Robert Patrick was a Caffe Cino regular who began hanging out there in 1961, an immersion that led him to become a prolific playwright with boundless energy; after Caffe Cino closed in 1968 he moved over to the Old Reliable, a dive bar and Off-Off-Broadway theater venue on the Lower East Side.
On Cornelia and Fourth Street was a dress shop with a fancy mannequin in front where movie stars sometimes shopped. It was run by Andy Milligan, a designer who also directed some of the earliest shows at Caffe Cino. He later went on to make trashy low-budget movies such as The Ghastly Ones, Vapors, Seeds of Sin, The Body Beneath, The Man with Two Heads, and Torture Dungeon. “Andy was an S&M motorcycle freak, but a good director,” said playwright Paul Foster, who was connected to another Off-Off-Broadway theater, Café La MaMa. “He was outrageous. He would say anything and do anything, which was exciting because it was new. Andy was quite a character.” Robert Patrick added, “Andy Milligan was a dress designer and into S&M, as pretty boys learned when they first hit the Cino.” He staged a homoerotic dance during his production of Jean Genet’s Deathwatch at the Cino, and Milligan’s version of Genet’s The Maids had a lesbian sex scene that was sizzling for its time.
From Chapter 1 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.
“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.”
“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.”
Upset by what was happening to La MaMa and other venues, Ed Sanders used Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts as a bully pulpit: “Shriek! Shriek! The Goon Squads are loose! We are motherfucking tired of the brickout of books, movies, theatre groups, dope freaks, Times Square gobble scenes, poetry readings, night club acts, etc. in New York. The Department of Licenses, the freaks in the various prosecutors’ offices, the Nazis, the fascists, et al., have joined psychoses for a Goon Stomp.” La MaMa’s 82 Second Street venue opened on June 28, 1963, with Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano, but by October the theater literally went dark because no one could pay the electric bill. After quitting as a designer for a Brooklyn swimsuit factory, Stewart began working for the fashion label Victor Bijou to pay the bills. Selling instant coffee at La MaMa wasn’t a big moneymaker, but that didn’t stop the Buildings Department from charging her with profiting from the coffee sales, and the city padlocked La MaMa’s doors once again in March 1964. Stewart was finally able to keep her new location open by giving away the coffee for free and turning the theater into a private club. “You paid one dollar dues,” Robert Patrick said. “For that, you got to see all of that week’s shows.” The new twenty-by-eighty-foot loft at 82 Second Street could seat seventy-four people, a big improvement from its original basement location, but it still needed a lot of work. Friends came to build a twenty-by-eight-foot stage, dressing rooms, and a coffee bar, and also installed a light board. They scavenged the streets for tables and old chairs, which furnished the new theater.
From Chapter 6 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
On Sundays, Ellen Stewart used her free time to explore the city on the subway, and she eventually stumbled upon a few blocks on the Lower East Side that were overflowing with fabrics sold by vendors. A Jewish merchant with “this little black thing on his head,” as Stewart called it, approached her, looking to make a sale. Abraham Diamond soon realized she had no money, but he could tell she had a talent for design, so he took her under his wing and adopted Ellen as his “artistic daughter and designer.” “Orchard Street is just a couple of blocks south of where La MaMa was,” said playwright Paul Foster, who helped Stewart start Café La MaMa and stuck with her through the years. “That’s where she met her buddy, Papa Diamond. He kept a pushcart in his window, to show everybody what he came from, because he was a peddler. He adored Ellen, and she adored him.” Diamond provided Stewart with fabric, and she would take the subway back to Diamond’s store every Sunday with a new outfit, when her “Papa” ushered her around Orchard Street, praising his “daughter’s” designs. Back at Saks, where she worked from 1950 to 1958, customers saw Stewart in one of her self-designed outfits and thought she was a Balenciaga model. “Somebody finally noticed,” recalled Robert Patrick, “and she wound up with her own little boutique, Miss Ellie’s Boutique at Saks.”
“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
Eventually, Caffe Cino became known for staging plays based on comic books. This tradition began when someone suggested that they perform scenes from a Wonder Woman comic that was lying around the Cino. Great idea, Robert Patrick thought, so he sent someone out to buy extra copies of the comic at the corner store. “You’re Steve Trevor,” Patrick said, grabbing anyone who was available. “You’re Woozy Winks. You’re Etta Candy.” Diana Prince—aka Wonder Woman—was played by Harry Koutoukas (he eventually put the name “Diana Prince” on his mailbox at 87 Christopher Street). “Within the hour,” Patrick said, “we had The Secret of Taboo Mountain, the Cino’s first comic book play. There were four comic book shows: Wonder Woman, Snow White, Archie and His Friends, and a ‘Classic Comics’ version of Faust.” Koutoukas also appeared in Snow White, where friends and audience members were sometimes recruited minutes before a performance. Robert Shields, the actor who played Grumpy, recalled that the number of dwarves fluctuated from evening to evening. “One night we had something like eighteen to twenty dwarves running back and forth,” he said. “Fred Willard did it one night. Whoever was there, they’d just say ‘Okay, yeah, I’ll do that.’ So occasionally we had more dwarves than we had audience.”
