By Robert Heide
On Sunday, April 22nd at 6 p.m., 50 years after the closing of the legendary coffee house theater Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street in Greenwich Village, now officially considered the first off off Broadway theater, a panel convened, moderated by theatre critic, Charles Isherwood. The panel consisted of mostly playwrights who had worked there and took place at the Cornelia Street Café’s downstairs stage-entertainment barroom run by the indefatigable Robin Hirsch, the Café’s master of ceremonies. They included John Guare, whose distinguished career began in the tiny Caffe Cino and who went on to write the plays Six Degrees of Separation, House of Blue Leaves, the hit musical, Two Gentlemen of Verona and the screenplay for the blockbuster Louis Malle film, Atlantic City starring Burt Lancaster and Susan Sarandon; Jean Claude van Itallie, author of War and America Hurrah; myself – author of the just published Robert Heide 25 Plays—who wrote two plays, The Bed and Moon for the Cino; Magie Dominic, curator of the Caffe Cino collection at the Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center (there Magie oversees the vast ‘glittering’ collection of Cino memorabilia including original scripts and posters); and my partner John Gilman, who was first cast as Christopher in my play Moon in 1967.
In the audience was Linda Eskenas, who performed in Moon also (and later with Gilman in my play At War With the Mongols) and the William M. Hoffman plays Good Night I love You and Saturday Night at the Movies at the Cino and was the muse and star of H. M. Koutoukas’s play Medea in the Laundromat; Koutoukas who died ten years ago and was called the quintessential Cino playwright, received an Obie Award for “his outrageous assault on the theater.” Also in the audience was actress Marilyn Roberts who starred in my play at La Mama Why Tuesday Never Has a Blue Monday; the owners of the Washington Square Hotel, Judy Paul and Marc Garrett, major supporters of the sponsors of the event—The Village Trip (more later); Casey Childs and Sally Plass of Primary Stages, Janet Coleman of WBAI ‘Cat Radio’ and myriad others.
The Cino first opened its doors in 1958 at a storefront on MacDougal Street next to the Provincetown Theater where, in the same year, Edward Albee’s one-act play The Zoo Story first opened on a bill with Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Suddenly one-act plays in coffee shop theater spots were the rage. Later Joe moved to 31 Cornelia Street to enjoy a ten year run. In the first years he put on the short works of Genet, Tennessee Williams, William Inge, Oscar Wilde, Sartre, Thornton Wilder, J. D. Salinger, Noel Coward, Andre Gide, Chekhov, Cocteau, Shaw, Pinter and others. In about 1963 he began producing only new plays. In 1967 in the Caffe, Joe enacted a ritualistic Hari Kari knife wielding dance wherein he carved a circle into his stomach; this following the accidental death of his lover, the lighting designer John Torre who was electrocuted while plugging in heavy duty lighting fixtures. Afterward Joe became a legendary figure, having fostered a number of top playwrights and performers including Guare, Heide, van Itallie, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Paul Foster, Doric Wilson Robert Patrick, Tom Eyen, Jeff Weiss, David Starkweather and performers Al Pacino and Frederic Forrest. The biggest hit at the Cino was Dames at Sea starring 16-year-old Bernadette Peters (now on Broadway in Hello Dolly.) In the years following, many anthologies and critical books were published including The Off Off Broadway Book, The Best of Off Off Broadway —edited by Michael Smith—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).
There is no doubt that Joe Cino was the father of off off experimental theater in New York City. Today, many call him ‘Saint Joe of Cino.’ The April panel was the launch event of a new annual festival honoring the history and heritage of Greenwich Village called The VillageTrip.com run by a Village enthusiast from London named Liz Thomson. Planned from September 27th-30th, 2018, in and around Washington Square, the autumn program includes a concert in the Square celebrating the legendary folk music heritage of the Village, a jazz symposium at the New School, poetry at the Jefferson Market Library, actors presenting scenes at locales featured in O’Neill’s plays, Peculiar Works Project’s site specific production of Robert Heide’s play American Hamburger featuring the ghosts of Maxwell Bodenheim, a Village tourist, and George Washington (directed by Ralph Lewis, enacted and simultaneously filmed under the Washington Arch), walking tour apps specially designed for historic Greenwich Village and many more celebratory events and activities. The last play at the Cino, before it closed in 1968 was Monuments by Diane Di Prima. It was dedicated to the dancer Freddie Herko, who did a ballet leap out the window of an apartment at 5 Cornelia Street shared by lighting designer Johnny Dodd and Voice critic/playwright/editor, Michael Smith. Michael Smith is the publisher of Robert Heide 25 Plays, just out from Fast Books Press and available at 3 Lives, Drama Bookshop and Amazon.