The Village Trip

A new annual festival honoring the history and heritage of Greenwich Village

Magic Times

Caffe Cino and the Birth of
Off-Off Broadway

Magic Times conjures up happy memories of Greenwich Village past

A few paces from the hallowed ground of Caffe Cino, friends of the late Joe Cino and his shape-shifting cafe-theatre gathered recently to celebrate the revolution that started there sixty years ago: the birth of Off-Off Broadway and the happy marriage of theater and social justice.

The star-studded standing-room-only evening marked the official launch of The Village Trip, the first in a series of fundraising events ahead of the launch of the inaugural festival on September 27, 2018 and one which was trumpeted in Broadway World. It was moderated by theater critic Charles Isherwood.

The venue was the theater at the Cornelia Street Cafe, opened 41 years ago by Robin Hirsch, a Brit who came to New York on a Fulbright Scholarship to write a PhD on avant-garde theater - and never left. With two other “starving artists” he bought a store-front cafe - and soon discovered that it was next door to one of the places he’d written about in his thesis. The space is almost identical - but unlike Cino, whose lights were clandestinely plugged in to the city electricity grid, Cornelia Street pays its own utility bills.

Magic Times

From left Charles Isherwood, John Guare, John Gilman, Robert Heide and Magie Dominic.
Photograph by Jeff Hodges

Among those perched atop high stools on the Cornelia’s small subterranean stage was John Guare, author of Six Degrees of Separation and other award-winning plays. He was just out of the air force with ambitions to be a playwright in 1964 when “I wandered down a street I’d never been down before” and fell upon Caffe Cino. Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright was playing and (it being afternoon) Joe Cino had not yet arrived from New Jersey, where his day job as a steam presser funded his great endeavor. So Guare returned at 6pm the next day with his portfolio.

“Mr Cino. I’m a playwright.”

“Go away, I’m not doing any plays.”


“I only doing plays by Aquarians.”

Guare told him that he was indeed an Aquarian, which he was then required to prove. “So I took out my driver’s license and he looked at it and said: ‘I’ve been waiting for you!” And he took out his chart and said ‘You have two weeks - and look, you have a third week’s extension. Welcome to the Cino.”

Magie Dominic, the writer, artist and director who now curates the Cino archive at Lincoln Center, remembered being asked her sign, which was Cancer. She was immediately put to work directing Helen Hanft, the so-called Ethel Merman of Off-Broadway. “That was 1965 and I never left.”

She recounted a phone call from Joe one night in 1966. “He said ‘They’re doing the umbrellas for Dames at Sea and I won’t let anyone touch them till you get here - come in now’.” Dominic assumed “umbrellas” was a new word in Cino’s famous private language but it turned out he was superstitious: “Joe wouldn’t let anyone open them in the cafe, but Bob Heide gave me a box of sequins and when I’d put sequins all over the umbrellas they were magical so they could be opened up.”

The brollies were of course used in the song “Raining In My Heart”. Dames at Sea was Cino’s biggest success and the musical which launched the career of Bernadette Peters.

Everyone agreed: Cino’s belief was that you had to “surrender to chance… to choose chaos.” One night, members of the cast failed to show up for a play. “Joe turned to Harry Koutoukas and he said ‘run up to the candy store and buy a comic book’,” Guare recounted. “So he bought the current issue of Wonder Woman and he got the audience to act out scenes.” The audience - which included Cino stars Linda Eskenas and Marilyn Roberts - collapsed in laughter.

There was more laughter when actor John Gilman recalled the Cino production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs - except “there was an ever-changing number of dwarfs!” - and reminded everyone how Joe Cino demanded that each performance begin with “everyone singing ‘God Bless America’.” Pianist Brock Hempl played the opening notes and immediately Gilman, Guare, Heide and Dominic broke into song, the audience joining in.

Jean Claude van Itallie, author of American Hurrah, spoke affectionately of Cino and those magic times. “It was a community down here. We were in each other’s plays… Many of the things we can say about the Cino could also be said about Cafe La MaMa,” another downtown experimental theater where writers came to find their own voice. “Sometimes we failed and sometimes it was crap and sometimes it was pretty good - but the main thing is we had places to do all that.” But he regretted that “since Andy Warhol people can no longer talk about creating art without also talking about how they’re going to sell it, how they’re going to present it. It’s a very very changed world and I don’t think it’s good.”

Heide agreed “the Village was a sea of plenty”, those heady days “like the Weimar Republic - it couldn’t last.” And sadly it didn’t, personal tragedy and Joe Cino’s death bringing down the curtain on Caffe Cino in 1968 and AIDS on many more lives, in the Village and beyond in the years that followed.

For Guare, Cino was “a victim of its own success. After The Boys in the Band there was no more reason to have Off-Off Broadway. Cino had a thrilling period of light.”

Van-Itallie concluded on an upbeat note: “The Village is a state of mind. The potentiality for creativity is a state of mind. The Village is still a place of possibility. If you allow yourself to listen to that little voice from deep inside you can still find a little place to do something.”


The Magic Times event took place at
Cornelia Street Cafe on Sunday, April 22 2018.



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