Off Off Broadway ‘Coffee House’ Theatre Legends

-By Robert Heide and John Gilman

Martin Esslin in his book Theatre of the Absurd, published originally in 1961, explains the new movements in theater developing worldwide after World War II, and focuses his study on the playwrights Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot, Happy Days), Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Jack Gelber (The Connection), Arthur Kopit, Fernando Arrabal, and Vaclav Havel. In 1965 the Village Voice published a review by playwright Edward Albee (Zoo Story, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf) of Icarus’s Mother by Sam Shepard, which premiered at the Caffe Cino, “the value of off off Broadway’s café theaters lies not only in its enthusiasm for sustaining plays without which the uptown theatre is unreal and preposterous—such as the works of Beckett, Genet, Pinter, de Ghelderode—but as well in offering new experimental playwrights a proper ambiance in which to try things out, over-reach, fail and, if they have the stuff, finally succeed.”  

Caffe Cino, was a storefront space 18’’x30’’, located in a four-story red brick walk-up built in 1877—proprietor Joe Cino got the lease from Josie, the landlady who lived upstairs, mainly because he was Sicilian. He set the place up with 20 tiny café tables; there was a supposed limit of 90 people; shows were performed Tuesday through Sunday at 8 and 10 p.m. with midnight shows on weekends and there was no charge. Before Joe began showcasing original plays, he featured poetry readings, musical revues and plays by established playwrights including existentialist Jean Paul Sartre (No Exit), William Inge, Paddy Chayefsky, Andre Gide, Tennessee Williams, Chekhov, Wilde, Coward, Sartre, Shakespeare, Shaw, and Strindberg. One day, an actual playwright—Doric Wilson—walked in and from then on Joe produced only new playwrights including Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard – later both won Pulltizer Prizes –Talley’s Folly, Buried Child—John Guare, Michael Smith, Robert Patrick, William Hoffman, Harry Koutoukas, Robert Heide—The Bed and Moon – Diane Di Prima and many more. Spectators and performers were right on top of each other; patrons ordered cappuccinos, canoles, fruit drinks and at the end of each performance a hat or basket was passed around for the actors. Of course there was an espresso machine, and simple but professional theatre lighting which was hooked up by Cino’s brilliant resident lighting designer Johnny Dodd, to the New York City grid—when the street lights went on so did the Caffes—and nary a Con Ed bill! 

The most recent of two plaques on the façade of the former Cino, now a restaurant called the Bombay Bistro at 31 Cornelia Street, was put up by the New York City LGBT Historic Sites Project and states “Caffe Cino, founded by Joe Cino operated here from 1958 to 1968. As the birthplace of off off theater and as a pioneer in developing gay theater at a time when depicting homosexuality on stage was illegal, this property was listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the Department of the Interior in 2017.” The older plaque, commissioned by Robert Patrick and Lady Hope Stansbury, was placed on the building when it was the Po Restaurant and features a picture of Cino and the words: “Joe Cino (1931-1967) At this site in the Caffe Cino (1958-1968) artists brought theatre into the modern era creating off off Broadway and forever altering the performing arts worldwide.”

La Mama ETC (Experimental Theatre Company) was established in 1961 by a Saks Fifth Avenue fashion designer named Ellen Stewart originally located in a dirt-floored basement in the East Village. After several moves she settled into an empty building at 74 East 4th Street which she purchased from NYC, a ‘city in crisis’ at the time, for $1, calling the place a ‘club’ and charging ‘dues’ to avoid fines from City inspectors for not having cabaret or liquor licenses. By 1962 the enterprising black entrepreneur was applying for grants—she acquired more buildings and is now an international theatrical entity with La Mama’s all over the world. Ellen, the ‘mama’ to Joe’s ‘papa’, would often produce plays that had been originally done at the Cino, often with the same actors, gradually developing her own play writing talent pool which included Rochelle Owens (Futz), Jeff Weiss (That’s How the Rent Gets Paid, and Tom Eyen (The White Whore and the Bit Player and Why Hannah’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down). Among the many other writers who worked at La Mama were Leonard Melfi, Julie Bovasso, Maria Irene Fornes, Paul Foster, and Jean Claude van Italie.  

Currently involved in multi-million dollar upgrades for her various theaters, one of the most successful and longest-running shows in the history of Ellen Stewart’s La Mama Experimental Theatre Club is the ongoing Coffee House Chronicles an educational series exploring the development of off off, part artist portrait, creative event, history lesson and community forum. So far there have been almost 200 including ones for Penny Arcade, Jackie Curtis, Ekathrina Sobechanskaya and the original Trockadero Gloxinia Ballet Company, Peter Hujar (#163), Tom O’Horgan (#148), Sam Shepard (#143), and all the other glittering lights off off Broadway including Mario Montez which featured performers from Charles Ludlam’s Theatre of the Ridiculous – Agosto Machado and Lola Pashalinski.

Celebrating the Cino in 1985 Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts: Billy Rose Theatre Division hosted an exhibition entitled ‘Magic Time’ curated by a Cino regular Magie Dominic who has since established two permanent Cino collections: Magie Dominic Collection of Caffe Cino at Lincoln Center:  

and another at: 

NY University Fales Library and Special Collections, Bobst Library:


A further link is Robert Patrick’s Caffe Cino ‘Pages’:

A link for La Mama is:   

For a colorful look at the writing careers of Robert Heide and John Gilman go to:

Heide’s latest publication is Robert Heide 25 Plays, available at and at Amazon.

Robert Heide (left) and John Gilman across from the Cherry Lane Theatre on Commerce St in 1970 after a performance of Heide’s two one-act plays Moon Capitol and At War With
The Mongols. Photo by Timothy Bissell



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