Villagers Speak as Cornelia Street Café Curtain Comes Down

Gone But Not Forgotten: 
A Tearful Farewell to a Venerated West Village Institution

Bittersweet though it was, I’m deeply grateful for the experience of participating in one of the two final shows at Cornelia Street Café, whose legacy includes 41 years of presenting world class songwriters, spoken word, poetry, theatrical readings, storytelling, adventurous jazz, contemporary classical programming and great cuisine.

Over 20 songwriters gathered on the first day of 2019 to perform their last songs at Cornelia. The lovely Suzanne Vega and her colleagues David Massengill and Cliff Eberhardt, who were part of the Songwriter’s Exchange at Cornelia in the early 1980s, began the afternoon recounting stories and singing songs, some very memorable and famous (Vega’s “Tom’s Restaurant”), some more recent (“Washington Square” by Massengill) and some that Eberhardt tours with regularly. The Songwriter’s Exchange grew out of a songwriter’s workshop created by songwriter Carolyn Mas, who was a waitress at the café when it first opened in 1977.

Robin Hirsch, the highly respected, personable owner and curator at the café, is an artist and director with a far-reaching vision. He invited these artists to perform decades ago. Over the years, they fostered a tradition at once curiously competitive, endearing and nurturing. At this final event, they joked about their times together and how special it was to have the community that contributed to their growth as songwriters.

There were a London constituency, touching and hilarious cabaret numbers, and participants who traveled from California and New England to pay tribute to Mr. Hirsch and the café. Several wrote songs especially for the occasion; others recalled times when they were able to turn a corner regarding a personal crisis or release a cathartic libretto about their New York lives. Christine Lavin, dubbed the “Patron Saint of Songwriters” by her colleagues, sang a humorous number inviting others to test their psychic abilities, with spoken mathematical formulas woven into the song.

Tears came to all eyes including those of Mr. Hirsch as he announced the auction of every single piece of furniture, every cooking pot and lamp, that would take place the following day—the landlord had ordered that the facility be completely bare on January 3rd. We were beside ourselves. However, more than one performer reminded us that the café would not completely disappear, at least not in spirit. It was an inspiring afternoon.

After hearing about the closing of Caffè Vivaldi on Jones Street last June after its 35 years of live music, I had heard rumors that the same might happen to Cornelia. This warning encouraged me to seek the guidance of my artistic friends of many years and my new journalistic collaborators at WestView News.

Last July I was introduced to Father Graeme Napier, an Episcopal rector at St. John’s in the Village on 11th Street and Waverly Place. Father Graeme is a gifted concert producer and art gallery director. We had a fundraiser and bought a professional sound system for songwriters and amplified acts like mine and my colleagues’. I hired engineers and administrative assistants to be available for shows. We decided to put my Steinway 7-foot-4-inch grand piano in the Revelation Gallery at St. John’s to complement the Yamaha grand piano that is used in the sanctuary. We are planning a St. John’s Songwriters Exchange at the gallery, a private event that we’ll share more about and that, hopefully, will expand on the excellent example of Mr. Hirsch and his community.

We’ll keep you posted about other future events and hope you’ll support local arts in the Village. And if anyone knows of a new home for Cornelia Street Café, please reach out to us and we’ll connect you to Robin Hirsch.

—Hannah Reimann

Hannah Reimann is a singer-songwriter, pianist, composer, actor and music educator whose concerts of her original music and the early music of Joni Mitchell have been presented at Cornelia Street Café, The Bitter End, The Cutting Room and other such venues, and whose songs have been in radio rotation for over 15 years. She was the Sunday house pianist at Caffè Vivaldi from 2003 to 2005, and has produced concerts for 25 years in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Reimann Music is located on Charles Street where she teaches and rehearses.


Ghost City Cabaret

Friday night, December 21, 2018, 50 or so poetry and Cornelia Street Café lovers turned to the light for winter solstice and a final evening at the café, due to close in several days. Years ago, when I wrote poetry regularly, I attended and read at open mics at the Cornelia Street Café. It was a wonderful space for people to gather, express opinions and make friends. In her introduction to this solstice evening, Ghost City Cabaret’s Katherine Adisman (“K”), verbalized the concerns of many in attendance about the closings of reasonably-priced gathering spaces in Manhattan.

Once inside after a wait in the bar/restaurant at street level, and finding a seat downstairs, I passed two tiny gender-neutral restrooms at right angles to each other, painted red. I remembered these, as well as the long, narrow room with tables and chairs and a bar at its entrance. Sitting comfortably was easier if one were small or thin. The cement walls were blue, and a red curtain hung behind the stage in front.

A capacity audience of about 50 filled the room. Several writers/performers gave presentations. My favorites: Mindy Matijasevic’s “Comedy for Grown Folks” and drummer Fred Simpson’s musical offerings entitled “Kindness” and “Goodbye, CSC” a tribute to the café. Su Polo gave an outstanding performance of her essay, “A Walk into Christmas” about a possibly lonely pre-holiday evening, walking her dog uptown from 27th Street to Rockefeller Center, and being suddenly surrounded by carolers (her dog in the center of their circle) and then being invited to sing carols: a festive, inclusive evening after all.

After an intermission, open mic performers raced the clock to give everyone a chance to perform, as the café was hosting another event shortly. Ghost City Cabaret has been at Cornelia St. Café for four years. It will revive, K said. “To be continued … in another dimension” the evening’s flyer assured.

— Sarah Dowson


The Last Bohemian Enclave

The Cornelia Street Café shut its doors for the last time on January 1 after decades in business. The performance space in the basement became legendary, attracting folk singers, poets, comedians, singers, musicians like David Amran and other entertainers. The Obie Award winning producing team Peculiar Works Project led by Barry Rowell, Catherine Porter and Ralph Lewis staged play readings including my play Moon which was originally performed at the groundbreaking Caffe Cino in the mid-60s. Last year I was on a panel held there with the Playwrights John Guare and Jean Claude Van Italie hosted by Times critic Charles Isherwood.

The panel focused on the Caffe Cino years (1958-1968) which was two doors away at 31 Cornelia Street. Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Robert Patrick, Billy Hoffman and H. M. Koutoukas found a home where they could work freely and develop new plays. Paul Foster who founded LaMama ETC with Ellen Stewart had his works done there as did many, many others. For several years on a monthly basis Foster with myself, John Gilman and the Obie Award winning Actress Mari-Claire Charba had ‘round-table’ brunch discussions in the excellent restaurant with the owner/proprietor Robin Hirsch joining in usually serving us a glass of his best wine. Alas, as the rent insanely jumped to over $30,000 a month what might be called the last Bohemian enclave in the Village had to close. All who were there were filled with sadness after the final curtain shows on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

—Robert Heide

Tags :

Leave a Reply