SALEM, Va. – After the winner of "America's Got Talent" was crowned, the world now knows the name of Darci Lynne Farmer, the 12-year-old singing ventriloquist who captured the hearts of America and the million-dollar prize money that came with the title. But what you might not know is that one of the on-stage puppets she performed with is actually from our area.
"Oscar," the cute mouse puppet she carried on stage with her through a variety of performances on the show, was made by a mother-daughter duo in Salem. Mom Mary Ann Taylor and Melissa Taylor operate MAT Puppets. They are just as excited about Darci winning as the rest of Darci's family.
"You kind of feel like you are part of Team Darci," Melissa said.
"I get nervous when I see them perform. Just like I'm the mother... watching my child up there,” said Mary Ann, who started the business 30 years ago after her husband decided to entertain, becoming a ventriloquist.
"We were just thrilled to death that Oscar got to be on camera with Darci,” Mary Ann said.
Her husband soon after gave the hobby up, but Mary Ann kept going, becoming a world-renowned puppet maker. She said as soon as she found that Darci would be performing with Oscar on "America’s Got Talent," she was glued to the television every night it aired.
"We would get excited. We were encouraging all of our friends to vote and all of that, and it wasn't because we made the puppet, it's because we love Darci,” Melissa said.
Both women worked with Darci and her mother to create the perfect puppets. “She is one of the sweetest children you will ever meet,” Mary Ann said. “She has a talent on the inside and the out. I think that will truly shine that she is the real deal.”
While you won't see a storefront in Salem, their creations are widely known internationally in the ventriloquist world.
"I think a lot of people who know what we do don't quite realize the global reach we have. I would say about half of our business is international,” Melissa said.
"We fly under the radar and we just enjoy going out to our office and clipping foam and making the puppets and have no problem with the others getting the spotlight,” Mary Ann said.
Like parents proud of their creation and their new-found friend Darci, they say the pair's introduction was fate. Darci found Oscar through a mutual friend who happened to be Darci's coach, Gary Owen. Gary had previously purchased Oscar from MAT Puppets.
“Ventriloquists often fall in love with a puppet, but don’t know what they will do with it yet. They may not have a plan for it yet, but know they have to have it. Almost like what we would do with a pair of shoes,” Melissa said. "Gary happened to have one of our little figures sitting around his house that he just liked but didn't have plans for... this little mouse puppet. As he was working with Darci and Darci needed another figure, it was just a little match. There was this little mouse that Gary had in his home that needed a job, and Darci needed another figure. She was going out on these auditions. So Oscar found his home. Sometimes it's just serendipity."
A match that just made Darci $1 million richer.
There are many famous MAT Puppets out in the world already -- characters you probably already know. MAT Puppets have quite the famous clientele, including Darci's idol, another singing ventriloquist, Terry Fator, who won "America’s Got Talent" in a previous season. The duo performed together this season.
There’s also a viral video of a puppet Donald Trump floating around on YouTube. He’s MAT-made, a custom job from a client the Taylors would not reveal. Comedic sensation Jeff Dunham also has a MAT original. Peanut, his puppet, was also created by MAT, and reproduced multiple times whenever he needs a replacement.
“He is just the nicest guy,” Mary Ann said.
The two explained that although they create the body of the puppet, it's really up to each ventriloquist to bring these puppets to life. Each puppet can take weeks or even months to make, because of the labor-intensive process. They said their quickest turnout, however, was three days. The two work with each client to custom-design the features of the puppets to really give them that sense of character.
"I love people bringing them alive,” Mary Ann said, admitting that was her favorite part. She said she especially loves creating her own, and taking them to a yearly ventriloquist convention. “I love it when someone finds one that I have created just how I like and can give it a personality.”
Melissa said it’s hard to count how many they make each year, but she estimates around 30, give or take some. Growing up watching her mother, Mary Ann says Melissa is taking the lead these days. She has become an expert in her mother’s trade. It’s a full-time business for the duo that's not only providing a career for others around the world, but now has made one of their clients a millionaire.
"I am so thrilled that we can make a product that people can go to nursing homes, schools, cruise lines and they can make a living and support their families. That thrills me,” Mary Ann said.