Friday, January 19, 2007

Return to the Caffe Cino

From 1958 to 1968, on Cornelia Street in New York City's Greenwich Village, there was a boho meeting place called Caffe Cino. The gay Sicilian-American, Joe Cino (below left) served cappuccinos, cannole and free theatre, and along with Judson Church and La Mama ETC, the tiny joint emerged as ground zero for what became known as the Off-0ff-Broadway Theatre. Short plays were performed nightly on a portable 8-foot by 8-foot stage without charging either rent or admission, and the performers were paid by a passing of the hat among the audience at the end of each performance.

According to Edward Albee (above right), who used to hang out there in the early 1960s, "[It] was where young playwrights who knew nothing about what they were supposed to be doing made exciting work, and the failures were as exciting as the successes. It was Eden. I miss it."

The place has fallen out of popular history, which may be corrected thanks to a recently published book by Steve Susoyev, above, who collaborated with the 82-year-old San Francisco playwright George Birimisa (below) on an anthology of plays that premiered at the Caffe Cino along with "memoirs" from the survivors of that time.

Through the miracle of Craigslist, I connected with the two editors last summer when their modestly conceived project had grown into a 500-page monster manuscript that desperately needed proofreading, graphics assistance, and copy editing.

The book was finally published last November in conjunction with a theatre festival in Boston that was performing a number of Caffe Cino plays, and to my utter delight the finished product has turned out much more beautifully than I had ever imagined. (Click here for the Amazon page.)

Many young people who eventually became famous were involved in the Caffe Cino scene, including a teenage Bernadette Peters in "Dames At Sea," which opened there as a smash success before quickly moving uptown. One of the memoirs in the book is by the director Robert Dahdah, who originally conceived most of the show but was never compensated for it. He settles a few old scores:
"When I found out that Jim Wise [the composer] had died, I called his collatorator, George Haimsohn, and I said, "Jim Wise is dead. Good." And he said, "Why good?" and I said, "Because he stole my talent, and he never recompensed me for it. And he's burning in hell." And, do you know, two weeks later I read George Haimsohn's obituary in "Variety." So they're both burning in hell but that doesn't do me much good."

In editor Steve Susoyev's introduction, he writes:
"For an early draft of this book, we pondered using the words "Dawn of Queer Theatre" in our title, and many participants ganged up to convince us that such a title limited and insulted the work that Joe Cino nurtured on his little stage forty-some years ago. William Hoffman wrote, "I'll be queer if it'll sell books," but in our first meeting he persuaded me that such was not necessary."
The twenty plays in the volume by the likes of Lanford Wilson, Sam Shepard, Doric Wilson, Robert Patrick and Tom Eyen, are stylistically all over the map. Ionesco's Theatre of the Absurd, along with Samuel Beckett, seemed to be the dominant influences but what links most of these plays are their desire to shock the audience. What's amazing is how shocking many of them remain.

Helen Hanft (in the two photos above) was one of the acting divas of Caffe Cino, and she recently played the same role in Tom Eyen's "Who Killed My Bald Sister Sophie?" forty years later. From all accounts, the performance was even better than the original. She's quoted in an interview in the book:
"When you saw me play Hanna forty years later, I didn't have to study my lines. The role is riveted in my soul, my brain chemistry. This is a woman with more than a blemish. She's deeply wounded. Outside the role, I was not the easiest person to get along with. I was very envious of people. I always felt like I was being deprived, a victim, when I was victimizing people myself. Toxic people are drawn to the theatre. They think they can get away with their toxicity there."

There are dozens of fascinating characters and stories that are mentioned in the "memoirs" that could fill entire books in themselves. For instance, the Harris family consisted of a World War II veteran, his wife, and their five kids in Florida who in the late 1950s decided to graduate from their amateur theatricals and move to New York City. The family was basically adopted by the Caffe Cino, and Walter Michael Harris (above right) was in "Hair" on Broadway at age 16.

Walter's brother George Harris III (the two photos above) became "the famous blond sticking the famous flower into the famous rifle at the Pentagon," in the words of Robert Patrick.

George then transformed into Hibiscus in San Francisco (above), the soul and co-creator of both The Cockettes and The Angels of Light.

Joe Cino (above), like many of his compatriots in the 1960s, took way too many drugs, principally speed, and in the dark, scary year of 1968, after the death of his lover from drug-induced sloppiness at a summer stock theatre, he committed suicide by locking himself in the cafe, putting Maria Callas on the jukebox, and trying to commit hari-kari. It took him three days to die in St. Vincent's Hospital, and a place and time were over.

At the San Francisco Main Library in Civic Center this Sunday the 21st at 2-4 PM, there will be a free public event with Steve Susoyev and George Birimisa talking about the book and the era.

Plus, there will be a performance of Lanford Wilson's "The Madness of Lady Bright," an important Cino play, done by the legendary San Francisco drag queen Trauma Flintstone. Be there or be square.


Patrick J. Vaz said...

I'm missing the event, but thanks for the link to Amazon; I just bought the book.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding history...I've purchased the book as well. A piece of NY theatre that adds so much meaning to so many lives and careers that followed. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

hey Bro,

Have you ever seen a film @ the Angels of Light? I saw it very late at night with black and white performance footage that seemed timeless. I had no idea!

Unknown said...

Also little noted and unremembered is the fact that the premiere production of San Francisco's Theater Rhinoceros was The Madness of Lady Bright, directed by Allan Estes and starring Meg Brazil and Frank Hoffman.

Robert Patrick said...

75 pages of Caffe Cino Pictures, and a few heretofore unpublished playscripts, start here: