Remembering Joe and The Caffe Cino by Playwright Robert Patrick
Retired dancer Joe Cino opened Caffe Cino on an obscure Greenwich Village side-street in 1958. Poets like Allegra Jostad, George Economou, and Taylor Mead performed there, and musicians like Tiny Tim and accordionist Asterios Metakos (Cino purportedly rejected then-acoustical Bob Dylan). There were also pirated plays, many by Tennessee Williams. Early actors included Ron Faber, Helen Honkamp, Bill Mitchell, Jane Lowry, Gary Filsinger, Elizabeth Shanklin, Keith Carsey, Kitty McDonald, Joe Davies, Shirley Stoler, Al Pacino, Mary Boylan, Paxton Whitehead, Phoebe Mooney, Wallace Androchuk, Hope Stansbury, Milton Wyatt, Patricia Dillon, Matt Baylor, and Richard Smithies. Directors Glenn DuBose, Bob Dahdah (the most frequent Cino artist), and Roberta Sklar set artistic standards. Original plays such as 1960's Flyspray by James Howard and two by Story Talbot built an audience for Doric Wilson's four 1961 hits, which made the public take the café seriously as a place for new drama, including five 1962-63 plays by Jerry Caruana.
Artists were unpaid. Performances cost viewers only the price of a coffee and whatever they chose to put in a basket actors passed. Pirated plays persisted, including gay-slanted Oscar Wilde evenings arranged by Alan Lysander James, and Andy Milligan's heavily homoerotic 1961 productions of Genet's The Maids and Deathwatch, plus his 1962 dramatization of Williams' One Arm. Prominent playwrights included Claris Nelson, David Starkweather, and Paul Foster, prominent directors Sydney Schubert Walter and Bob Dagny.
Once La Mama opened across town, many artists worked in both Cino and La Mama as well as the other Off-Off Broadway theatres they inspired. Primary Off-Off theatres were mostly housed in cafes, bars, churches, galleries--institutions which made money otherwise, and could therefore afford to let artists create theatre which needn't be popular or conformist. Thus theatre entered the modern era which painting entered when the Impressionists decided that they must paint as they must, whether their work sold or not. Uniquely American is the fact that there was no manifesto or program for this movement; it simply sprang organically from freedom. Outstanding results of this freedom at the Cino were the performances of popular players such as Helen Hanft, Neil Flanagan, Michael Warren Powell, Magie Dominic, James Jennings, Mari-Claire Charba, Robert Shields, Jacque Lynn Colton, Louie Waldon, Connie Clark, Dean Selmier, Lucy Silvay, Bill Haislip, Linda Eskenas, Fred Forrest, Phoebe Wray, Victor LiPari, Joyce Aaron, Michael Griswold, Tanya Berezin, John Kramer, Zita Litvinas, John Gilman, Mary Woronov, Robert Frink, Deborah Lee, John Borske, and members of the Harris family in plays often by Lanford Wilson, John Guare, Sam Shepard, Tom Eyen, William M. Hoffman, H.M. Koutoukas, Daniel Haben Clark, Robert Patrick, Ruth Yorck, Donald Kvares, or Sally Ordway, plus "movement-and-music" pieces introducing Tom O'Horgan to the theatrical world. Larry Loonin sometimes did playlets between shows. Many outstanding presentations were directed by Marshall W. Mason, William Archibald, Michael Smith, or by Bob Dahdah, who crafted the Cino's most perfect production, Dames at Sea.
A 1965 fire at the café led Ellen Stewart to offer Joe Cino her La Mama stage during the Cino's rebuilding. Plays by Jean-Claude van Itallie, Eyen, Ruth Krauss, Mary Mitchell, and Diane DiPrima constituted "Cino at La Mama." The fire brought unprecedented publicity for the Cino, resulting in even more work for the overworked regulars, including dishwasher Kenny Burgess, who did the characteristic "abstract" Cino window posters, and waiter John P. Dodd, whose lighting has influenced world theatre ever since. He was called by Paul Foster, "a living art treasure." Although exhaustion and drug use were depleting the energy of the staff, fine new writers such as Bob Heide, Josef Bush, Haal Borske, Ronald Tavel, Jeff Weiss, Terry Alan Smith, Oliver Hailey, Charles Kerbs, Tom Labar, and Soren Agenoux appeared. New directions, such as "pop" shows using comic-books as scripts (suggested by Merrill Harris and Donald L. Brooks), enthralled some audiences but bewildered others attracted by such now-famous writers as Eyen and Lanford Wilson.
Personal problems caused Joe Cino to kill himself in 1967. First, actor-director Charles Stanley, and then Joe Cino's great friend Michael Smith, with a partner named Wolfgang Zuckermann, bravely kept the Cino operating for about a year, but the always quasi-legal café succumbed under the pressure of summonses from a city government rumored to have been lenient on it in the past only because of certain "family" influences. Although the closing was sad for us all, the fruit of the Cino, literally thousands of free-spirited theatres worldwide, provided new places to carry on the great work Joe Cino never expected to inspire.
- The Caffe Cino circa 1965
- Joe Cino, Mary Noylan, Margaret Miller - 1964 in Owen G Arno's The Street of Good Friends, directed by Bob DahDah. Photo by Conrad Ward
- Keith Carsey (center), Judith L'Heureu (background) - 1963 in Paul Foster's Hurrah for the Bridge directed by Sydney Schubert Walter. Photo by Conrad Ward
- Bill Mitchell - 1961 in Edna St Vincent Millay's Aria Da Capo directed by Glenn Du Bose