Every year on April 2nd, a group of people known as the ‘Cino Alumni’ gather at the Cornelia Street Café. The original Caffe Cino—the birthplace of ‘Off-Off-Broadway’—was located at 31 Cornelia Street from 1958 to 1968 (it later became Po Restaurant, which also recently closed). The Cino Alumni gather to commemorate the passing of founder Joe Cino in 1967.
The accompanying photo, taken in 2009, includes John Gilman (front-center) and David Starkweather (behind him). David, a playwright who lived for decades on West 11th Street and wrote many plays for Caffe Cino—including So Who’s Afraid of Edward Albee; The Love Pickle; The Family Joke; and You May Go Home Again—sadly, died at the age of 82 on May 25th.
Next to David is the actress Mari-Claire Charba and the author Robert Heide (right-rear). Pictured in the front is Robert Dahdah, the original director of Dames at Sea at Caffe Cino and one of the biggest hits there. Robert died at age 89 on February 6th.
A Cino alumnus not pictured is William M. Hoffman, who passed away on April 29th at the age of 78, leaving behind his beloved husband, William Russell Taylor II. Billy, as we all called him, wrote the play As Is in 1985, the first Broadway production to focus on AIDS. It won an Obie Award and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play. He also wrote the libretto for The Ghosts of Versailles (supposedly based on his experiences at Caffe Cino) with composer John Corigliano, which premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1991.
Billy’s other plays include Cornbury: The Queen’s Governor, about Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, the reputedly cross-dressing colonial governor of New York in the early 1700s (revived in 2009); A Book of Etiquette; Spring Play; and The Children’s Crusade. At Caffe Cino, his plays included: Thank You, Miss Victoria; Saturday Night at the Movies; Goodnight, I Love You; A Quick Nut Bread to Make Your Mouth Water; Luna; and many others.
In more recent, unsettling news for the Cornelia Street Café, owner and host Robin Hirsch recently spoke to me about the landlord problems the Café is now facing.
With a monthly rent of about $30,000 and the landlord sending eviction notices if a check is not received before the fifth of each month, the heat is on. The brutal fact is that a rent increase is imminent, and with that, the threat of closure. The café just celebrated its 40th anniversary with a performance street gala hoping to raise money.
The New York Times has reported on the dilemma now facing Hirsch and other owners. With the closing of Po after 24 years and another restaurant, Home, on the one-block-long Cornelia Street, it looks like the blight of empty storefronts is continuing. It seems that the time has come again to raise the issue of commercial rent control in City government—and soon. (See Brian J. Pape’s article on this topic.)
— John Gilman