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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jun. 20, 2018 2 years ago

McCurdy's Comedy Theatre celebrates labor of love's 30th anniversary

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Pam and Les McCurdy have dedicated their lives to keeping Sarasotans laughing for the past 30 years.
by: Niki Kottmann Managing Editor of Arts and Entertainment

Pam and Les McCurdy never planned to open a comedy club. In fact, they were on track to becoming successful professional performers, but a desire to settle near the ocean and make people laugh changed their plans.

So what’s their secret to running this unexpected business that’s still popular 30 years later? A dedicated heart leading the operation.

“A lot of people look at this business and they see me because I’m the face — they think Pam’s the helper, but it’s really the other way around,” Les says. “They all look at me because I’m the guy. But nope. The reason you have this place here is because of her.”

A MATCH IS MADE

Les McCurdy graduated with a theater degree from University of Memphis before finding himself in Denver falling in love with stand-up comedy.

Pam McCurdy attended Florida State University on a full ride and graduated cum laude. 

Amy Schumer performed three times at the theater, where she performed improv for the first time ever. Courtesy photo

So, it makes sense that when the pair met in 1982 in Sarasota while working at Bennigan’s — Pam was an MFA student at FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training and Les was beginning his comedy career —  they hit it off. But she moved to New York City shortly after and started getting walk-on roles on soap operas. They  reunited in 1987 and married. Les says the natural progression was to move to Los Angeles to pursue their performance careers — but the couple didn’t have much money and didn’t like the idea of living in LA.

Instead, they decided to go where they envisioned being at the end of their life with the plan to move backwards. So, in 1988 they moved into a house on Siesta Key. Les spent 10 days a month touring with the comedy act he had developed, and Pam took a job waiting tables at Crab and Fin.

The sole comedy club in Sarasota at the time, Giggles, soon went out of business, and that got Pam thinking. 

GETTING THEIR START

“Had she ever taken a business class? No,” Les says. “Ever run a business? No. But she wanted this. She said we could do this. This was her vision, and it scared the s*** out of me.”

Les says they didn’t have the money to start their own club, so they first decided to seek out a pre-existing lounge space they could use a few times a week. The couple looked everywhere from the Manatee River to the Peace River, but they couldn’t find a restaurant or hotel to collaborate with them.

Comic Rosie O’Donnell, center stage, sits between Pam and Les McCurdy along with the theater’s staff when McCurdy’s was still housed at the former Teatro Movie Theater. Courtesy photo

The Holiday Inn Airport Marina had a lounge that was perfect, but it turned Les down three times. After exhausting their other options, Pam told him to try again. Knowing that she wouldn’t let it go, Les listened to his wife.

And it paid off.

They started hosting shows in their first space in June 1988. It was the off season, so the father and two sons who owned the hotel agreed to give the pop-up club a try every Friday through Sunday for six months.

“I think we opened it with $1,000 in the bank,” Les says. “We just hit the streets and canvassed this area and the first weekend, we made a profit … From that point on, it was solid.”

Bobby Collins is the longest continuous yearly celebrity headliner in McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre history. Courtesy photo

After their first year, Pam quit her job waiting tables to run the operation. In 1993, Les stopped touring to be home for their daughter, who was born in 1994.

In 1991, they brought in their first celebrity. Before that, shows had consisted of mainly regional comics, many based in Tampa, Atlanta and Miami. But when they got Jeff Foxworthy to take the stage, Les says the business changed forever.

They sold more than 1,000 tickets over the course of the weekend, and that proved this market could monetarily support celebrity shows, Les says. They continued to grow and build their reputation, bringing in everyone from Jeff Dunham to Tommy Chong, and gained a following over the next 10 years.

But in 1998, they found themselves without a space.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

“We were unceremoniously booted out of the Holiday Inn — they called us one day and said ‘you’re out now,’” Les says, which happened after another company bought the hotel.

Black Diamond Burlesque is the in-house burlesque troupe for McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre. Courtesy photo

For the next three years, the couple made the side bar of Big Kitchen restaurant on Clark Road their version of a comedy club. All they had was a small sign in the window to alert drivers of the comedic refuge that could barely seat 100 people, but they had the passion to continue — and soon a vision their own building.

