Landford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright featured an openly gay main character—the first play of many written by the Caffe Cino regular, who developed into a major American playwright and eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, among many other honors.
“I think we were a little bit of an anomaly at the Cino and at La MaMa,” said Walter Michael Harris, “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.” An Off-Off-Broadway director could cast a multitude of parts—a mom, a teenager, a boy, a girl—in one fell swoop. “If you needed a kid,” recalled Robert Patrick, “you called the Harris family. We just took them for granted.” Eloise Harris got her Equity card at the age of nine performing in Invitation to a Beheading at Joseph Papp’s Public Theater, and Jayne Anne Harris could be seen serenading Lanford Wilson in a production of Claris Nelson’s The Clown at Caffe Cino (she was cast as a boy). The roles kept coming, with the kids doing theater at night and going to school by day. The family queued for meals around the clock to maintain their varied production schedules, and Ann helped the kids with homework and ran lines with them.
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
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.