NEVERLAND, HO! A day with Strip headliner Terry Fator means sailing into his Peter Pan world
“I’ve sunshine enough to spread / It’s just like the fella said / Tell me quick, ain’t that a kick in the head?” — Terry Fator launching his show at The Mirage with a Dean Martin classic
Ain’t it, though — ya know, a kick in the head? That someone can seem so surreally out of sync with their surroundings — and yet, be synonymous with them?
Imagine the incongruity of a man who, by his own admission, is an overgrown kid who earns a (very lucrative) living onstage by playing with puppets — in a place where “What happens here, stays here” promises decidedly grownup thrills. A man who, offstage, nurtures his Peter Pan soul with innocent delights — in a flashing neon Neverland of big-stakes gaming. A man who, since 2009, has vastly entertained nearly 1.7 million show-goers, crowning him one of the Strip’s biggest tourist draws and earning him status as a vivacious Vegas ambassador — but whose ebullience reaches new heights when he’s entertaining … himself.
Visit Vegas’ marquee ventriloquist during non-puppeteering hours and you find him in a home that, once you pass through the front doors in this serenely elegant Southern Highlands neighborhood, is equal parts medieval castle and video arcade — with a generous dollop of Toys “R” Us.
You are also now inside the existential conundrum of Terry Fator: Nothing about who he is seems to match up with where he is. Not that it bothers him one whit. “I’m just a huge, huge child,” declares the 53-year-old without a scintilla of sheepishness. “I don’t grow up.” Amen to that.
Now rewind to nine hours before show time (cue those harp glissandos that accompany flashback scenes in cheesy TV shows) and come on into this deliciously offbeat domicile — think of it as Terryland — he shares with his wife, Angie. Let all 8,500 feet of this (fun)house — in Dino’s immortal words — hit your eye like a big pizza pie.
Swiveling your head around for a 360-degree eyeful of this side-street citadel, one can almost hear the voice of Billy Crystal in The Princess Bride: “Have fun storming the castle!” Its lord and master does not disagree, though he cites a different cinematic analogy.
“This house reminds me of Harry Potter. People tell me they’ve never seen a house remotely like this,” says this big-boy Lost Boy, peering up into the lofty rafters crisscrossed by European-made ceiling beams. Dangling off them are gothic chandeliers that, in fact, look like they’ve been purloined from a Potter set. They vibe nicely with the similarly-styled fireplace. The kind you can walk around in.
While strolling through, be mindful not to jostle the suit of armor in the hallway (which we assume is strictly for display, and not Fator’s lounge-around-the-house-wear). Christmas decorations in August? Permanent — the beams are too high to safely cart them down. Besides, the Fators celebrate the December holiday until February.
That’s except where portraits of Batman (the Adam West version, because “all the rest are just copies”) and Catwoman, plus a Groot rug from Guardians of the Galaxy claim their own mini-fiefdoms of wall space and floor spread. Given that they dominate another portion of the house — in “one of my playrooms,” he says — they don’t thematically clash with the American flag-laden Uncle Sam dolls (Fator’s a passionate patriot), the pool table and the haunted-mansion chess set.
Décor-wise, these are merely highlights in a house that’s a landlocked Fantasy Island. And perhaps knowing the childhood hell he endured places these childlike predilections into context.
“My dad beat me and it was awful,” says the Dallas-born entertainer, who often speaks candidly of his painful past. “I would go to the library and lose myself in Peanuts books, shelves of them. I would sit there for eight hours in the summer. It’s like (cartoonist Charles Schulz) helped get me through my childhood.”
Pop culture may be the overriding design concept, but it doesn’t eclipse life’s little conveniences here — say, the wine cabinet housing 2,000-plus bottles; the couple’s bedroom, including a bathroom urinal (“every man should have one in his home,” Fator declares); and an attached steam room, into which he proudly steps to show it off, his voice bottoming out into an echo … echo … echo … Then there’s the retractable walls, which draw him directly into the mist-speckled orbit of his cascading waterfalls, providing more tranquility than a warehouse full of Valium.
Therein lies another quality that defines Fator, as it does with many creative types: personality contradictions, which are way more interesting than consistency. Though this visual collision of peacefulness (the waterfalls) and cacophony (everything else) might drain the color from the faces of most interior designers, it is fiercely individualistic and undeniably fascinating.
One element, however, is conspicuously undetectable: There is no ventriloquism vibe in this ventriloquist’s lair. Nowhere does the season-two America’s Got Talent champ and nearly decade-long Mirage headliner display the inanimate co-stars he expertly animates onstage.
Those little wisecrackers — Winston the impersonating turtle, soul singer Julius, drug-tinged Duggie, flirty Vicki the Cougar, Elvis impersonator Maynard Tompkins and country warbler Walter T. Airdale — are work tools that have no place in his playpen. Even Michael Jackson, Paul McCartney, Elton John and Donald Trump — yes, his puppet facsimiles, right down to Elton’s glitter glasses and Trump’s custard-like hair swirl — are discreetly out of view.
