Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 | 3:02 p.m.
Entertainer Terry Fator has reached the halfway mark of his astounding 10-year contract at the Mirage, and on Friday, March 7, his multiple personalities — courtesy of his 16 ventriloquist dolls — will all be onstage for the celebration along with his onstage sidekick and beautiful wife Taylor Makakoa.
The Las Vegas residency has been a remarkable achievement for the 48-year-old singer and comedian who struggled for more than 20 years to get recognition before his big win on Season 2 of “America’s Got Talent.”
“Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would win,” Terry told me years ago.
He amazes with more than 100 uncanny impressions, and sellout audiences have packed his Strip theater since 2008. He reached his 1,000th performance there last May. His $100 million contract is one of the largest entertainment deals in Las Vegas showbiz history.
I remember when he first arrived in Las Vegas talking to him about his life on the road playing summer tent shows as he sought stardom. I will never forget him telling me that for one show, there was only one person in the audience — a young kid. But Terry still performed his entire show.
“It was a 1,000-seat theater with just one customer,” Terry recalled.
It wasn’t until he combined his two talents of impersonations and ventriloquism in 2005 that his life began to change. I talked with him this week and asked him to look back at how far he’s traveled from the rigors of summer rodeo and country shows to television and Strip stardom and to look forward to what comes next.
A fifth anniversary and the start of a sixth year are pretty substantial in your business. Did you ever think you’d really pull it off?
That’s an interesting question because it just never occurred to me that it wouldn’t work. I started doing this professionally when I was 10, but I was 3 years old when I knew that I wanted to entertain. From the time that I was just a little kid, I always assumed that I would be a successful entertainer.
I just always figured one day that I would become famous. It just was kind of a given to me because first of all I knew that I had talent, and second of all I was a very, very hard worker. I didn’t mind putting in the time and the effort. It was just one of those assumptions that I said, “One of these days, it will happen.”
I think when I was 40, I came to that conclusion that it was never going to happen. I was just thrilled and happy to be working and being able to perform for a living, even if I wasn’t going to be famous.
Then at 42, “America’s Got Talent” came along and just changed everything and gave me everything that I’d ever dreamed. I just felt like the product that I offered was something that if people knew about, they would love. I always had that confidence. I don’t feel like it’s arrogance; I feel like it was a real confidence that people, if they could see it, they would love it. That’s really the assumption I always had, and luckily I turned out to be right.
When you played the Hilton at the very beginning as part of the “America’s Got Talent” prize package, did you think of a 10-year deal at the Mirage? And when you got the 10 years at the Mirage, did you think it would last?
Well, my sights were on the Mirage back in the 1980s when I read about Danny Gans’ big, humungous deal. It was a multimillion dollar deal and it was the Mirage, and I thought, “One day I would love to play the Mirage. I had no idea that I was going to end up in the Danny Gans Theater and that it would become the Terry Fator Theater.
That became a goal of mine, to play at the Mirage. The five-year contract came with an option for another five, and when we got the deal, again I really felt that if people would come and see the show that they would be happy and satisfied with it. I didn’t coast. I continued to work very, very hard. I’ve changed the show eight times in the five years I’ve been here. Every year, we’ve added new characters.
I want to make sure that if you come and see my show this year, then come next year, that you’re going to see something different, you’re going to see more comedy. I want to keep doing that so if you come and see me 10 or 15 times, you’re going to see different shows. I think that continues the success because we get a lot of repeat customers.
I’m guessing that it also keeps you on your toes?
Oh, yes, no doubt about that.
What’s the newest change as you go into year six?
Winston the Impersonating Turtle has decided that Las Vegas is way too small for him; he’s gone Hollywood. I stay here because I love Las Vegas. We added Berry Fabulous and Vikki the Cougar, and this year we added a character who was my wife’s cousin from Hawaii just for the Christmas show. So I try to add at least one puppet every year.
You also do an entirely different show every year for Christmas in addition to the regular show?
