Terry Fator, the ventriloquist from the Dallas area who hit it big on America’s Got Talent, performs with Winston the turtle in Las Vegas

Terry Fator, the ventriloquist from the Dallas area who hit it big on America’s Got Talent, performs with Winston the turtle in Las Vegas

Puppet Boy Entertainment

Jason Raff, executive producer of America’s Got Talent, has a warm spot in his heart for the city of Dallas.

It’s partly because Terry Fator, the show’s biggest success story, was a Dallas find. After winning the Season 2 title in 2007, the ventriloquist and celebrity impressionist went from performing at county fairs and elementary schools to headlining on the Las Vegas Strip.

But Raff, who has been with the show since its first summer season in 2006, also loves holding open auditions in Dallas because the talent pool never seems to disappoint.

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“I like to think of Dallas as our good-luck charm,” says Raff, who wraps up a 12-city nationwide talent search Saturday with auditions at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. “We keep coming back, year after year, because it’s been good to us.”

Talking by phone from Los Angeles, Raff offered a few tips that might help aspiring entertainers cut through the clutter when they try out.

What are these auditions like? Is the environment similar to the show, where there’s a little bit of everything happening at the same time, a circus-meets-Ed Sullivan Show madhouse?

If you come to our holding room, there’s a little bit of everything going on. You’ll encounter just about every kind of variety act as you wait to audition: a juggler over here, a plate-spinner over there, a doo-wop singing group practicing in the bathroom.

I’ve had someone come into the room in Texas and their talent was to do an up-do hairstyle. You never know what you’re going to get. It makes the day fun.

What does an America’s Got Talent hopeful need to do to catch your eye?

Obviously talent is an important thing. But we’re also looking for star quality and charisma. When we’re looking at thousands of people, we’re looking for people who stand out from the crowd. It might be what they wear or how they talk or if they’ve got a good story.

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Part of the reason we still travel around the country, even though we also accept online submissions, is we want to see people’s personalities. We want to talk to them.

A big part of our show is when an act comes onstage and the judges ask a couple of questions and we learn about them and start to root for them even before they start performing. Sometimes a video can’t tell us whether we’re going to get that from a performer.

So your deceptively simple advice is be talented and don’t be shy?

Even if you’re not confident, pretend that you are. Keep your chin up. That said, it’s OK to be nervous. I’ve had people in the room forget the lyrics to songs and we let them do it again usually. We try to put people at ease because we want people who have never auditioned for anything to come out.

We’re all about finding hidden gems that would normally never dream of auditioning for a show, but they’ve been urged by friends or family who believe in them. We welcome anyone and everyone, because you never know when or where you’re going to find your next star.

Can you tell immediately when you’ve encountered the next breakout star?

Sometimes but not always. I remember when Terry Fator came into the room. To be perfectly honest, I was like, “Oh, God, another ventriloquist.” Then he broke out with the Natalie Cole song, “Unforgettable,” and my jaw dropped.

I knew right then and there. I was like, “Oh, my gosh, this guy’s life is going to change.” That’s when you get goose bumps. That’s my favorite part about doing this show.

By David Martindale / Special Contributor

Plan your life

Open-call auditions for America’s Got Talent are from 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, 650 S. Griffin St., Dallas. Anyone interested in auditioning can register at americasgottalentauditions.com. Online auditions are also available there through March.

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