See who’s pulling the strings on Terry Fator’s puppets
Terry Fator is one the most talented entertainers on the Las Vegas Strip, but his fans don’t pay big money just to see him. Sure, they want to hear Fator impeccably mimic the singing voices of legends like Etta James and Garth Brooks, but given that he’s a ventriloquist, what they really want is to hear those voices come out of the mouths of Fator’s now-famous cast of puppets. Roy Orbison coming out of Fator’s mouth? Impressive. Roy Orbison from the mouth of Winston the Impersonating Turtle? Gold!
And that’s precisely the reaction Fator wants. Every single puppet comes from the deep reaches of his imagination, each one the embodiment of whatever voice he feels like throwing at the moment. It’s not just the voices; Fator wants his audience to connect with every character—because in a way, they’re part of who he is.
Fator works with the industry’s top talents to achieve these singular visions: California-based Steve Axtell, who specializes in latex and soft sculpture, created Vikki the Cougar and Hawaiian singer Kani Kapila; New Jersey-based Puppet Heap, which manufactures Muppet-like puppets, is responsible for the majority of the puppets Fator currently uses, including Winston; and Las Vegas-based Randy Simper, whose credits include the television show Alf, created Fator’s Beatle puppet, Hyphen, which Fator envisioned as having traits of every Beatle. “Fans come up to me after and say, ‘I’m so glad you made one based on Paul McCartney,’ or ‘I’m so glad you made one based on John Lennon,’ or Ringo Starr. It’s hilarious how they all see their favorite Beatle, which was exactly what I wanted,” Fator said.
But Fator is foremost a traditionalist, preferring whenever possible to use ventriloquist dummies with heads carved out of basswood. “When I was young, I used to get lots of basswood and try to carve my own puppets. I just had zero talent in that ability. They always ended up looking like monsters.”
Fator’s mastermind in this area is Keith Lovik, whose family has manufactured every style of puppet for almost 50 years. In fact, it was Lovik’s father, Craig, who sold Fator his first professional puppet, Walter T. Airdale, when Fator was in his teens. (He uses that puppet to this day.) Lovik, who took over the business and is now based in Seattle, focuses almost exclusively on wood-based puppets. He met Fator before the ventriloquist won big on America’s Got Talent, and now works only with Fator. Lovik says the two have a fruitful working relationship. “The majority of people I deal with are either kind of crazy or really old or really young,” Lovik said. “I had a person one time call me trying to order a hand, and it took me a long time to figure out that they were actually doing their act, so it was their puppet ordering for itself. Terry is normal, and he’s not changed at all. He’s still a super-nice guy.”
Lovik’s creations for Fator include Berry Fabulous, Bing and Fator’s newest puppet, Rusty the Robot, already a big hit with audiences. Lovik creates every puppet completely from scratch, and every detail is customized for Fator’s style of puppetry, including all the mechanisms in the heads that audiences can’t see. “Everything is custom,” Lovik said. “There’s felt wrap so every puppet is soft on the inside, so Terry is comfortable and doesn’t hurt himself or shave his knuckles off.”
And, as with all Fator’s puppets, Fator is actively involved in the process, which can often take nine months to a year. It starts with a sketch reflecting Fator’s concept. Once Fator approves the sketch, Lovik starts sculpting a head out of oil-based clay. Once the head is completed and Fator approves, Lovik creates a two-part plaster mold, eventually making a master head out of latex. To create the wooden heads, Lovik places the masters on a machine called a duplicator. “It has a stylus on one head and next to it is a router. I take the block of wood and connect it to the router side and then the master head sits on the stylus side. As I trace the character, it carves the head out of the wood block.”
Once the wooden head is finished, Lovik paints all facial details and installs the necessary hardware. Every character also gets a unique set of hands. For his Monty Carlo puppet, Lovik created a hand that could hold a martini glass, “which is a lot more difficult than it sounds.”
Rusty the Robot presented a unique challenge for Lovik. Unlike most other puppets, Rusty wouldn’t be covered with clothes, and although the original figure was hand-carved from basswood, it was just too heavy. “I try to make every puppet under 10 pounds, because otherwise it starts taxing his hand. If I built this original style, he would be a 30- or 40-pound figure, which is just way too heavy.”
To make the figure lighter, Lovik used epoxy putty for the head and 3-D printed the body and limbs out of plastic.
While Fator certainly has an impressive cadre of “performers” (15-plus and growing), many more are likely to come. “My favorite part of success is that my creativity is no longer limited by my financial ability,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many dozens of ideas I’ve had growing up that I just didn’t have the finances to implement. Now I can tell someone, ‘This is what I want.’ It’s just an incredible feeling.”
The Mirage, 7:30 p.m. Mon.-Thurs., additional show 7:30 p.m. May 9, $59.99-$149.99 MVP Experience, plus tax and fee, 5+. 702.792.7777