Enter Joe Cino

Enter Joe Cino

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
31 Cornelia St, New York, NY 10014