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[The Strip Sense]

Pimp My Puppet

Terry Fator, the Mirage’s new $100 million man, must market himself to be successful

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Photo: Benjamen Purvis

The news that the impressionist-ventriloquist-puppeteer Terry Fator would be taking over the showroom at the Mirage after Danny Gans crosses the street to bore Steve Wynn’s customers at Encore with a 20-year-old act came as something of a shock.

And, after some careful consideration, I’ve decided it’s shocking in a good way. It was a close call.

In one rather sudden move, Fator became probably the most successful reality-TV contestant ever, Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken and Carrie Underwood of American Idol included. If the figures reported by Robin Leach and Norm Clarke are to be believed, he’s about to earn $100 million for five years’ work at the Mirage, a gargantuan sum for a guy who was nearly laughed out the door at America’s Got Talent by judges David Hasselhoff and Sharon Osbourne. A little more than a year ago, goes the story that will be in every single profile you’ll ever read about Fator, he was ready to give up on his entertainment career altogether when he found himself playing to a virtually empty hall.

What’s so surprising is not that MGM Mirage thought he’d make an interesting choice for the room soon to be formerly known as the Danny Gans Theater. It’s that they decided to risk that much money and that long a commitment on someone who has not yet proved to have staying power.

In other words, the company that is constantly being beaten up on for playing it safe with as many Cirque du Soleil productions as it can possibly house has taken a genuine, if calculated, risk. That, in and of itself, is awfully refreshing.

Still, I’m hoping that Fator doesn’t think he can just coast now, knowing he is now part of a formidable marketing machine with cross-marketing tentacles reaching into tens of thousands of hotel rooms. If he does that, he will someday end up with such embarrassing headlines as the one in July 2002 regarding Gans in the Los Angeles Times that asked, “Las Vegas Loves Who?”

Yes, Terry, if you’re reading, I have a few suggestions for how you might avoid becoming the next Danny Gans. That is, how you might avoid a stagnant but lucrative career to go along with a public reputation for being difficult.

• Define yourself. You’re a terrific performer, but one who is difficult to explain in just a few words. The few words that do come to mind are fraught with negative, childish or vaudevillian connotations, particularly the part with the puppets and the ventriloquism. One of my podcaster colleagues, Tim Dressen of Five Hundy By Midnight, inadvertently proved this point by dismissively describing your act using some of those words. He’s not incorrect, but there’s got to be a better way to explain it.

Of course, there is an upside to this problem: If people leave having a hard time articulating what they just saw, they may just say, “I can’t describe it, but you just have to go see it.” That could happen. But it’s a risk, and word-of-mouth is not known to travel well in a city with this much constant turnover and a show-goer base utterly immune to local media influence.

• Pimp yourself. All of this is why you must be indefatigable at getting yourself out there in as many media as possible as often as possible. Your appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman was a great first move after your big Mirage announcement. Now do it as often as you’re invited. Get an agent who can land you voice parts in Pixar flicks and on The Simpsons, too. Pimp the puppet turtle and the other characters, too; consider getting an animated show or weekly Sunday print cartoon similar to that of Mac King. Create only-for-web content. Do charity benefits, lots of them. Become a part of the Vegas scene. If ever there’s a chance for a sitcom, figure out a way to make it happen. Do anything and everything to make sure that your fame doesn’t stop on the tarmac at McCarran.

• Keep it new. Yes, you got this far on some tried-and-true bits. They’re great. But please, please, please, keep shaking it up. That Gans is still doing George Burns, Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Clinton bits at this stage is one of the reasons he’s become a joke. It reflects a laziness and arrogance that no performer expecting people to spend $100+ a seat should ever possess.

I’m rooting for Fator. I’m a sucker for an overnight-success-15-years-in-the-making tale, I also think his act is ingenious and truly original. He seems humble when appropriate and self-confident when necessary. He is, in so many ways, the embodiment of that only-in-America story of what happens when persistence, creativity and luck align.

A few months ago, after his deal for 2008 at the Las Vegas Hilton was announced with the surprise disclosure of his salary—$100,000 a show for 15 shows—we had Fator on our Internet radio program and podcast, The Strip.

Egged on by folks in our chat room listening to the live recording, I asked the burning but impertinent question: “Do you really think you’re worth $100,000 a show?”

Fator didn’t blink.

“Absolutely. I think I’m worth more than $100,000 a show. … Somebody told me that Larry the Cable Guy is making $150,000 or $200,000 a show. I figure I’m worth that at least.”

What’s telling about this exchange is that, at $20 million a year for 240 show dates at the Mirage, Fator’s actually taking a pay cut to $83,333 an appearance.

Why would someone who thinks he’s worth so much more settle for so much less? Job security, obviously. But also because Fator clearly has put a premium on the honor of Vegas glory.

That’s a really good sign. And, in this day and age, shocking, too. In a good way.

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Steve Friess

Steve Friess is a freelance journalist based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His work has appeared in the New York Times, ...

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