We’re thinking about taping it this year. We just had a DVD release of the regular show, and I’m told that sales for the first week have been phenomenal. That’s very exciting for me.
Are Taylor and you still loving Las Vegas?
We absolutely love Las Vegas! Just love it! It’s such an honor to live here and be successful here. The people in Las Vegas have been so incredibly supportive of us and as a show. If anybody is ever considering moving to Las Vegas, I say do it. It’s a great place to live.
You look at the next five years; obviously you’ll play out the 10 years of the contract. A number of stars have stuck around here for longer than 10 years. In the back of your mind, have you thought about when you’ll face that decision? To stay or go somewhere else?
My instinct and my longing is to stay here as long as people will come out and see the show. Forbes named me the No. 2 highest-earning comedian in the country, and they put a little asterisk next to my name and said that it must be noted that Terry did more shows than anybody else on this list.
So, yes, I do earn really good money, but I also work more shows than anybody else. My goal is to get to a point where I can continue doing the show, but I don’t have to work 240, 250, 260 days out of the year. That would actually be my big dream.
You have to wait for another five years before you can do that!
That’s fine with me! I’m not burned out yet. I still love doing four, five shows a week and also traveling. I think in another five years, I might start to get a little tired. I’m 50, and once we go these next five years, I think we might start talking about doing less shows. I just love the Mirage. If they’ll keep me, man, I hope we can keep going and going there.
Do you have the secret to troubling Vegas throat? I’m guessing that the toughest part of your act is taking care of the voice day in and day out. If you catch a cold, Emma, Julius, Dougie, Walter and Maynard all catch colds at the same time.
Yes, they do! But I think that I’ve found the secret to Vegas throat, and that’s humidity. Every house I’ve lived in, I’ve lived in four houses since I’ve lived here, I have had professional humidifiers put in. I keep my house at 50 to 60 percent humidity at all times because Vegas throat is really about the dryness.
The interesting thing is not only does it help with keeping your throat lubricated, but it also helps keep you from catching a cold because when your nasal passages become dry, that gives viruses a place to land in your nose, and that’s why you get sick. I use saline nasal spray to keep the nostrils lubricated.
I also add about 15 drops of hydrogen peroxide to a glass of distilled water every morning; I haven’t been sick in over a year. Interestingly, every other person in my show got sick, even my band. I’m the only one who didn’t.
Have you had a cold in the five years that you’ve been here? Have you ever canceled because of Vegas throat?
I’ve never canceled because of Vegas throat, but I did cancel twice because of the flu. It was really bad and at one point was really close to becoming pneumonia. It’s interesting because I have that old mentality of “the show must go on.” It was my doctors who forced me to cancel.
They told me that if I didn’t cancel, they were going to put me in the hospital so that I couldn’t go to the Mirage. I think that I missed just four shows in five years from the flu, but never from Vegas throat. As long as you have that humidity, you’ll never get Vegas throat.
Taylor and you also celebrated a recent wedding anniversary?
We are just deliriously happy. We were married three years in November. We love being together, we love doing things together, we love each other. It’s amazing; we have a fantastic relationship. She’s working and interning with the Heaven Can Wait Animal Society here in Las Vegas, and it’s the first time we’ve not been together almost 24/7 since we’ve been married.
It’s difficult, but I know that it’s for her school and degree, so it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. But I’m looking forward to her being done with school so that we can be together all the time again!
Heaven Can Wait is an organization that works with animals; they are about prevention and helping to spay and neuter animals. They have cut the amount of euthanasia here by a considerable amount. They’re all about education and providing care for animals. It’s a phenomenal program.
She’ll continue being onstage with me, but she’s definitely highly involved in the animal charity, and that’s really what she wants to focus on. Between the two of us, we’ve got it covered. I do all the people charity and military charity, and she does all the animal charities.
We’re having a blast: a five-year celebration, the start of a sixth with a new show, our DVD is out. It was worth all those years of struggling. It doesn’t get better than this.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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