning the "America's Got Talent" show on NBC.

He banked a $1 million prize, and the Las Vegas Hilton signed him to a yearlong, three-day-a-month gig. Still, his win didn't silence the snarky comments about ventriloquists. At the time, talk-show host Bill Maher quipped: "A ventriloquist won 'America's Got Talent' contest, proving that America does not have talent."

The 43-year-old Mr. Fator is used to such slights. Even contest judge David Hasselhoff openly sneered when Mr. Fator and his puppets first appeared on the show, "Oh no, not a ventriloquist!"

Mr. Fator eventually won him over with puppets such as Winston the impersonating turtle, who performed a dead-on imitation of Kermit the Frog singing "What a Wonderful World" and Roy Orbison belting "Crying (Over You)."

"We've been fighting a stigma for years and I hope I can be the one to change that," Mr. Fator says.

Despite an entrenched bias against practitioners of this old-fashioned art form, the past year has brought a wave of good fortune for ventriloquism, long-derided as the province of children's birthday parties and the lowest form of humor, barely a step above mimes.

Jay Johnson, 58, who starred on the TV show "Soap" three decades ago as a schizophrenic ventriloquist, won a Tony award last June for his autobiographical Broadway show, "The Two and Only." Jeff Dunham's recent Comedy Central special -- a first for a ventriloquist -- was one of the highest-rated specials on the network and his DVD has sold a half-million copies. Videos of ventriloquists on YouTube have helped draw younger fans.

'Figures of Speech'

Two filmmakers are documenting the world of ventriloquists. Former "West Wing" writer Mark Goffman has been following six ventriloquists through the year for his documentary, "Figures of Speech." The title refers to the fact that many ventriloquists now refer to their sidekicks as "figures" rather than dummies, in an effort to combat negative stereotypes.
For years, ventriloquists couldn't get any respect in the entertainment world. But after Terry Fator won the "America's Got Talent" contest last August, the practitioners of this old-fashioned art form are hitting the spotlight again. (June 20)

This fall, former Chicago theater director Bryan Simon will debut his documentary, "I'm No Dummy," in part a paean to bygone ventriloquist stars, including Edgar Bergen and his tuxedo-clad, monocle-wearing dummy Charlie McCarthy.

Ventriloquism fell out of favor in the mid-1970s after the TV variety show faded from the airwaves, taking along a national forum for vaudevillian-type acts ranging from talking puppets to plate spinners. Live comedy clubs existed solely for stand-up comics and their monologues.

"There was a bias in the clubs against any comedy but pure comedy," says Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Fator says the popularity of 1960s ventriloquists such as Señor Wences on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and Paul Winchell and Jimmy Nelson on Saturday morning children's TV led to an explosion in lazy performers and bad acts -- which hastened ventriloquism's fall from grace. Two years ago, the field was at such a low ebb, the Maher Ventriloquists Studios, the country's oldest maker of dummies and a popular home ventriloquism course, closed its doors after 70 years in business

Filmmaker Mr. Goffman's interest in the subject was sparked by his mother-in-law, a second-grade teacher who uses ventriloquism to keep students engaged. He traveled with her to a yearly ventriloquist convention in Fort Mitchell, Ky., home to Vent Haven, a ventriloquism museum. The museum houses classic puppets such as Farfel, a dog who pitched Nestlé's Quik on Saturday-morning TV.

"It started as a fun, quirky project to take me out of L.A. and I was won over by the art form and the people," says Mr. Goffman, whose film follows a gospel ventriloquist, a former Miss Ohio beauty-pageant contestant and Mr. Fator, among others.

Mr. Goffman has recorded the performers' rise in bookings in the past year, as Mr. Fator's win on national TV gave a boost to the profession. Now, when they announce they're ventriloquists, "people don't just walk away like they used to," Mr. Goffman says.

David Letterman, host of CBS's "Late Show," provided another boost. On a lark, he walked into a production meeting two years ago and told his writers and producers they ought to do a week showcasing ventriloquists. The first week was such a success, he repeated it this fall.

"Ventriloquism is such a simple form of comedy, but it always works," says Eric Stangel, a head writer on Mr. Letterman's show. "You know you're going to have a big guy with a smaller guy saying things he shouldn't say, but it's still funny. It was not the kind of thing you see on other shows."

Headlining in Vegas

In February 2007, Mr. Fator auditioned his act for three different Las Vegas producers; each one told him he wasn't "Vegas material." This May, he signed a $100 million, five-year deal to headline at Vegas's Mirage hotel, beginning Feb. 14. Now he has a full-time manager, road manager, publicist, and a team of writers.

In a recent sold-out show in the Las Vegas Hilton's 1,650-seat theater, Mr. Fator whipped through six puppets and more than a dozen songs, with the aid of a scantily clad showgirl, a seven-piece band and a stage with his name in 16-foot-high letters. He showcased his newest puppets, an Elvis impersonator and Julius, an African-American soul singer he described as a former member of the "Five Tops" and "Earth, Wind, Fire and Water."

Dinner With Robin Leach

After the show, Mr. Fator and his wife, a former receptionist at a veterinary hospital, were joined at dinner by former "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" host Robin Leach, who writes a daily celebrity news blog. Mr. Leach instructed Mr. Fator on the finer points of being a star, scolding him when he ordered a doggie bag for the remainder of his pasta dinner. Next time, Mr. Leach admonished him, have the hotel send the food up to his room. "Your fans will want to shake your hand as you walk through the lobby, and they don't want to see a soggy doggie bag," he said.

As he works to continue broadening his appeal, Mr. Fator is cutting back on the country music in his act, and plans to add a gay puppet, a "cougar" -- an older female who lusts after younger men -- and a beetle puppet that sings Beatles songs.

This fall, the ventriloquist will have the last laugh on those who doubted his ability to make it to the big time. He's publishing an autobiography called: "Who's the Dummy Now?"

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