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Caffe Cino Rides Again|
by Robert Heide
© December 2014, Robert Heide
Magie Dominic in her talk entitled “The Story of the Caffe Cino” sponsored by the Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation at the Jefferson Market Library on Thursday evening of September 18th, did not dwell on the darker side of Caffe Cino but instead rightly focused on the dynamics and body of the creative work. Miss Dominic’s very fine and precise talk covered the basic format of what the Cino experience was all about. She has written a new book called “Street Angel” following her first memoir “The Queen of Peace Room” which includes some of her reminiscences of the Caffe where she performed and also functioned as an assistant director on many occasions.
Robert Patrick and Magie Dominic are the two people who have persistently spearheaded the ongoing colorful and pertinent history of Caffe Cino, the first off-off Broadway theater where many writers such as John Guare, Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Jeff Weiss, H.M. Koutoukas, Paul Foster, Tom Eyen, Jean Claude Van Italie, Doric Wilson, Claris Nelson, William Hoffman, and David Starkweather had their plays first performed. Robert Patrick is a Cino playwright alumni whose “Kennedy’s Children” made it to Broadway, and Magie Dominic has established the “Magie Dominic Caffe Cino Archives” at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts, which includes a good deal of memorabilia, photographs, posters and play scripts that were produced from 1958 to 1968 at the legendary coffee house theater.
There is little doubt to those who worked at Caffe Cino that Joe Cino was truly a motivational leader and mentor who inspired writers and actors alike to do whatever they so wanted in the place – and they did – always trying to do their very best for themselves, for Joe, and for the room. “The room” – the Cino – of course, was a small space; but it had the very best in terms of creative theatrical lighting from Johnny Dodd. (Also not to be forgotten would be the best cup of cappuccino and Italian puff pastries in the Village.)
The audience at the Jefferson Market which included performer Ruby-Lynn Rainer and “Cino-ites” Paul Foster, Mari-Claire Charba, John Gilman, John Borskie and myself, were delighted to hear Magie talk about the comic book plays. One night at the Caffe a playwright canceled his opening date and on the spot some of the regulars, including Magie, decided they would perform a comic book as a play. Copies of “Wonder Woman” were purchased at Lamston’s Dime-Store on 6th Avenue and the actors threw themselves enthusiastically into the comic book fun-of-it all. H. M. Koutoukas who has been tagged the “quintessential Cino playwright” played Wonder Woman aka Diana Prince. Later, after another no-show by a playwright, the Walt Disney comic book version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” went on, with Snow White herself being performed by the raven-haired petite and pretty Magie. Cast as the Evil Queen in this comic book play-reading was H. M. Koutoukas, and someone in the audience was overheard saying sarcastically, referring to Harry, “It looks like type casting!”
I noted in Magie’s talk other tidbits of Cino information and lore: that Edward Albee produced a successful benefit for Joe after a mysterious fire demolished the place; another Monday Night benefit was given by Ellen Stewart and Ron Link at the Sullivan Street Theater where The Fantasticks was having a record breaking run; that on March 3, 1965 the re-opening of the café-theater heralded a new Koutoukas play called “With Creatures Make My Way”; and that Lanford Wilson (the Pulitzer Prize winner) had written 15 plays for the Cino.
Joe “Magic Time” Cino asked me to write a play for two men for his coffee house theater on Cornelia Street after he’d seen a production of my play “West of the Moon” at New Playwrights on Third Street in the Village, an off-Broadway theater run by Lee Paton Nagrin. In that play, featuring two young men seeking shelter from the rain in a doorway, one is a drifter and hustler trying to seduce the other, a somewhat naïve young man, by offering him drugs. The play was savaged by the uptown critics, one of whom said that I should “break my typewriter over my hands and never write another play again.” In the early to mid-sixties it seemed one could not mention the word “gay” (or “homosexual” for that matter) unless that particular sexual proclivity was being referred to as a psychological disease. It was Joe who encouraged his stable of hopeful writers to just “do your own thing” and added, “And don’t hold anything back – nothing.” The first gay plays at the Cino came into being in this open sense of freedom and they included Lanford Wilson’s “The Madness of Lady Bright” and Robert Patrick’s “The Haunted Host” both produced at the Cino in 1964. It was in 1965 that my play, “The Bed,” joined this “do your own thing” roster, four years prior to the Stonewall Rebellion.
“The Bed” finds two men in a time warp wherein they cannot manage to make it out of bed for days. I see the situation they find themselves in to be an existential dilemma that was in actuality inspired by a true-life relationship I had with Jimmy Spicer whom I’d met at Lenny’s Hideaway, and who was the managing director of the Living Theater. The scene that unraveled in the play was drinking and drugging coupled with thoughts of suicide; despair all the way. In the play, directed by Robert Dahdah, who also directed “Dames At Sea” starring a 16-year-old Bernadette Peters at the Cino, time seemed to stop and the audience seemed to go along with it.
The continuum of the magical place goes on. A couple of years ago, the Peculiar Works Project produced a street theater festival utilizing classic off-off plays all over the streets of the West Village. I was amazed to see my own play “The Bed” performed on a platform/bed with two underwear-clad actors being pulled up Seventh Avenue. This street festival won a Village Voice Obie Award for the Peculiar Works Project. Yale University recently produced “The Bed” and actually recreated the Caffe Cino, and also showed clips from Andy Warhol’s filmed version of the play. This season (Fall 2014), at Knox College Department of Theater in Galesburg, Illinois, Jeff Grace, an assistant professor, is offering “A Funny Walk Home” by Jeff Weiss, “Daddy Violet” by George Birimisa, “Who Killed My Bald Sister, Sophie?” by Tom Eyen and, yes, once again “The Bed” in another recreation of the Cino coffeehouse.
When Colin Wilson, the famous philosophical writer of “The Outsider”, came to see “The Bed” he told me that he saw it as an existential treatise similar to Sartre’s “No Exit.” (As it happened the first play I saw at the Cino was “No Exit.”) Of course some of the audience might themselves have been on LSD, speed or whatever in those crazy days of the sixties. Down the street from 31 Cornelia Street, where Joe Cino reigned supreme in his “magic time” theater, at number 5 Cornelia Street, a stunning young dancer named Freddy Herko, who had acted in Warhol films, took a ballet leap on LSD from a window in an apartment on the fifth floor. Poet Diane Di Prima wrote a play called “Monuments” which contained seven portraits of friends including one about Freddy. “Monuments” was the last play produced at the Caffe Cino under the aegis of Michael Smith in 1968. One year before this in the Caffe after it was closed for the night, Joe Cino high on drugs, performed a ritualistic dance stabbing himself with a knife. He died at age 36 on April 2, 1967 at St. Vincent’s Hospital.
Media on Caffe Cino:
Robert Heide is co-author with John Gilman of
“Greenwich Village – A Primo Guide to Shopping,
Eating and Making Merry in True Bohemia”
published by St. Martin’s Press.