Caffe Cino lighting genius Johnny Dodd also lit other Off-Off-Broadway venues such as Judson Memorial Church, changing the direction of theater lighting; dancer Freddie Herko committed suicide from the window of the apartment Dodd shared with Michael Smith.
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.
From Chapter 1 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Happenings and other experimental performances had an impact on the plays that Larry Kornfeld staged at Judson Poets’ Theatre. What Happened wasn’t a play in the traditional sense. It was more of a poem uttered by different unnamed characters, which posed several challenges for director Larry Kornfeld, though he embraced the nonlinear narrative and wordplay. This Judson Poets’ Theatre production included five dancers and four actors—with Al Carmines onstage playing piano—and its use of the space and lighting was quite radical for the time. What Happened featured a protopsychedelic wash of light masterminded by Johnny Dodd, Caffe Cino’s resident lighting genius, who also worked at Judson and other venues. “The pews were taken out, folding chairs were put in, and so we played in every direction, in every corner, every possible way of using that space,” Kornfeld said, describing the upstairs choir loft that overlooked Judson’s open area of worship. “We sat audiences upstairs, they looked down, they sat downstairs, and looked up. Every kind of focus was explored—even two and three foci at the same time. It was an exploration of space.” Bibbe Hansen still treasures her vivid memory of seeing What Happened as an adolescent. “It was absolutely, for me, a turning point culturally, artistically, because it was by nature very experimental and nonlinear,” she said. “And yet it was lyrical and it was lovely and very winsome and captivating.” Hansen was even more surprised and delighted when the piano, which had remained in place throughout the performance, was swiftly moved from one end of the church to the other by the actors and dancers—all while Carmines continued playing. “At every performance from the first performance on,” Kornfeld recalled, “audiences just stood up and cheered at that moment, because they had never seen a piano move like that.”
From Chapter 9 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Soren Agenoux’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol took the audience deep into the soul of Ebenezer Scrooge, with absolutely no sentimentality. Michael Smith, who directed it, recalled that it was based more on the Scrooge McDuck comic than the Charles Dickens story. “There was also kind of an anti-Vietnam streak to it,” Smith said. “It was very obscure, because it was written in this kind of raving amphetamine haze that Soren Agenoux did so well.” Actress Jacque Lynn Colton, who played the Ghost of Christmas Past, recalled the show’s wild run. “I was kind of on the fringes of it all,” she said, “because I was not a gay boy, and I wasn’t into drugs or anything.” In one of her scenes, Colton was given a prop birthday cake with candles to wear on her head while she recited a two-page monologue, which was mostly poetic gibberish. Cino lighting genius Johnny Dodd slowly dimmed the lights so that when Ondine blew out the candles at the end of Colton’s long speech, the Cino went pitch black. This sort of technique is common today, but it was shockingly new at the time. The play was packed with allusions to pop culture and Factory scene inside jokes, with Ondine’s character spouting free-associating lines such as, “I help support certain establishments, certain recognized charities—the Girls of Chelsea Amphetamindell—THE VELVET UNDERGRINDLE.” Andy Warhol saw A Christmas Carol several times and sent his lieutenant Paul Morrissey to film it for the compilation film Four Stars.
From Chapter 12 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Freddie Herko was a premier dancer at the Judson Dance Theater—a wild, beautiful man whose performances were charged with his eccentric persona—until he got sucked into the drug scene. Beat poet and Off-Off-Broadway playwright Diane di Prima was a good friend of Herko; he told her that he “needed speed to push his body so he could dance the way he wanted to. He felt otherwise he didn’t have a chance; he had come to dance too late in life to make it work for him.” Over time, Herko mixed amphetamines with LSD and other drugs, all of which shattered his physical and mental health. “He had seen his dancer’s body with acid eyes,” di Prima recalled, “and seen how he had ravaged it with speed and neglect. Or, as he put it, he had ‘destroyed his house.’ ” Michael Smith shared an apartment with Johnny Dodd at 5 Cornelia Street, where Herko spent the final moments of his life. “It was only a matter of time, and nobody could do anything about it,” Smith said. “You can’t stop people from taking drugs. He was just kind of fading away.” On October 27, 1964, Herko stopped by the apartment when Smith was away and asked Dodd if he could take a bath—after which he rose from the water, put Mozart’s Great Mass in C on the turntable, and began dancing around the room. Dodd just sat there, feeling like something was amiss, then Herko danced out the open window and leapt five stories to his death.
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.”
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore