Magic Time! Art & Ephemera of the Caffe Cino

MAGIC TIME! Caffe Cino exhibit opening, August 15th. Left to right: John Gilman, Magie Dominic, Robert Heide. Photo by Mary Lou Harris.

By Robert Heide

Following on the heels of my last article entitled “The Legendary Caffe Cino Designated a NYC Landmark” for the August 2019 edition of WestView News along came an invite to attend a dual exhibition at the ClampArt Gallery at 247 West 29th Street. Opening night was August 15 and the exhibit of particular interest to myself was “Magic Time! Art & Ephemera of the Caffe Cino”—alongside this Cino show was another exhibit called “Sex Crimes” which focuses on the ideal male body in terms of physique and sexuality—both exhibits running concurrently until September 28.

Joe Cino operated his Caffe Cino, a storefront at 31 Cornelia Street from 1958 to 1967 when he died from self-inflicted knife wounds. The Caffe was operated for another year by Charles Stanley, Michael Smith and Wolfgang Zuckerman but due to police harassment and licensing problems closed permanently in 1968 after ten incredible years where many new playwrights such as Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, John Guare, Robert Patrick, Jeff Weiss, Jean Claude van Itallie and others had their early plays performed. On one wall of the gallery are original posters and flyers from those early Off-Off Broadway beginnings. Yes, in terms of Off-Off the Cino has been cited as the first of the coffee-house theaters to emerge in the 1960s. John Vaccaro, the actor, director and force behind the Theater of the Ridiculous that focused primarily on absurdist plays referred to the Cino as, not only the first of its kind, but called it “the cradle of gay theater.”

My own play Moon was one of the last plays performed at the Cino in 1968. It had premiered before Joe’s death in 1967 two years before the actual moon landing; Joe also produced my play The Bed in 1965. Both of these plays are represented in flyers on the wall in the exhibition along with the masterwork Monuments by Diane Di Prima about the suicidal death in 1964 of Judson Church dancer Freddie Herko who did a ballet leap out a fifth floor window at 5 Cornelia Street down the block from the Caffe Cino. Other play flyers in the exhibit include The Madness of Lady Bright by Lanford Wilson (later a Pulitzer Prize winner) starring Neil Flanagan, Tom Eyen’s Why Hanna’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down starring the sexy Steve Davis and flame-haired Helen Hanft, a flyer from a Harry Koutoukas play and a program from Paul Fosters’ Cino production of Balls. When The Bed, featuring the actors Jim Jennings and Larry Burns was first performed at the Cino, two FBI agents showed up to possibly shut the play down; but since there was no hanky-panky, the two left in a funk. Eleanor Lester, at the time a Village Voice critic, gave the play a rave review. Later in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in a more comprehensive article describing the whole Off Off Broadway scene she wrote about the play again—“In The Bed Heide brings two singularly appropriate characters literally lying in the bed of their dissolution. Two men on a bed when ‘sex is dead’ and ‘God is dead’ is what the play is about. Here is the ultimate hang-up, psychologically and metaphysically, and the playwright focuses hard on the essence of the matter. The playwright clearly establishes that what we are witnessing here is the anguish of existence.” Following Lester’s Times piece, Off Off Broadway came of age, and everything “underground” opened up with a new kind of super realism very different from the naturalism of Broadway.

This Cino exhibit was organized by Ward 5B and co-curated by Magie Dominic who is also the curator of a collection of Cino memorabilia at the Lincoln Center Performing Arts branch of the New York Public Library and Greg Ellis and features larger collage-artworks by Dominic and Kenny Burgess, both of whom worked at the Cino. Cino photos and posters also on display are of Bernadette Peters, whose first starring musical was in Dames at Sea which was directed by Robert Dahdah who also directed The Bed, and original black and white photos from 1961 of Dahdah and his companion actress, Mary Boylan recall the Cino’s early years. At one end of the ClampArt Gallery is an amazing artifact—a 10’ x 12’ white gown, stitched together by Dominic over a period of twenty years from countless pieces of white, lace-like fabric sent to her from all over the world from hundreds of people in the name of ‘peace and stillness’ which seems to watch over the room in a mysterious ghost-like way. The guests who arrived, including myself and John Gilman, at the opening party included director Ralph Lewis from the leading New York site specific company Peculiar Works Project founded by Lewis, Barry Rowell, and Katharine Porter, one of the original Tom O’Horgan La Mama acting troupe members Marilyn Joan Roberts, the brilliant comic-transvestite actor Augosto Machado who showed up in his Fu Manchu beard, Primary Stages Oral History Project director Sally Plass, and the Harris sisters Mary Lou and Eloise, from the Off Off Broadway Harris performance family which included Michael Walter Harris, an original member of the cast of Hair and George ‘Hibiscus’ Harris who founded the famed group The Cockettes.

Also on exhibit is the scintillating ‘Sex Crimes,’ which features vintage male physique magazines, original layout boards, male nude black and white and color photographs and drawings, all with flagrantly gay underground themes when gay men were subject to arrest just by being perceived of as homosexuals by a homophobic world which included policemen and detectives out to make an arrest as what occurred in the 1969 Stonewall riots. Included here are photos by Bruce of Los Angeles, Edward Wallowitch, a protégé of famed photographer Edward Steichen, George Platt Lynes, James Bidgood (Pink Narcissus,) and particularly rare ephemera and art from underground gay wildman-filmmaker Jack Smith (Note: He was arrested and thrown in jail for his most famous film Flaming Creatures.) The theme throughout here is the ‘sexual outlaw’ and both shows at the ClampArt Gallery on 29th Street flowed seamlessly together.

Robert Heide expounds further on the Off Off Broadway explosion, including the Caffe Cino, in a dozen new essays in his latest book Robert Heide 25 Plays available at Amazon.

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