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.
During the Caffe Cino production of The Death of Tintagiles, Harry Koutoukas stirred up trouble as he sat by the stage wearing his cape with the fake parrot on his shoulder. “It was supposed to be a serious play,” said cast member Jayne Anne Harris, “but, well, Harry was kind of a force of nature, even from the audience.” The trouble began when the lead actress pushed open a set door with her pinky, even though it was supposed to be heavy, which Koutoukas found endlessly amusing. “She was a Method actress, and she was a pain in the ass,” Harris recalled. “If you laugh one more time, I will cut you,” she declared, which only made Koutoukas laugh harder. “If you laugh one more time, I WILL CUT YOU!” she said again in a very dramatic Shakespearean voice, while holding a sword over her head. Koutoukas laughed again. Robdert Patrick, who was managing Caffe Cino that night, recalled that “she buried her sword in Harry’s table and stormed out.” The Death of Tintagiles’s run abruptly ended, so the café crowd quickly threw together a new show—a common occurrence at Caffe Cino.
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.
“The Cino was becoming well known,” Robert Patrick said, “and it attracted people who just cared about publicity—i.e., the Warhol people. The first was Soren Agenoux, who did a crazy gay Christmas Carol.” Vinyl, Ronald Tavel’s loose adaptation of the novel A Clockwork Orange, was also staged at the Cino in 1967 after Warhol shot his own filmed version. In both the movie and stage versions, Mary Woronov played the doctor and Gerard Malanga was the victim. “I started doing movies for Andy Warhol when Ronnie Tavel was also working for Andy Warhol,” Woronov recalled. “That’s when I met Ronnie, and he used me constantly in his plays. That’s how I ended up at Caffe Cino, La MaMa, and other Off-Off-Broadway places.” Actor Norman Marshall, who also appeared in the Cino version of Vinyl, said that Woronov was a convincing S&M sadist: “She was really torturing the poor guy.” Many at Caffe Cino felt that the presence of the Warhol people fundamentally changed its character. “Soren Agenoux’s shows were absolutely nonsense,” playwright William Hoffman said. “They were doing plays that were gibberish, very speed-oriented.” There was the feeling that, well, Maybe the play might make sense on drugs? Or not. “The Warhol crowd was what it was,” Robert Patrick added. “I don’t know whether to blame Warhol. He was surrounded by freaks, creeps—some of them were okay people, some were not. Mostly, it was just a freak show and cultivated as such.”
From Chapter 12 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
The Old Reliable was one of the many Polish-Ukrainian bars scattered throughout the neighborhood—a beer-and-a-shot type of place with a stinky dog named Cornflakes that slept on the sticky floor, amid the peanut shells, spilled beer, and broken glass. Many of the bar’s regulars were likely on welfare or were drawing from a pension, and the large back room had previously been used for dancing on the weekend. “The dancing basically was dry humping,” said playwright Michael McGrinder, who frequented the bar before it became a theater. “Mostly, it was black guys and white girls, and music from an old Wurlitzer jukebox” (the neighborhood had long been a safe zone for interracial couples). The Old Reliable began opening its back room to the Off-Off-Broadway crowd after playwright Jeannine O’Reilly put on shows there. “She invited us over to see them,” Robert Patrick recalled. “So when the Cino closed, there was no question that I would move to the Old Reliable.” The owner, Norman Hartman (also know as “Speedy”), was a thin man in his forties or fifties who spoke with a very heavy Polish accent and outfitted himself in a fedora, along with other snazzy flourishes. “Speedy was an unlikely Off-Off-Broadway producer,” said Walter Michael Harris, who also performed there. “He seemed like, ‘Well, why not? What the heck? Let’s give it a try.’ And so he let all these crazy artists in.” The Old Reliable’s former dance floor was retrofitted with a two-sided stage with an L-shaped seating arrangement that could hold around seventy people. Robert Patrick was gregarious and likable, and he probably made a good impression on Speedy, who was something of a ham. He seized any opportunity to make announcements or play an on-or offstage role.
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore