A gay coffeehouse proprietor named Joe Cino helped spark the Off-Off-Broadway scene after he opened the doors of his coffeehouse to oddball playwrights and nonconformists of all stripes; in 1967, he committed suicide inside the café by stabbing himself to death.
Joe Cino’s appetite for a good time was equaled by his warmth and generosity. If one of his starving young artists was actually starving, he would offer them bread or pastries, even when he couldn’t pay rent himself. His café offered a warm refuge for the poor, tired, huddled gay masses who increasingly congregated in the Village—like a young Agosto Machado, who met Joe in 1959. “I was on Cornelia Street, around Bleecker,” he recalled, “and it was still heavily an Italian neighborhood, and there were these young men who were so attractive, carrying things like panels of wood. I thought I was being discreet, but I just got overwhelmed by their handsomeness and I followed them as they went up Cornelia Street.” When this group of men walked through Caffe Cino’s doorway, Agosto peered in. “May I help you?” Joe asked. “Oh no,” he replied, “I was just wandering about the neighborhood.” The friendly coffee shop owner ushered him in. “This is a café, and you’re welcome here. We don’t sell alcohol. We sometimes have poetry readings and little presentations. There’s hot cider, or espresso, or some cookies.”
From Chapter 1 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Whether they were hanging out on stoops or leaning from their windows, many women in the Village kept an eye on the street, serving as an informal neighborhood watch. When Joe Cino first poked around the storefront that became Caffe Cino, interested in renting it, someone on the fire escape yelled down, “Wha’dya want?” It turned out to be the building’s landlady, who asked Cino if he was Sicilian. “Yeah,” he said, so she just threw him the keys. (Joe would place his rent money—often in coins—in an envelope, then wrap it in a scarf, and toss it up to her through the fire escape.) There were few businesses on Cornelia: a bar across from the Cino, a bookstore, an art gallery, and a couple of small shops, including the original Murray’s Cheese Shop. The gallery was run by a creepy artist and pedophile named Frank Thompson, who sold paintings of nude boys with huge penises. Talbot lived next door to Thompson, and on the other side of his apartment was Mona’s Royal Roost—a quintessentially quaint Greenwich Village cocktail bar run by two older women. On the Bleecker Street corner was a butcher shop with rabbits hanging in the window, and down Cornelia Street an Italian bakery named Zampieri infused the street with the smell of bread.
Joe Cino opened it after giving up on his dream of being a dancer, for he was too heavyset to make it in the dance world. “Joe wore sweatshirts on the street, like dancers did,” recalled Robert Patrick, another Cino regular-turned-playwright who entered the fold in 1961. “He wore them backwards for the high neck. He was an affected faggot before it was fashionable.” He could be found behind the espresso machine—which served some of the best coffee in town—surrounded by photos of James Dean, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and other movie stars. Joe didn’t bother reading scripts; he read people’s faces instead, or asked them their astrological sign. “The Cino was one of a number of little coffeehouses and alternative spaces,” said Michael Smith, “and I liked that it was so intimate. There was no proscenium. You were not separated from the play by some kind of frame. It was happening in the room with you. It was a very free atmosphere. Joe Cino was very supportive and just encouraged people to be themselves and be free. It’s quite unique that way, and I’ve never really been in another theater that was quite as supportive.” Cino sometimes spoke in a very high-cultured purr, though he also employed a pseudo-Italian language that was kind of campy—like, “Mamma mia! Here’s another group of lost boys!” He liked eccentric people with wild personas and wanted to create an open atmosphere that was like an ongoing party, blasting Maria Callas and other opera divas at top volume on the phonograph. Joe loved the 1940s pop singer Kate Smith, and sometimes wrapped himself in the American flag—occasionally completely naked—while playing the famed contralto’s rendition of “God Bless America” at top volume, just standing there.
“We were raised in an America that hated art, sex, and intellect,” Robert Patrick recalled, “and sex was not the worst offense.” He was beaten up in grade school, junior high school, and high school not for being gay—which he was—but for carrying too many books. “Once we all left the small town to hit the big city, we were ready to explode. There were people at the Cino who were versed in every aspect of history, arts, science. Nobody beat you up for it there.” Patrick surrounded himself with creative, forward-looking people who were smart, friendly, and supportive. “Most of us had never been part of a group where we came from, so it was rather intoxicating to be in one.” Sitting around having coffee, they shared their frustrations and aspirations with each other, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to say, “Hey, let’s act this out—let’s put on a show!” Every night at Caffe Cino, Joe Cino walked from the espresso machine to his makeshift stage, rang chimes, and announced, “Welcome ladies and gentlemen, it’s magic time!” When the lights went down, a different reality materialized: “It was the magic and ingenuity of Off-Off-Broadway,” Agosto Machado said. “You had to suspend belief, because you wanted to, and you’re enjoying it. If you didn’t have money, you used your ingenuity. It was so magical, so special. It was a playhouse for yourself and the selective group of people who were seeing this.”
Soon after arriving, Harry Koutoukas befriended a gay coffeehouse proprietor named Joe Cino, who helped spark the underground theater revolution known as Off-Off-Broadway. “Caffe Cino encouraged creativity and no barriers,” Agosto Machado said. “You’d just say you’re a playwright, and then you would put on a play.” This storefront theater was located on Cornelia Street, a block-long side street that connects Bleecker with West Fourth Street and got little foot traffic. Cornelia was one of those charming little Village roads near Washington Square Park that could have easily appeared on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (that iconic album cover was shot on Jones Street, just one block to the north). Coffeehouses proliferated in Greenwich Village because the area had plenty of empty commercial spaces; these establishments were much cheaper to run than bars, which required the proper city licenses and Mafia protection rackets. Caffe Cino had six or eight little tables with wire-back chairs that were complemented by a hodgepodge of other furniture found in the street. Its stage was usually set in the center, among the tables, though this arrangement often changed from show to show. In the back of the Cino, to the left, was a counter with an espresso machine and a hallway that led to a tiny dressing room and a toilet. During its early days, the place was lit by Chinese lanterns and other little lights, though Caffe Cino grew more cluttered as time went on.
“Do what you have to do,” said Joe Cino, who gave this small group of outsiders a literal stage to act out new ways of presenting themselves in public. Together, they transformed social life by performing openly gay identities in ways that had been suppressed elsewhere in the country. “All the gay guys bought muscle magazines like Young Physique,” Robert Patrick recalled. “At one point, I dared bring in a photo of one of the most popular models, a blond in just the tiniest white bikini. I tacked it on the wall, which is like saying, ‘Yes! We’re gay.’ But we were actually worried if I could legally put a picture of a young man in a bathing suit on a wall.” Over time, this motley crew grew more confident and confrontational, such as when Patrick and his fellow Cino playwright William Hoffman were attacked in the neighborhood by a group of teenage boys. Patrick and Hoffman turned the tables on the homophobes by breaking off a car antenna and chased them through the streets with it. “I would have killed them,” Hoffman said, vividly recalling this pre-Stonewall memory a half century later. “It was very empowering.” F. Story Talbot, who had an apartment on Cornelia Street, was one of the token straight guys who hung around the Cino in its early days. “All the guys down there who worked there were making semi-passes at me,” he said, “and we would laugh about it.”
Robert Patrick was another bohemian immigrant who was drawn to Caffe Cino. After working a dishwashing job at a summer stock theater in Maine in 1961, he made a stopover in Greenwich Village on his way back home to Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a Greyhound bus. As he walked down West Fourth Street, Patrick saw a young long-haired man with jewelry around his neck who was clearly not wearing underwear. “His name was Johnny Dodd,” he said of Caffe Cino’s genius lighting technician. “So I followed what I call the ‘other brick road’ down to Sheridan Square. I followed him a couple of blocks and he looked over his shoulder at me and turned the corner.” Patrick continued down Cornelia Street, which had a little art gallery and bookstore, then followed Dodd into the Cino—which was dark and smelly. Actor Neil Flanagan and director Andy Milligan were in the midst of rehearsing a show, so the newcomer sat down, watched, and basically never left Caffe Cino until it shut down in 1968.
Caffe Cino became an alternative to Off-Broadway, which emerged in response to the conservatism of Broadway—whose producers, even then, were loath to take risks and instead relied on revivals of established hit shows that could guarantee a return on their investments. Off-Broadway shifted American theater from its midtown Manhattan roots after venues such as Cherry Lane Theatre drew audiences further downtown. This new theater movement created a low-budget style that offered artistic freedom, but by the end of the 1950s Off-Broadway’s budgets rose and its theaters followed the same cautious logic of Broadway producers. The time was ripe for Off-Off-Broadway. “There was no way to get a show on Broadway,” said Michael Smith. “At that point in time it cost a lot of money to put a show on Off-Broadway. You would have to go raising money, and a lot of the budgets at that point were $20,000. That was a lot of money.” Instead, Caffe Cino staged shows for a few dollars or for nothing (when Smith staged his first play there, he dragged his own bed down Cornelia Street to be used as part of the set). Off-Off-Broadway locales were akin to the barebones venues where punk rock developed in the mid-1970s—introducing the idea that one could simply do it yourself, without waiting for funding or the approval of cultural gatekeepers. “Arrogant peacocks like Harry Koutoukas were a product of the Off-Off Broadway milieu,” recalled Robert Patrick. “Since nobody was making any money and hardly ever getting reviewed at that time, it was the first time in history that theater became this totally self-expressive art form. A playwright could produce whatever they wanted.” Koutoukas was free to craft his playful, poetic wordplay and unconventional scenarios that never could have made their way to Off-Broadway, much less Broadway, and he immediately attached himself to Joe Cino. “Harry just worshiped Joe,” Patrick said. “Most of my Cino memories of Harry are him at Joe’s side, or talking to Joe by the counter, or at a table with him.”
Eventually, Ellen Stewart found the Harris family a larger loft apartment around the corner, right next door to Café La Mama, at 319 Ninth Street. Eloise and Mary Lou’s sleeping loft was in the living room, with a white picket fence around it, and the girls would roller-skate through the long apartment. The kitchen had a piano that was constantly being used, along with a set of drums that Walter and Big George played. Ann made their thespian hub run like clockwork—walking the kids to school, shopping for groceries at the A&P, and on weekends dragging bags of clothes and costumes back from the laundromat as the kids jumped in the piles of warm fabric. “Fortunately, we had ready-made theater friends in Ellen Stewart and Joe Cino,” Walter said, “because Dad had already been doing shows in both of those places. Judson Poets’ Theatre was another one. In those days, there was a Holy Trinity of Off-Off-Broadway: Caffe Cino, La MaMa, and Judson.” Of the three, Stewart was most involved with the Harris family. After Café La MaMa moved to its Second Avenue location, Stewart kept that East Ninth Street location as a rehearsal space and opened it up for the Harris family to use. “Ellen was lovely,” Ann effused. “There were some really beautiful people who really latched onto us and showed us the way, because we didn’t know anything about what to do. You could go over to Judson or Caffe Cino and mount a show. Joe Cino didn’t care what you did. He just gave you a date.” Walter added, “I think we were a little bit of an anomaly at the Cino and at La MaMa, because we were so young. Here’s this family with kids who were all involved in whatever these artists were up to, in these magic places.”
From Chapter 7 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Cino and other Off-Off-Broadway venues carved out a place for gay men to explore ways of acting out openly queer identities, which eventually reshaped mainstream American culture. “Homosexuality,” Michael Smith noted, “was unmentionable at the time.” Robert Heide learned this lesson in 1961 when he wrote a play, West of the Moon, in which two men stood in a Christopher Street doorway seeking shelter from the rain. As the play unfolds, an older hustler takes advantage of a naive preacher’s son who had just arrived in town. Establishment critics were repulsed, and a Theatre Arts Magazine reviewer said Heide “should break his typewriter over his hands.” But Joe Cino liked it, and told Heide in his own eccentric way, “I want you to write a play just like West of the Moon, for two blond Nazi men.” The Bed featured two very attractive men in an existential time warp, drinking and drugging for three days. Joe Cino had no second thoughts about staging a show about two men in a bed, unlike Broadway producers of the time. “The Cino was very relaxed about people being gay,” Smith said. “So it was no big deal there and no one judged you that way. It was an outsider place because these people had no other place to show their work. There were a lot of gay plays there early on, like Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright.” That show was a heartbreaking little masterpiece, a Valentine to loneliness featuring an openly gay main character—the first of many written by Wilson, who developed into a major American playwright and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among many other honors.
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“I stepped into the new century my first day in New York when I stepped into Caffe Cino,” playwright Robert Patrick said. “There was no question that I was in the most important place in the world. I know Harry Koutoukas felt like that. Whenever nothing else was booked, Joe Cino would say, ‘Harry, you’ve got something?’ and Harry would give him a title. Then Joe would put the title in the Voice.” Though Koutoukas had been hanging around the Cino for a few years, his career as a playwright began in December 1964 with Only a Countess May Dance When She’s Crazy (an Historical Camp), which he wrote and directed at Caffe Cino. The script has the Countess shouting, “Bring me MY TIERRA—The one with the fewest jewels. . . . Oh there is no one to bring it—NO ONE TO BRING IT! NO ONE SHALL BRING IT OR CAN—I shall bring it unto myself! Even if I have to get it myself.” When the Countess returns with her “tierra,” she is interrupted by the ringing of a telephone, followed by the lowering of the paper cup on a string, which she answers. (When Koutoukas was asked why he couldn’t just use a prop telephone, the playwright snapped, “In a Koutoukas production, it’s paper cups.”) This provocateur, poet, and playwright had a knack for wordplay that spilled over into the titles of his “camps” (Koutoukas’s preferred term for plays), such as Tidy Passions, or Kill, Kaleidoscope, Kill (an Epic Camp) and Awful People Are Coming Over So We Must Be Pretending to Be Hard at Work and Hope They Will Go Away.
When Robert Patrick began hanging out at Caffe Cino in 1961, he had no grand design to become a playwright. It was his friend Wilson who helped inspire him to begin writing The Haunted Host, a play that was set on Christopher Street and also featured an openly gay character. “We went around to a diner called Joe’s for lunch, and I reached for a napkin,” he recalled. “I started writing The Haunted Host, but I would never have thought of writing the play if I hadn’t already been part of the Cino.” When Patrick asked Joe Cino to put on the show, he just threw the script over his shoulder and into the garbage. “You don’t want to be a playwright. Playwrights are terrible people,” Cino said, motioning to his star scribes—Lanford Wilson, David Starkweather, and Tom Eyen. “Oh, all right,” Patrick replied, dropping the issue. “Joe, you should do Bob’s play,” Wilson interjected. “He pulls his weight around here and you should do his little play.” Cino said, “No. He’ll thank me someday.” Wilson then insisted, “If you don’t do Bob’s play, none of us will do plays here anymore.” The other two playwrights looked at Wilson with raised eyebrows until Joe said, “Oh, all right, if it’s going to be a palace revolution.” The Haunted Host was a hit, kicking off Patrick’s wildly prolific career.
“A lot of the Cino scene was camp,” Jim Fouratt recalled. “Just look at Dames at Sea. That was the embodiment of camp.” Caffe Cino’s biggest hit was a playful homage to old 1930s and 1940s Hollywood musicals and, in particular, the black-and-white films of Busby Berkeley. “I think what made us such a hit was we were doing this homage to Busby Berkeley films, which had hundreds of dancers,” said David Christmas, who starred opposite Bernadette Peters in the Cino production. “But there were only six of us recreating all of that stuff in this tiny storefront coffeehouse.” Joe Cino almost always restricted productions to two-week runs in order to make room for the next play, but he made an exception for Dames, an inventive DIY show that raked in the money. “It’s quite amazing when you look back at how much originality was happening,” said Agosto Machado. “The stage area was tiny, and they did so much with so little.” Joe Cino painted his tiny eight-by-eight-foot stage with high-gloss black paint sprinkled with glitter, and the costumes, lighting, and makeup were also staged entirely in black and white. The Dames at Sea set used reflective Mylar to create the cheap illusion that there were many more people onstage during the dance numbers, and the other side of the rotating wall panels was decorated to look like a ship during other scenes. Show composer Jim Wise often played piano at the Cino, though sometimes his substitute was Barry Man. Later known as Barry Manilow, he accompanied Bette Midler for her cabaret shows in gay bathhouses during the early 1970s, and Midler also passed through Caffe Cino and La MaMa after she arrived in New York.
From Chapter 13 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
“There was a lot of amphetamine around,” Michael Smith said of Caffe Cino soon before it closed. “It created a desperate atmosphere, and played into Joe Cino’s sense of burnout.” After Freddie Herko leapt to his death a few doors down on Cornelia Street, the scene at the Cino grew increasingly grim. “That colored everything,” playwright William Hoffman said. “That was a big change, and I think Joe Cino never really quite got over it.” Then, in early 1967, Joe’s personal life went off the rails after the death of his boyfriend. “We talk about the great old days, and they really were great old days, but there was an undercurrent that wasn’t so great—namely the violence between Joe Cino and his lover Jon Torrey,” said Hoffman. “He wasn’t always violent, but enough to be a menace. I noticed the great tension between the two, and on occasion I would see Joe was beat up.” Others remember Jon Torrey as a charismatic, beautiful man who looked like a Minoan statue: tall, broad shoulders, and huge eyes, ears, and nose. He could work wonders with wiring, including finding a way to tap into the city’s electrical system to power the storefront theater’s shows for free. Torrey, who would throw himself into everything with wild enthusiasm, died in a work-related accident outside the city on January 5, 1967. Those who knew Torrey could imagine him being careless to the point that the electricity spat back at him, but Cino was convinced it was suicide and descended into a spiral of depression that led to his own suicide.
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
On the morning of March 30, 1967, the phone rang at Johnny Dodd and Michael Smith’s apartment down the street. “Joe was killing himself, and he was calling Johnny Dodd,” Smith said. “I picked up the phone because I was awake and Johnny was asleep. That was the reason I walked in on his death.” Smith let himself into Caffe Cino and saw Joe on the floor surrounded by blood, lit only by the dawn sunlight and the café’s twinkling Christmas lights. Joe picked up one of the other knives on the floor, but his hands were so slippery with blood that he could barely hold on to it. Smith screamed for him to stop and tried to pry the knife from his hands, to no avail. An ambulance finally came and took Cino to St. Vincent’s hospital, where he survived the day and was given antibiotics. Ellen Stewart stood vigil the whole time as dozens came to donate blood, but he died three days later. “After Joe killed himself,” Robert Patrick said, “both Harry Koutoukas and Ondine came to me in tears saying that they had killed Joe by slipping him some drugs. They had gotten some terrifically good, superior acid, and each of them had dropped a tablet of it in his drink. They never knew the other had, by the way. Each of them thought they had killed Joe.”