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Hard Heart Burlesque unveils its Halloween show

The Sarasota burlesque troupe returns to McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre to spice up the spooky season.

Hard Heart Burlesque will perform its annual Halloween show Oct. 22 at McCurdy's Comedy Theatre.
Hard Heart Burlesque will perform its annual Halloween show Oct. 22 at McCurdy's Comedy Theatre.
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When you ask Amanda Heisey how many cast members are in Hard Heart Burlesque, she replies: “Including kittens?”

People bring their pets everywhere these days, but it could get pretty tricky trying to literally herd cats during a Halloween show at McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre. 

Patiently, Heisey explains, certainly not for the first nor for the last time, that “kittens” are what the cleanup crew are called during a burlesque show. They are the helpful hands that pick up the hats, feather boas, dresses, bras and slips artfully discarded during a burlesque show, she says.

In the case of Hard Heart Burlesque, these items will not include pasties and G-Strings, which will remain firmly in place, due to artistic discretion, local custom and government regulations, which vary from place to place in Florida.

One can only imagine what happens in Miami or even Tampa. Still, we don’t want to give the wrong impression. While there’s plenty of skin to be seen in a burlesque show, this is art. 

How do we know? To quote from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s 1964 definition of obscenity,”I know when I see it.” 

Trust me, kittens, burlesque is art. And it’s alive and well in Sarasota, thanks to Amanda Heisey, Miss Marina Elaine and their collaborators Lola LaColombe, Lilabelle Quaintrelle and other guest stars as well as emcee Alistair “Queen Daddy” Graves.

Come Oct. 22, there’ll be plenty of treats at McCurdy’s and some tricks, too, but not the illicit kind. McCurdy’s is a fine establishment, Heisey and Company are upstanding citizens and part of Queen Daddy’s job is to make sure audience members keep their hands to themselves. 

One of the kittens will be passing a tip jar after each artist performance, which is normally about 4 minutes long. 

But if you’re looking to slip a greenback into Elaine’s G-String, you’re in the wrong place. As The Boss famously sang on “The River” LP, “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch).”

Based on previous Hard Heart Burlesque performances, there will be plenty to look at on Oct. 22. Yes, it’s the Lord’s Day, but there will be a lot to give thanks for up there on McCurdy’s stage. 

Don’t be afraid to hoot and holler and applaud if you like what you see. Audience engagement is one of the goals of Hard Heart Burlesque. Despite their cold-hearted name, members of the troupe long to warm the hearts of their patrons and they like to know when they’re hitting the spot.

Along with Valentine’s Day, Halloween is the favorite holiday of the vixens in Hard Heart Burlesque —and evidently of their fans too. Says one gentleman who will go unnamed on Hard Heart’s Facebook page: “I got me two nice seats close to the stage! I don’t wanna miss anything.”

Like nearly everything on stage in Sarasota, Hard Heart Burlesque delivers a high level of professionalism. This ain’t no amateur hour. No, Sirree! 

Heisey, who uses the stage name Karma Kandlewick, has been performing burlesque professionally for seven years. Her other theatrical endeavors include serving as marketing director for The Sarasota Players (formerly The Players) and doing live radio theater with The Gothic Library, which recently performed Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” at Bookstore1Sarasota. 

Karma Cool Rider is part of the repertoire of Hard Heart Burlesque, which will appear at McCurdy's Comedy Theatre on Oct. 22.
Image courtesy of Goddess Imagery Studios

Full disclosure: Heisey is a former reporter for Observer Media Group. Yes, it’s true: Many artists are forced to be “wage slaves” until they can break free from the shackles of day jobs. 

Truth be told, Heisey was on a media career path when she arrived in Sarasota fresh out of the University of Missouri’s journalism school. But Florida’s Cultural Coast opened her eyes to a new world of theatrical possibilities.

Elaine also has a spike heel in the real world, working as an online manager of an upscale vintage store in Sarasota. 

The skills of marketing are invaluable in helping Hard Heart build a following through social media. More and more performers, including Taylor Swift, are skipping the media circus in favor of direct communication with their fans via Instagram, TikTok and other platforms.

They may not always need or want media attention, but today’s generation of live performers still need a venue. Elaine and Heisey credit Pam and Les McCurdy for keeping burlesque alive during 35 years of operating their eponymous comedy clubs in Sarasota. 

“McCurdy’s is a real supporter of burlesque and drag queens in addition to being the home of comedy in Sarasota,” says Heisey.

Burlesque probably got its start in pre-historic times when a cave woman artfully disrobed her animal skin sheath while dancing around a fire. The performance art that we know today as burlesque had its heyday during the era of traveling vaudeville shows that preceded the invention of Hollywood roughly a century ago.

The quintessential American burlesque artist was Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970), whose life was chronicled in the hit Broadway musical “Gypsy: A Musical Fable.” A collaboration of Jule Styne, Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, the show was inspired by Lee’s 1957 memoir. 

If you want to get a laugh, Google “What is the difference between burlesque and stripping?” Space doesn’t permit the publication of the numerous Reddit threads on the topic. Suffice it to say that burlesque relies more heavily on tease and theatrics than stripping, which can also involve pole dancing and demanding gymnastic moves. 

Over a recent breakfast interview at Project Coffee in the Rosemary District, Heisey and Elaine (the vision of a perfect 1950s housewife in a vintage shirtwaist dress), put forth the theory that burlesque has remained alive in Sarasota due to its circus heritage, its love of drag queens and the efforts of longtime performers such as Grandma Pearl and hostess Lindsay Carlton-Cline. 

Heisey and Elaine say they are following in the footsteps of Laura Daniel Gale, whose Black Diamond Burlesque was a mainstay in Sarasota for years. “We wouldn’t be here without Black Diamond,” Heisey says.

Sarasota isn’t the only Florida town with a soft spot for burlesque. Hard Heart artists, who vary, have recently played the Bubbleroom Burlesque in Pompano Beach. They’ve also performed at The Palladium in Tampa. St. Petersburg, Orlando and Jacksonville also give burlesque a warm welcome, Elaine says. 

But there’s no place like home, which for professional purposes, is McCurdy’s, with its lighting engineers and appreciative audiences.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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