Playwright and Village Voice theater critic Michael Smith championed the Off-Off-Broadway scene and print when he wasn’t directing and writing plays, and later running Caffe Cino after Joe Cino’s suicide.
Shirley Clarke made a variety of experimental shorts before her first feature-length film in 1961, The Connection, adapted from Jack Gelber’s play, which had been a hit for the Living Theatre in 1959. Founded by Judith Malina and Julian Beck in 1947, the Living Theatre was at the forefront of the 1950s Off-Broadway and 1960s Off-Off-Broadway movements. “New York theater at the time was just glittery entertainment—very, very glamorous and all that,” recalled Village Voice theater critic Michael Smith. “So the Living Theatre was very much an alternative to that, completely going against the mainstream culture.” In 1959, Shirley Clarke asked her sister Elaine Dundy if she could recommend a short story or play to adapt as her first feature-length film. “I didn’t even have to think,” said Dundy. “Something that would suit her right down to the depths of her avant-garde soul was the Off-Broadway play The Connection.” After Shirley optioned the film rights, she and playwright Jack Gelber collaborated on the screenplay, which incorporated the presence of cinema verité documentary filmmakers into the plot. “Shirley was like a rushing river,” Gelber recalled. “Warm, quick, garrulous, laughing at the slightest provocation, she seemed ready to jump at any new experience out there.” Clarke’s dance career also shaped The Connection; it was shot in carefully choreographed long takes and deftly edited together by Shirley and film editor Patricia Jaffe recalled how Clarke came to the editing room smoking a cigar while dressed in pants and a jockey cap. “I was eight months pregnant at the time, and we had a cutting room at 1600 Broadway,” she said. “People used to open the door just to look at the two of us. We were such an unusual pair.”
From Chapter 2 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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.
From Chapter 1 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
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.”
Folk was also the music of the moment, and the best place to read about it was the Village Voice. Writers for that neighborhood paper had a connection to the downtown arts scenes that was far more intimate than, say, reporters from larger media organizations like the New York Times. Coverage from independent media outlets such as the Voice—and, later, the East Village Other and SoHo Weekly News—generated momentum and publicity for these scenes that allowed them to grow. It was a mutually constitutive relationship. Michael Smith and Richard Goldstein (who became the Voice’s theater and rock critics) shaped their respective scenes through their writing, and the same was true of the paper’s coverage of the folk phenomenon. The Bronx-born Goldstein first discovered the Village Voice in the late 1950s after listening to the independent Pacifica radio station, WBAI, which also cultivated the downtown’s underground scenes. Reading the Voice, he learned about the folk music that was happening in coffeehouses and at Washington Square Park, and began taking the subway down there with friends. “The club that we went to the most was Gerde’s Folk City in the Village, off MacDougal Street,” Goldstein said. “Gerde’s Folk City was one of the places that had these open mic events that we called hootenannies. That’s where I saw Dylan first.” The Gaslight was another coffeehouse that Dylan frequented, a basement venue that could squeeze in about 125 people. The older Italians who lived on the upper floors complained about the noise that wafted up from below, and they retaliated by throwing things down the airshaft. “So instead of clapping, if people liked a performance they were supposed to snap their fingers,” folk musician Dave Van Ronk explained. “Of course, along with solving the noise problem, that also had some beatnik cachet.”
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Between 1961 and 1964, MacDougal Street was crawling with coffeehouses that catered to the tourists who came downtown on weekends. Peter Crowley—who later booked Debbie Harry’s and Patti Smith’s bands at Max’s Kansas City during the 1970s—ended up working at one of these tourist traps in 1963 after a stint at the Living Theatre. He was walking down MacDougal Street one day and saw a sign on a coffeehouse window that said Drag Wanted. Crowley inquired inside, wondering what in the world that sign meant, and was told, “Oh, we need somebody to stand outside and drag the tourists in.” “Well, I could do that,” he said, so the manager hired him on the spot. There Crowley was, hustling tourists in front of the Why Not Café, across the street from the more famous Café Wha. “The coffeehouses were fake, where you would just drag the tourists in with the sales pitch, almost like a carnival,” he said. “The opposite was done by the manager of the Café Rafio, who would stand out in front. He looked like a Viking with really long red hair and long red beard. He dressed all in black and would glower at the tourists. So having gone past all these places that tried to drag them in, tourists would see this guy standing at the doorway, giving them dirty looks, and they’d say to each other, ‘Oh, this must be the real place,’ and they would go in there.”
In addition to DIY mimeo printing, the downtown’s social networks thrived with the help of community and underground papers like the Village Voice and the East Village Other. Michael Smith joined the Voice in the early 1960s as a theater critic, when the paper was still struggling on a week-to-week basis to keep the lights on. It was more volunteer work than anything else, but Smith’s passion for promoting underground theater kept him going. In New York, negative reviews had serious consequences for a show’s bottom line, so producers and theaters tended to gravitate toward critic-and crowd-pleasers. For example, Sam Shepard’s budding career as a playwright was nearly over before it began after mainstream papers panned his debut production. “I was ready to pack it in and go back to California,” he said. “Then Michael Smith from the Village Voice came up with this rave review, and people started coming to see it.” Jonas Mekas also exerted a major influence on underground film through both his Village Voice film column and Film Culture, the magazine he published with his brother Adolfas Mekas. Future filmmaker John Waters devoured Jonas Mekas’s writings from afar. “When I was in high school,” Waters said, “I would read Jonas Mekas’s ‘Movie Journal’ column every week in the Village Voice. That was a huge, huge influence to me. Mekas’s Film Culture magazine was my bible. He was my life saver. That’s how I knew about everything when I was living in Baltimore.”
From Chapter 5 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
When Ellen Stewart learned of the family’s garage theater in Florida, she inaugurated a “Young Playwrights Series” at La MaMa. George Harris III and the rest of the kids mounted Ann Harris’s Bluebeard and The Sheep and the Cheapskate, which they revived at La MaMa. “And there we were,” said Walter Michael Harris, “not only doing the ones we did in Florida, which were two that Mom wrote in college, but Mom was also inspired to create some more shows—working with my brother George and me on the book and the music.” This started a family tradition of writing about whatever was going on in their lives. “Our Macbeth parody, titled MacBee, spoofed the Mad Men era of advertising,” Walter said. “We all had some experience with this world, as we were constantly auditioning for TV commercials. We kids were all traipsing up and down Madison Avenue with our headshots and our portfolios, looking to find TV or commercial work, and so our show MacBee was about that.” They enrolled in acting classes—learning Method acting and discovering how serious and ridiculous it could be—which inspired their satirical musical, There Is Method in Their Madness. It received a positive review from Village Voice theater critic Michael Smith, and the El Dorado Players continued to thrive on the La MaMa stage.
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
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.
A group of Caffe Cino mainstays—Michael Smith, Robert Patrick, Magie Dominic, and Charles Stanley—helped keep the coffeehouse open, but they were getting too many citations and summonses from the city. Even before it permanently closed in 1968, many of the regulars stayed away. “I stopped going to the Cino because I guess I was in mourning without knowing it,” William Hoffman said. “It was such a shock and it was no longer the same place.” During this period, he began going to Norman Hartman’s Old Reliable Theatre Tavern. This old-school bar was located in a volatile neighborhood, on Third Street between Avenues B and C. “In the back room of this smelly bar,” Hoffman recalled, “we put on fantastic plays at the time and I learned how to be a director. I followed Bob Patrick there.” After Patrick’s turbocharged energy was unleashed at Caffe Cino, he became even more prolific at the Old Reliable. Patrick and Hoffman were part of the bohemian migration away from the West Village in search of cheaper rents and new adventures, with ailing bars like the Old Reliable willing to let them do their thing.
From Chapter 14 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.
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.”
Judson Church hosted Joe Cino’s memorial service, just as it had Freddie Herko’s, and friends staged several tributes (such as Dames at Sea’s “Raining in My Heart,” a low-rent Busby Berkeley number that surely would have made Joe smile). “Caffe Cino was very romantic,” Michael Smith said. “We might as well let it be romanticized. But I just don’t like to see Joe’s death romanticized, or Freddie Herko, or Jon Torrey. These people died because they were in despair, and there’s nothing romantic about that. It’s terribly sad and it was a terrible blow.” Joe Cino was the model of freedom and artistic exuberance, and for him to kill himself was like a denunciation of everything he stood for. Oh, that doesn’t work, some couldn’t help but think. This was a wonderful way to live, but it just doesn’t work. “It was a shock, but I had had several shocks like that already,” said F. Story Talbot, who had lost four good friends in a short period of time. “It was like one-two-three-four—people I was close to in the theater—and it was part of what shook me out of the theater.”
After Harry Koutoukas’s apartment caught fire in 1972, actor and playwright Harvey Fierstein wrote a show about his attempt to help clean up the mess, In Search of the Cobra Jewels. Fierstein played the Koutoukas character, mixing real details from the apartment (such as how Koutoukas partitioned his living space by tying together large scarves) with bawdy surrealism. He recited a poem about a lover as he cut a folded piece of paper with scissors—then opened it up to reveal a string of little paper men with penises, holding hands. The Cobra Jewels cast also included Agosto Machado, Ronald Tavel, Harvey Tavel, and the unpredictable Koutoukas himself, who began slicing his wrists with a razor onstage one night. “Take the razor out of Koutoukas’s hand!” people screamed as Ellen Stewart tried to stop him. “Take the razor out of his hand!” Machado recalled, “We all walked offstage, and Koutoukas—who is fabulous—he just said, ‘Oh, are you going to condemn me for getting blood on the stage?’ ” In Michael Smith’s Village Voice review, he reported that “the opening night blood-letting introduced too much reality onto the stage for my taste. I was sickened and horrified.”1 Stewart was also disturbed by the spectacle, and some time after she reminded him, “Harry, I actually saved your life, remember? You were onstage and you slit your wrists and then you started to cut your throat and I stopped you.” The stubborn playwright retorted, “Yes, but I still object to you stopping my performance, for censoring me. But I do thank you.”
From Chapter 29 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore