By Robert Heide
The book Johnny!, written by Michael Smith, playwright, essayist, publisher, the chief drama critic for the Village Voice during the sixties, tells the story of his tempestuous, drug fueled and ultimately tragic relationship with Johnny Dodd who was a sometime waiter as well as the chief light-board genius at the Caffe Cino (1958 to 1968) at 31 Cornelia Street, the first place in Greenwich Village to present original, mostly experimental and usually one-act plays written by fledgling playwrights such as Sam Shepard, John Guare, Jean Claude van Italie, Tom Eyen, Lanford Wilson, Billy Hoffman, Robert Patrick, Doric Wilson, Paul Foster, Tom O’Horgan, Harry Koutoukas, myself, Michael Smith, and many others including a writer named Alan James who thought he was Oscar Wilde and whose plays included World of Oscar Wilde, Fairies I Have Met and Dear Boy. A number of well-known actors appeared at the tiny Cino including Bernadette Peters, Robert DeNiro, and Frederic Forrest, who performed twice nightly shows for usually a three week run with extra midnight shows on weekends. Afterwards they passed the hat for money. Johnny, a small, adorable, wiry, long black-haired guy, sexy in bell-bottom pants, angelic but coupled with a devil inside had twinkling, mischievous eyes and was a unique collaborative theatre artist who innovatively created brilliant lighting for dozens of plays presented at the Cino and La Mama, Judson dance concerts, many Living Theater productions, theatre festivals around the world and more. The book has an exhaustive list of the many productions Johnny lit from 1961 to 1989. Smith includes commentary from many of the people who knew and worked with Johnny such as this from Peter Craig, an actor with the La Mama Troupe who was in the stage play Futz by Rochelle Owens both at La Mama and in its transfer off-Broadway and in the film version, all lit by Johnny:
“One of the things that Johnny did more than anyone was to play with you, with the actor. He’d light you for what you were doing. If you followed his lighting, your performance was there.”
And this from Sam Shepard:
“In those days light was not computerized. It wasn’t a thing where you punch the numbers and the lights take care of themselves. All the lights were hand-operated. So here was this guy—and also stoned, I believe—anyhow he was having a great time—he was like playing with the actor. As the actor was going through stuff he was moving the lights. I just stood behind him for a while and watched, and I thought, this is unbelievable. Because here’s a guy who’s every bit as much an actor, every bit as much a part of the show itself as the actor, in fact is following the actor, moving with the actor, conducting the light, and I thought, wow, man, this is an artist!”
Reading the book I found myself humming popular songs that used the name ‘Johnny’, most notably Johnny Angel. It was a huge hit in 1962 after it was recorded by Shelly Fabares, an actress who played the title character’s daughter on the Donna Reed Television Show. It was also a hit as recorded by the sublime Karen Carpenter. The lyrics went:
Johnny Angel, you’re an angel to me
Johnny Angel, how I love him
He’s got something that I can’t resist
But he doesn’t even know that I exist
Oh, Johnny Angel, ‘cause I love him
And I pray that someday he’ll love me
And together we will see how lovely heaven will be
Johnny Angel, you’re an angel to me
This song seemed to me the Johnny that Michael was writing about but I kept remembering recurring ‘Johnny’ songs including the following two from World War I:
When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah, Hurrah
We’ll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah, Hurrah
Oh the men will cheer, the boys will shout,
The ladies, they will all turn out
And we’ll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home
Johnny Doughboy found a Rose in Ireland
And she stole his heart with smilin’ eyes of blue
He said “Darlin,’ ‘tis my duty to make an American beauty
Of a sweet Irish Rose like you.”
As a young boy during World War II I loved listening to the Andrews Sisters, especially when singing one of their signature songs:
Oh! Johnny, Oh Johnny!
How you can love
Oh! Johnny, Oh Johnny!
You make my sad heart fill with joy
So it’s Oh Johnny, Oh Johnny, Oh! Oh!
Other great ‘Johnny’ songs include Johnny, a song recorded by Marlene Dietrich in 1960, Johnny 99 by Bruce Springsteen, Johnny B. Goode by Chuck Berry, Handsome Johnny sung by Ritchie Havens at Woodstock in 1969, the Cardigan Bros. Everybody Loves a Guy Named Johnny and The Kinks’ Johnny Thunder. One of my favorite ‘Johnny’ songs is Johnny Guitar which was also the title of a movie starring Joan Crawford who plays a tough frontier woman whose name was Vienna; she changed outfits switching from tooled leather cowboy boots, tight jeans, a maroon, fringed cowboy shirt and bandanna to an extremely feminine billowing all-white floor length dress (while elegantly playing piano in her saloon, ‘Vienna’s), all the while hopelessly in love with a guy named—yes—Johnny Guitar played by sexy blonde Sterling Hayden. Scott Brady plays the other ‘love’ interest, basically a bad guy all in black who is pursued by madder than hell Mercedes McCambridge as Emma, a vituperative cattle rancher, but unfortunately Brady seems more interested in the young zealous ‘Dancin’ Kid’, one of his flashily dressed cowpoke buddies. Eventually Vienna and Emma pull their guns out and start firing recklessly in the air and at each other. Johnny Dodd told me once that he loved the movie; and the song with lyrics by Peggy Lee and a score by Victor Young hit number one on the billboard charts. The romantic score was played throughout the film, Sterling and Joan embracing and kissing passionately under a waterfall at the end.
There was never a man like my Johnny
Like the one they call Johnny Guitar
I was always a fool for my Johnny
For the one they call Johnny Guitar
Play it again Johnny Guitar
In Smith’s book I read that Johnny was Irish—his middle names Patrick Kennedy—was born in New Orleans in 1941, dying of AIDS in 1991, and although I had always thought he was gay, was bisexual, married twice, and had a son, also now deceased. I met him at the Cino just down the block from his 5tth floor apartment at 5 Cornelia where he lived with Michael Smith and various others. This was the place where, in 1964, the noted Judson dancer and Warhol superstar Freddie Herko, high on everything—probably methamphetamine and acid combined— made a grand jete to his death five stories below. To augment his meager income from lighting, an unheralded but essential aspect of any performance, Johnny sold marijuana and other drugs to select buyers. Once at his place, after smoking some weed, I came down the stairs and felt myself sinking. When we reached the street I asked for a take-out coffee, which I splashed on my face. Then I took a taxi to Saint Vincent’s ER where they told me I had used marijuana that was probably cut with the disorienting chemical called ‘angel dust.’ Later, thinking of Johnny, I gave the name Angel Dust to a character playing a drifter in my play Suburban Tremens starring Paul Lieber and Mark Simon. At the Cino Johnny lit my play Moon one of the two plays I did at the Caffe Cino—the other being The Bed in which two young men in an oversized bed are stuck in an existential situation, drinking and drugging in a state of apathy and boredom. Moon—about two couples in Greenwich Village (with issues) starred Linda Eskenas, Bob Frink, Jim Jennings, John Gilman and Lucy Silvay. One memorable Valentine’s Day performance Johnny switched all the lights to fire-engine red for the entire play. Afterwards the actors went to complain but Johnny had disappeared. Also, the audience that night thought it was a great performance, even commenting on the remarkable lighting. Later Johnny told me that he had to do it—just once.
No doubt his lighting was unusual and creative, and of the moment. Stunning examples of his work at the Cino included Dames at Sea or Gold Diggers Afloat starring the aforementioned 16 year-old Bernadette Peters and The White Whore and the Bit Player by Tom Eyen starring a blonde Mari-Claire Charba and brownette Jacque Lynn Colton. For a play of H. M. Koutoukas at the Actor’s Playhouse entitled Only a Countess May Dance When She’s Crazy was uncannily lit by Johnny and he also did the lights at the Judson Church memorial for Joe Cino, an emotional event marking the shocking death by suicide of the proprietor of the Caffe Cino in 1967. A scene from Moon, which had just had a successful run at the Caffe was performed by two actors, Victor Lipari and John Gilman, and lit by Johnny on the exalted stage of the Judson with all the colors of the rainbow. Gilman played Christopher, an artist who describes his paintings thus, “I paint circles mostly. Just circles. I’m kind of obsessed with circles, see. They are meant…I guess…to represent..ha..ha..the earth, sun, moon and all the other planets in the heavens, the solar system. I use many brilliant colors, electric colors, red, green, yellow…they hurt your eyes if you look at them too long…”
In addition to Johnny! Fast Books Press published My Funny Valentine – Collages by John P. Dodd. In the years following the legendary days of the Caffe Cino many anthologies of plays and academic books have been published including The Off Off Broadway Book, The Best of Off Off Broadway, New American Plays, Caffe Cino: The Birthplace of Off Off Broadway by Wendell C. Stone, Playing Underground by Stephen Bottoms, and Return to the Caffe Cino (edited by Steve Susoyev and George Birimisa) Encapsulating the kinds of plays being done in those years is the British dramatist Martin Esslin’s book Theater of the Absurd.
My latest book Robert Heide 25 Plays is available at fastbookspress.com and on Amazon. The collection has new essays on the performances of all of my plays over several decades with original never-before-seen photos and posters.