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Remembering the Caffe Cino

Remembering the Caffe Cino

George De Stefano (April 30, 2008)
Joe Cino inside his cafe

In November 1958, Joe Cino started a theatrical revolution when he opened his Caffe Cino in Greenwich Village



Fifty years ago this November, Joe Cino, a 27-year-old out of work dancer, opened an Italian coffeehouse in a Greenwich Village storefront. He wanted a place where he and his bohemian friends could socialize and where he could host folk music concerts, poetry readings, and art exhibits.


But Caffe Cino – its proprietor left off the final accent on “caffè” -- instead became a theater that presented the early works of such writers as Sam Shepard, John Guare, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, William Hoffman, Robert Patrick, and Jean-Claude Van Itallie. Diane di Prima, a leading figure of the Beat movement, read her poems and had her plays performed at the Cino. Two renowned Italian American actors did some of their first work at Caffe Cino: Al Pacino and Bernadette Peters.


The stage was tiny, the props and scenery were minimal and hand-made. But Caffe Cino was the birthplace of New York’s Off-Off Broadway, and Joe Cino was il padrino of this thrilling new cultural phenomenon.   


On Monday, April 28, some of Cino’s associates and friends, as well as theater devotees who had never set foot in the Caffe, packed the Cornelia Street Café to commemorate the legendary establishment and its founder, who died in 1967. (The Cornelia Street Café is right next door to the space that had been the Cino and is now Po, the upscale northern Italian restaurant.) Outside, before the event, John Guare unveiled a plaque from the Manhattan borough president’s office honoring Cino and his Caffe.


Christine Karatnytsky, from the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, spoke about Joe Cino as a gay Italian American bohemian who changed the face of American theater.


Karatnytsky noted that decades ago Cornelia Street and the surrounding South Village blocks had been an “ethnic enclave.” When Joe Cino arrived there in the 1950s, the area was the third largest Italian American community in New York, after Little Italy and East Harlem.


For the young Joe Cino, Greenwich Village was a place where he could, in the U.S. Army’s immortal words, be all that he could be – Italian, gay, bohemian. Born in 1931 in Buffalo, New York to immigrant parents, Cino was, said Karatnytsky, “a beautiful gay boy in a Sicilian family.” A lover of the arts, especially opera and dance, he studied to be a professional dancer, or, as his homophobic brothers put it, a “ballerina.” 


But his tendency to gain weight – Doric Wilson, a Caffe Cino playwright, remembers him as “short, dark, and roly-poly” -- put an end to his dance career.

If bohemia, italianità and gay life overlapped in the Village, so they did inside Joe Cino’s coffeehouse-cum-cabaret theatre. Gay writers, actors, and patrons shared tables with straight Italian teenagers on dates, sailors on leave, and strippers on their breaks from the nearby burlesque houses. They all came to enjoy the espresso, Italian sandwiches, and cannoli that Cino served. But more important, they stayed to revel in the atmosphere of uninhibited creativity, freedom, and nonconformity that he encouraged and nurtured.


It’s important to remember the era in which Joe Cino created this underground oasis. America had just emerged from the fearful McCarthy years, the Beat movement was well underway, and African Americans were fighting to end legal racial discrimination. The counterculture, the “second wave” of feminism, and the gay liberation movement all were gestating. Joe Cino was both of his time and ahead of it.


Marshall Mason, the renowned director and co-founder of New York’s Circle Repertory Company, early in his career directed several plays at Caffe Cino. Recalling his experience there, he said, “When you went down that rabbit hole, life was never the same.”  


“Joe, God bless you, wherever you are,” an emotional Mason concluded.


Cino committed suicide in 1967, stabbing himself while alone one night in the Caffe. He was said to have been wracked with grief over the death of his lover, Jon Torre, in an electrical accident, and stressed out over repeated police raids on the Caffe, which had neither a theater permit nor a cabaret license. His addiction to methedrine – a drug he first took to lose weight -- further contributed to his emotional and psychological decline. As he lay dying in St. Vincent’s Hospital, dozens of friends and admirers lined up to donate blood.


Some of Cino’s associates tried to keep the Caffe going after his death, but it finally closed in 1968. 


At the Cornelia Street Café tribute, John Guare, author of such acclaimed plays as “The House of Blue Leaves” and “Six Degrees of Separation,” hailed Joe Cino as the founder of Off Off Broadway and the embodiment of its freewheeling spirit. He urged us “to remember this great man and not have him be forgotten.”


Evviva Caffe Cino! Evviva Joe Cino!


To learn more about Caffe Cino and Off Off Broadway, see the following books:


Stone, Wendell C. Caffe Cino: The Birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway. Southern Illinois University Press.

Susoyev, Steve and Birimisa, George. Return to the Caffe Cino. Moving Finger Press

Bottoms, Stephen J. Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement. The University of Michigan Press.

Crespy, David A. Off-Off-Broadway Explosion: How Provocative Playwrights of the 1960s Ignited a New American Theater. Back Stage Books


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