The entertainment nightspot above Empire Chinese Kitchen in Portland has reopened after three years, with a mix of burlesque, drag, comedy and music shows on the schedule.

The new Empire Live opened Saturday with a burlesque show, and there’s another scheduled for Friday called “Buglesque.” That show features bug-themed drag, burlesque and dance performances. More than a dozen performers are scheduled in what the venue is billing as “a night of insatiable insects.”

General manager Richard Reynolds, who used to run the GTFO Escape Room in South Portland and has organized drag and burlesque shows around Portland, said the new venue will focus on providing local entertainers with a regular place to perform. The room holds about 150 people seated in folding chairs and 200 standing. Local burlesque performers say a venue of this size is needed in Portland.

“It will definitely fill a void because a lot of places have had a hard time coming back after the pandemic, so there’s only a limited number of smaller venues. Some don’t have the tech support and lighting we need,” said Desi Alexander, who performs burlesque under the name Rosie Havoc. “To have a place where we know we can put on a great show is exciting. It’s also a place that’s willing to pay performers, and that’s not always easy to find.”

Desi Alexander/Rosie Havoc rehearsing with THEM Burlesque at Empire Live. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Alexander is a member of the THEM burlesque troupe, which will perform regularly at Empire Live and is also producing burlesque shows at the venue. THEM will be guest performers in Friday’s show. Some of the other performers at Friday’s bug-themed show include Clamz! Kasino, Ivana Bendova, Slimerella, Vivienne Obsidian, Luna Lee, La Petite Mystique and Biagara Falls. The show will include bug-themed costumes, maybe lady bugs or snails, and because it’s burlesque, at least some elements of sexiness and silliness, the performers say.

Gwen Kerlew, who has been performing burlesque around Portland under the name Kinky Slippers, will be the bar manager at the new Empire Live. Kerlew said that not all venues in Portland are “open” to having regular burlesque and drag shows, so it’s nice to find a place like Empire Live that is a “safe and welcoming” venue.


Before it closed in March of 2020, the live entertainment room above Empire Chinese Kitchen was known as Empire Comedy Club. But that enterprise had only started a few months before the pandemic. Before that, it was known as Empire Live Music and Events for about six years, since the restaurant opened in 2013. 

Members of THEM, a burlesque troupe, rehearsing at Empire Live. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

But the Empire name at that address goes back even further. Before Empire Chinese Kitchen and the venue above it opened,  the place was a music venue and bar called Empire Dine and Dance, run by Bill Umbel for about five years. The historic building had also housed a Chinese restaurant called Empire from around 1915 into the 1950s.

Empire Chinese Kitchen and the upstairs entertainment venue both closed at the beginning of the pandemic. The restaurant reopened for takeout only in October of 2020 and the dining room remains closed. That’s partly because of the huge demand for the restaurant’s take-out service, said Theresa Chan, co-owner of both the restaurant and the live venue. Chan said that, before the pandemic, the restaurant’s focus was “90 percent” on the dine-in business, and consequently, most of the take-out business was being turned away. So during the pandemic, it began to finally meet the demand for take-out food, Chan said.

Chan said she’s aiming at a late-spring reopening for the restaurant dining room but has not set a date. She said the live entertainment venue is opening first because there are fewer complications than there are with the dining room, like assembling a front-of-the-house staff, which numbered about 25 before the pandemic, Chan said.

Right now, Empire Live’s online schedule includes events into the fall, most burlesque or drag-related. Saturday’s show, however, is a comedy showcase called Empire Comedy Lives, with comedians from all over New England, that was organized by Marcus Cardona, a comedian who had moved back to Maine from New York during the pandemic and started organizing outdoor comedy shows. He now organizes comedy shows at various locations around the city.

Other shows coming up on the Empire Live schedule include: High Society Presented by Rosie Havoc on April 20, a marijuana-themed burlesque and drag show; Drag Trivia with Ophelia Johnson on Tuesdays; Ska Wars – The Empire Strikes Back on May 4, featuring live music from The O Harrows and a burlesque performance; and Scratch, a comedy showcase on May 6.

Members of THEM, a burlesque troupe based in Portland, rehearse at Empire Live. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

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