By Robert Heide
In 2015 the Stonewall Inn was granted landmark status by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. On June 18th of this year, six historic sites important to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people movement were also designated historic landmarks. They are the LGBT Community Center on 13th Street, the former Gay Activists Alliance Firehouse in Soho, author James Baldwin’s former home on the Upper West Side, the former Flatiron home of the Women’s Liberation Center, the building that once housed Caffe Cino at 31 Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village, and the sixth, on Staten Island, poet Audre Lorde’s former home.
Joe Cino opened his coffee shop, Caffe Cino, in 1958, first on MacDougal Street and later at a storefront at 31 Cornelia Street, where he staged one-act plays by established authors, eventually presenting premiere productions of only new plays written specifically for the tiny cafe by mostly young writers, many of whom were gay. In 1967 Joe took his own life while high on drugs, locked inside the cafe late at night—in a ritualistic, knife-wielding, bloodbath dance-of-death on the first anniversary of the death of his lover, John Torrey, a lighting designer who had accidentally electrocuted himself. Joe actually died at St. Vincent’s Hospital two days later.
Charles Stanley, a regular performer at the cafe, kept the place going for a while, and then finally, Village Voice critic Michael Smith and the harpsichord maker Wolfgang Zuckermann tried their hands at it, but failed under the onslaught of fines levied by the City of New York. It seemed Joe had never secured a liquor or cabaret license. The summonses were served by policemen who demanded a cut of the weekly fines of up to $2,500. Joe had been able to avoid these fines because of his personal friendship with an officer high up in the police force. He had scheduled several plays at the Cino before his death, and in that final year a revival of my play Moon (with Linda Eskenas, Robert Frink, Lucy Silvay, Jim Jennings, and John Gilman), was produced, as well as a play by Tom Eyen entitled Who Killed My Bald Sister Sophie? The last play done there was called Monuments, by Diane Di Prima, in 1968. In “The Case of Caffe Cino,” Joe himself was definitely indispensable to the operation.
An incredible highlight at Joe Cino’s unforgettable memorial farewell at Judson Church was Bernadette Peters, who sang a heartrending, tearful version of the song “It’s Raining in My Heart” from the show Dames at Sea—or Golddiggers Afloat, in which she had appeared at Caffe Cino.
The legendary aspect of the Cino, of course, has to do with the often extraordinary work that was done there by playwrights, actors, and directors. In the early years Joe presented short plays by Jean-Paul Sartre, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Thornton Wilder, Noel Coward, Anton Chekhov, Paddy Chayefsky, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and others, but at one point in 1961 a young, handsome, curly-haired redhead named Doric Wilson, who later became a leading gay activist, presented two plays he had written himself, And He Made a Her and Babel, Babel Little Tower. Legions of playwrights presented their work after that, notably Lanford Wilson, all of whose early plays, most of them directed by Marshall Mason (in 1969 they were two of the founders of the Circle Rep on Sheridan Square), were done, as were the early works of Tom Eyen with plays like The White Whore and the Bit Player, with Mari-Claire Charba and Helen Hanft; and Helen (acclaimed “The Queen of Off-Off Broadway”), again with hunk Steve Davis (aka van Vost), in a red, white, and blue speedo in Why Hannah’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down. What with the goings-on at Mona’s Royal Roost (a bar), Frank Thompson’s Art Gallery, and hit after hit at Caffe Cino, the one-block-long Cornelia Street gained a reputation as the gayest street in The Village after Christopher Street.
The quintessential playwright at the Cino was H. M. (Harry) Koutoukas, whose play titles include Only a Countess May Dance When She’s Crazy, Medea in the Laundromat, and Cobra Invocations. Koutoukas was a regular, always at the cafe, along with a handful of others like the elegant Lady Hope Stansbury, the brilliant lighting director John P. Dodd, Kenny Burgess, and resident poet Magie Dominic. When a scheduled play could not go on, Magie and actor/playwright Robert Patrick threw together hilarious renditions of classic comic books featuring actors, playwrights, and directors alike. I once played Grumpy opposite Magie as Snow White.
In addition to the aforementioned Lanford Wilson (later a Pulitzer Prize winner), whose biggest hit at the Cino was The Madness of Lady Bright, Tom Eyen (Dreamgirls on Broadway), Robert Patrick (Kennedy’s Children on Broadway), Michael Smith (I Like It), and myself (my play The Bed premiered there in 1965 and Moon in 1967 and 1968), some of the other writers were Sam Shepard (Icarus’s Mother), Paul Foster (Balls), David Starkweather, John Guare, Jeff Weiss, Jean-Claude van Itallie, George Birimisa, and William M. Hoffman (As Is on Broadway). Directors included Marshall Mason (Wilson’s plays) and Robert Dahdah, who directed my play The Bed as well as the incredible musical Dames at Sea (with Dahdah discovery Bernadette Peters). Performers, among many, many others, included Shirley Stoler, Claris Nelson (also a playwright), Lucy Silvay, Victor Lipari, Al Pacino, Fred Forrest, Jacque Lynn Colton, Larry Burns, and various members of a well-known Off-Off Broadway clan, the Harris family, including George Harris (aka Hibiscus, who later created the famed performance group The Cockettes), Michael Walter Harris, Jayne Anne Harris, and their father, George Harris Sr.
Now, lo these many years later, the legend of that magical, glittering place has become an important piece of theatrical—and gay liberation—history. First of all, it has been documented that it was the first Off-Off Broadway theatre. In 1985 Magie Dominic and Richard Buck co-curated an exhibition for NYPL at Lincoln Center entitled “Caffe Cino and its Legacy” in the Astor Gallery, and the exhibition documentation became part of the Library for the Performing Arts Permanent Collection and is open to the public. Magie also established a collection of Off-Off Broadway material at the Fales Library and Special Collections located at NYU. For more information go to https://magiedominic.blogspot.
Robert Heide, a frequent contributor to WestView News, is most recently the author of Robert Heide 25 Plays, which can be purchased at Amazon.