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Caffe Cino

Gary Comenas (2009/rev. 2015)


John Vaccaro: "This [the Caffe Cino] is the beginning! This is it! The major things done in New York were done there, and nowhere else. I don't give a shit what anybody else says. They're lying." (SB7)

caffe cino

Caffe Cino
Robert Dahdah and Yvonne Rainer moving the Caffe's furniture for a performance of Incidents by (and starring) Rainer and Larry Loonin
(Photo: Robert Patrick)

A gay hangout before gay bars were allowed to operate openly, the Caffe (Italian spelling) Cino, which opened in December 1958, was started by Joe Cino and his boyfriend at the time, the painter Ed Franzen, in a storefront located 31 Cornelia Street. (GO25) The core staff consisted initially of Joe Davies, Charles Loubier and painter-dishwasher Kenny Burgess. Joe Davies recalls, "Tuesday was poetry night and then there was a music night and a dance night, and finally somebody said, well, let's have a play reading!'" (SB) The initial play readings at the Cino evolved into fully staged productions and "Off Off-Broadway" was born. According to Cino playwright, Robert Patrick, it was Billy Mitchell who suggested that the Cino do plays. (RP050509) Robert recalls that the plays "became a regular thing in February, 1960, when actor/director Bob Dahdah brought his "Strolling Players" in to do No Exit. Dahdah remained at the Cino through 1966, mounting dozens of classics and new plays, climaxing with the Cino's greatest hit, Dames at Sea." (RP060509)

From Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement by Stephen J. Bottoms:

"The emerging coffeehouse culture in Greenwich Village in the late 1950s provided new platforms for painters, poets, and musicians, and it was natural enough that plays, too, began to be mounted in a number of cafes, more or less simultaneously. 'It began as a few very isolated productions here and there,' [Village] Voice critic Michael Smith remembers: 'There were two or three cafes in the Village that occasionally did a play. It wasn't any movement. But then a couple of places started doing them all the time, so I could write something.' Smith initiated a review column headed 'Cafe Theatre,' and by September 1960, there were sufficient performances being mounted in coffeehouses such as the Take 3, the Phase 2 and the Cafe Manzini that the Voice began listing 'Cafe Dramas' in a separate classified section. Then, in the November 24, 1960 edition of the Voice, that section was retitled 'Off Off-Broadway,' in recognition of the fact that this new wave of small-scale theater was no longer confined merely to cafes...

Many of the early cafe offerings were simply fly-by-night attempts by MacDougal Street establishments to cash in on the boho-tourist trend that peaked in the summer of 1960... That summer, the fire department issued temporary closure orders against the Gaslight, the Cafe Bizarre and the Take 3 for breaches in fire regulations, and by the fall, the police were targeting cafe owners for staging entertainments without cabaret licenses... That the Caffe Cino became the single noteworthy exception to this rule was thanks primarily to two factors. First, founder Joe Cino learned early on that pressure from city officials was often best handled 'out of court:' 'Never have so many payoffs been made for so many ripoffs to so many jerkoffs,' playwright Paul Foster notes of Cino's under-the-counter dealings with New York's civic servants. Second, as financial constraints forced other cafes of the period to close when they could not pay basic wages, Joe Cino found that a close, inner circle of friends were willing to work for him without pay...

Thus, unlike its early counterparts, which mostly discontinued theater production within a year or so, the Cino survived long enough to develop sufficient reputation to attract a stream of hopeful playwrights, directors, and actors to its tiny stage. Throughout the decade, plays continued to appear intermittently at other Village coffeehouses, but none of these projects acquired any regularity or consistency. Only Ellen Stewart's Cafe La Mama achieved anything like the longevity of the Cino, and even La Mama only survived its infancy by turning itself into a semiprivate club." (SB40-41)

Playwrights who used the Cino for early productions of their work included Doric Wilson, John Guare, Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Robert Heide, H. M. Koutoukas, Robert Patrick and Tom Eyen. It was at the Cino that the musical Dames at Sea was first presented. Some of the productions later went on to play at other venues. La Mama's inaugural play, for instance, was Andy Milligan's production of Tennessee Williams' One Arm which had previously played the Cino. The La Mama production opened on July 27, 1962. When a fire in March 1965 caused the Cino to be shut down temporarily for renovation, Joe Cino presented productions at La Mama on Sunday and Monday evenings. (CC95-96) La Mama also toured Cino productions in 1965.