Do they have an in-house movie theater/game room? Do you have to ask? This is where Terry Fator conducts his most strenuous relaxing.
“Oh, man, you’re in for a treat!” he enthuses in his own semi-Cineplex, with touches including a jukebox and a popcorn machine. Cranking up Avengers: Infinity War to a bone-rattling decibel level that could make your ears run for cover, he promises: “This will knock your socks off! But let’s get a little John Wick in here now!” Fator’s on a techno high. And he’s not coming down.
“I’m like a Blu-Ray store,” he says. “I’ve got a Laser 4-K projector, the best 4-K projector that’s possible to get at home. The only upgrade is the one they have in the movie theaters. It’s crazy amazing!”
Enter The Missus. Via Skype. Angie, the lady of the (fun)house — Fator’s third spouse — is in Atlanta to support her sister during her sibling’s surgery. Sweet endearments, medical updates and small talk are exchanged, and Fator’s great-niece pops into frame for an enthusiastic chime-in, but one observation floats above the din.
“Sean Hannity showed it to him,” Fator says about the political gabber and the President, who viewed a clip of Fator manipulating mini-Trump onstage. “I got his approval,” he tells Angie. “He didn’t hate it.” Hey, take your compliments — however backhanded — where you can get ’em.
“Can’t wait to see you, my sweet, hold you in my arms. I wanna tell you how much I love you,” he coos to his wife. “I love you too, baby,” she coos back.
Enough gushy stuff. Puppetboy isn’t done getting his geek on.
Upstairs in a guest bedroom — now joined by Fator’s assistant and publicist — we’re in for another techie trek, this time via virtual reality, with Fator as director, rather than competitor. Trussing up his trusting publicist in VR headgear till she looks like a flummoxed cyborg, he excitedly talks her through a faux-reality journey across a fantastical computer-generated landscape. Doesn’t everyone get their ya-ya’s out by slicing make-believe airborne fruit with a pretend ninja sword?
Real reality now intrudes as Fator conducts a phone confab with one of his writers to chat about a Christmas DVD he’s planning. But that’s grownup stuff. Today’s kiddie-like kicks aren’t done. FedEx is here with a delivery of … stuffed dolls. Specifically, Winnie the Pooh characters from Christopher Robin. Fiddling with the fur balls, Fator lets loose a delighted “hee-hee-hee!” and snaps selfies with the faux-critters for Facebook posting.
We had fun storming the castle! Now, though, we must leave Pooh and Potter and Batman and Snoopy and Mickey and blown-to-bits video villains behind as we depart Terryland. Work — i.e., promoting Terry Fator — must intrude. Boarding a Sprinter party bus, the Fator entourage decamps first at theater venue The Space, just off West Tropicana Avenue.
Here, Fator is the featured guest on the All the Vegas podcast anchored by local entertainment journalist Brock Radke and actor/personality Mark Shunock. Yet the hosts need only drop in a few well-timed questions, and their loquacious interviewee spins anecdote after anecdote after anecdote.
Taking a lunchbreak fiesta at El Bandido on Hughes Center Drive, a hungry Fator doesn’t merely eat but nearly inhales the shared taco/tortilla/tamale feast. “I was gonna low-carb it, but when I tasted this, I was like, aw, screw it!” he exclaims. “Hey, are there any more chips? … Oooh, is anyone else gonna eat this? …”
Only one other pre-show commitment on today’s schedule is an interview at KLAS-TV Channel 8. After catnapping in the waiting room, he springs to animated exuberance before the cameras — Winston the Turtle finally freed from his carrying case and alive on his arm — as he (and Winston) are questioned by hosts Courtney Perna and JC Fernandez.
Back home at the castle, Fator wants to nap again, so we’ll take this opportunity to flash forward (cue the sped-up whooshing sound from those cheesy TV scenes) …
Thirty minutes to Terry Fator show time at the Terry Fator Theatre. Between forkfuls of dinner, what is Terry Fator doing in his dressing room — a compact, knickknack-crammed version of his sprawling, knickknack-crammed house?
Playing Xbox (well, duh!). It’s not only how he relaxes. It’s how he revs up.
Around two dozen players are online with him, joining forces to take out their targets. Except … Fator’s been thrown for an X-loop.
“Oh, shoot, what is this? Something is killing me. Crap! This is hard!” he exclaims, the realization dawning that the game has been updated by the manufacturer, ratcheting up the difficulty level. “WHAT IS HAPPENING?”
Video surrender is not an option. Just wait for it … targets are dropping again, disintegrating into pixilated dust.
“Oooh, mama! Oooh, we did it! WAHOO!”
Backstage in Vegas — the flaming hotbed of grownup pleasures — a middle-aged Peter Pan nurtures his never-grow-up soul.
Ain’t that a kick in the head?