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When even one of "American Idol" front-runner David Archuleta's performances is called a "mess" by judge Simon Cowell, it is interesting to see who can do no wrong in Cowell's eyes.

That person is Terry Fator, who will perform at the Capitol Theatre on Wednesday.

Fator is, of all things, a family-friendly ventriloquist, and Cowell has called him one of the most talented people in the world.

Fator was featured on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" on March 17 during an episode called, "Simon Cowell Reveals Some of the Most Talented People in the World," and the prickly Cowell said the Texan comic and impersonator was one of the greatest performers he'd ever seen.

Fator nabbed a $1 million prize last year for winning the second season of NBC's "America's Got Talent," a show Cowell executive-produced.

"This has been the busiest year of my career," Fator told The Salt Lake Tribune. "I'm having the time of my life."

Fator is no ordinary ventriloquist, telling corny jokes, though Fator said he promises that members of the audience will laugh like they haven't laughed in a long while.

Fator's unique shtick is that he is a talented mimic and singer, and his puppets impersonate famous singers like Garth Brooks, Roy Orbison, Dean Martin and Natalie Cole. One of the performances on "America's Got Talent" that propelled him to win the ultimate prize was a duet in which Fator impersonated Louis Armstrong on "What a Wonderful World," while his turtle puppet impersonated Kermit the Frog

singing the same tune.

Fator, 42, discovered ventriloquism in grade school when he was flipping through a card catalog looking for a book about Valentine's Day for a school project. He checked out the book, and won his first paycheck - $25 - for a performance at a church picnic, he said.

Before his television appearance, his career had its ups and downs, with one of the low points being when he appeared at a 1,000-seat theater and had only one customer. But after his agent saw Fator impersonating Garth Brooks singing "Friends in Low Places," it was suggested that Fator incorporate that into his act. It wasn't easy, Fator said: It usually takes him about four 10-hour days to master having a puppet sing while Fator's lips don't move.

When auditions for "America's Got Talent" came around, Fator was confident in his act but still daunted by one of judges, Piers Morgan, an "intimidating" British judge known for little patience.

"I was thinking, there's no way I would win," he said. "I gave myself zero percent [chance]."

Incredibly, Morgan and the other judges, Sharon Osbourne and David Hasselhoff, loved Fator, and he ended up winning the competition.

With the prize money, Fator bought his wife an expensive wedding ring and bought a dream house near Dallas.

For his Capitol Theatre gig, Fator promised a much different act from the one he performed at the Utah State Fair last year and the one he gave to miners' families in Huntington last year in a benefit performance, with new characters, jokes and songs.

"It will be spectacular," Fator said.

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* DAVID BURGER can be reached at dburger@sltrib.com or 801-257-8620. Send comments about this story to livingeditor@sltrib.com.

Ventriloquist Terry Fator performs Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City. Tickets are $29 through $49 at http://www.arttix.org or by calling 801-355-ARTS. A limited amount of $89 tickets include meet-and-greet passes.

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