After two-and-a -alf years, the McCurdys found the old Teatro Movie Theater on North Trail that had been abandoned in the back of a strip mall. They opened their first noncollaborative space two weeks after 9/11.

“We thought we were screwed,” Les says, thinking residents had more serious worries like a war on terror to keep them occupied. “But we sold out the opening with David Brenner. Americans wanted that diversion and probably need it.”

After 14 years, the couple moved their theater to its current location on Ringling Boulevard, where it’s been ever since.

LOOKING BACK

Les says they didn’t start a business to live in a mansion and drive a Mercedes. For them, it’s always been about making the theater as great as it can be.

Ken Sons, Tommy Chong, Les McCurdy and Cheech Marin pose after a show. Tommy Chong performed at McCurdy's several times between '95 and '05. Courtesy photo

“After 30 years, a lot of people our age would be on cruise control, but not us,” he says, noting that it’s always been about catering to the community. “It’s nice when you realize they’re coming not just because it’s a comedy club, but because it’s you.”

Pam agrees: “Even after 30 years the future still holds so much,” she says. “I love that our community has embraced it as what you need to take care of yourself — laughter therapy.”

Asked about their favorite memories from the past three decades, the couple speaks for 30-some minutes about everything from being the first comedy club in Florida to host Tracy Morgan (and laughing about how awfully dirty his act was, causing almost 20% of the crowd to walk out) to comics Dale Jones and Jodi White (a Sarasota native who got her comedy start in classes at McCurdy’s) getting married in the club — with her three ex-husbands in attendance wearing “Husband 1,” “2” and “3” shirts.

DL Hughley agreed to be McCurdy's first celebrity headliner at the new location in Downtown Sarasota in 2014. Courtesy photo

Shortly after finishing fourth in the fifth season of “Last Comic Standing” in 2011, Amy Schumer performed at McCurdy’s and did improv for the first time ever, a suggestion of Les’s after learning she wasn’t comfortable doing a set longer than 20 minutes. To make her more comfortable, Les played improv games with Schumer to fill out the rest of her time. He says she rocked it.

Pam laughs as she remembers the first X-rated hypnotist they hosted, and Les recalls when Rob Snyder performed and the theater lost power in the middle of July. To get the lights and AC back on, a bartender’s husband, who happened to be an electrician, broke a lock and shoved a new breaker into the electric box — an act he had admitted shortly beforehand could be fatal.

Their favorite performers they’ve hosted range from Louis CK to Rosie O’Donnell to Rita Rudner, but it’s Dale Jones who will perform June 21-24 for the 30th anniversary show.

THE SECRET INGREDIENT

Looking back, Les says the theater was a risky idea of Pam’s that turned into the perfect career.

Ken Sons, Jeff Foxworthy and Les McCurdy after a show at the first (pop-up) theater location at the Holiday Inn Airport Marina. Courtesy photo

“To be able to do what you do as artists and make a living off of it — where else can you do that?”

To get started, he says the couple had to get a Small Business Administration loan and borrow a quarter of a million dollars. They had $150,000 in the bank and spent it all following the wild dream until it became a reality.

“If it didn’t work, we were losing everything,” Les says. “She was so unwavering with that. She was like, ‘If we lose our house, we’ll get another one.’”

He knew from the beginning that he could excel in the public side of the business, but they needed someone to be the bean counter. Pam stepped up.

The couple's daughter, Taylor McCurdy, poses onstage with Pam and Les McCurdy at the Teatro location. Courtesy photo

She had no experience, but Les says he never doubted her ability to learn inventory control. After some help from a friend who owned his own club, in months Pam was proudly reporting their liquor percentage every week — so accurately, he adds, that she noticed they were down four Coronas after Les had taken them home one night and forgot to write a note.

“We must have had a hundred cases of beer back there or more, but she knew four damn Coronas were missing,” he says. “I said, ‘I’m probably more in love with you now than ever.’”

I'm the Managing Editor of Arts & Entertainment here, which means I write, edit and share stories about our multifaceted A&E scene in Sarasota. I graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism and a French minor. Reach me at 941-366-3468 ext. 356

See All Articles by Niki

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