The lighting designer at the Cino was Johnny Dodd who also appeared in a Kiss film (with Freddy Herko) by Warhol and Haircut No. 3. (It was from Dodd's apartment that Freddy Herko would jump to his death in 1964.) Warhol star Ondine was also involved with the Cino. In November 1966 he appeared in a production titled Thanksgiving (Jury Duty) Horror Show. (CC127) and in December of the same year appeared in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at the venue which was filmed by Warhol. According to Cino playwright Robert Patrick, other Warhol stars who did work at the Cino included Taylor Mead, Ronald Tavel, Louis Waldon and Mary Woronov. (RP220408)

In addition to filming Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, Warhol also filmed The Bed by Cino playwright Robert Heide, according to Heide. Callie Angell wrote the following about The Bed in the first volume of the film catalogue raisonné:

Callie Angell:

"The Bed was a play written by Bob Heide, which premiered at a benefit for the Caffe Cino at the Sullivan Street Theater in March 1965; the play reopened at the Cafe Cino on July 7, 1965, and ran for 150 performances. In the fall of 1965, Warhol and Dan Williams shot a double-screen film version of Heide's play. In 1966 Warhol appropriated the basic idea of the play, without using Heide's script, for a three-reel remake called The John, two reels of which, Boys in Bed and Mario Sings Two Songs, were included in The Chelsea Girls." (AD193)

According to Wendell C. Stone in Caffe Cino: The Birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), the benefit took place on April 26, 1965 at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. The benefit for the Cino was a result of a fire at the venue which resulted in its temporary closure. (CC99) Stone also notes that a revival of the play took place after the run of performances that opened in July 1965 during the following September. (CC105). The play was the producing debut of Ron Link. Link would later go on to produce Glamour, Glory and Gold by Warhol star Jackie Curtis and Women Behind Bars starring John Water's transvestite superstar, Divine.

Robert Heide's The Bed (1965)
(Photo: Billy Name)

Some of the Cino regulars blamed the Warhol crowd for the proliferation of recreational drugs at the Cino. Cino director, Andy Milligan, thought the "Warhol people" ruined the Cino. Ondine disagreed.

Andy Milligan:

"Johnny Dodd and I did not get along. One Arm was one of the last shows I did at the Cino. A sick little play. I wanted amber light down into the cell; Johnny wouldn't do it... and Johnny spit in my face and I decked him... The Warhol bunch was the nastiest. When they came into the Cino they destroyed it. They were all terrible actors... Candy Darling had a few good qualities, but they were really ugly people. Self-centered, egotistical personalities. Freak show time. Freaks bring drugs. The Warhol people ruined Cino." (GO59)


"The 'Warhol People'! There were no 'Warhol People' except me! I knew Joe Cino from Fire Island in the fifties - when he was a houseboy and we called him Ginger. Sure I gave Joe drugs. I gave everyone drugs, even my mother. I slipped LSD in her coffee; she went on some trip. I drugged everybody - I liked drugs... Everybody took drugs... I went to the Cino to purchase my peyote, and believe it or not I was introduced to hallucinogens at the Caffe Cino. The 'Warhol People' were an infusion of life blood at a point when the Caffe Cino needed it. I brought in an audience that was pretty spectacular. It wasn't just created to be pocket theater for a bunch of faggots." (GO63)

According to Milligan biographer, Jimmy McDonough, "even [Johnny Dodd] concurred that drug use intensified upon the arrival of the Warhol set. Ondine and company brought in 'bushel baskets full of pure methedrine. It was like you had to sweep it out of the way - way beyond what people could use.' During the nightmarish month-long December 1966 run of A Christmas Carol, starring Ondine and filmed by Warhol, the Cino turned into a shooting gallery. 'Joe asked me to be in a show one of the Warhol people did,' said Robert Patrick. 'They were all drugged out of their minds. The dressing room was a mass of cookers and needles... it was just drugs day and night.'" (GO63) Keith Carsey, an actor at the Cino through 1963, later recalled to Patrick that he (Carsey) "dropped out of the Cino when the drugs arrived." (RP062709) Drugs would ultimately be the downfall of Joe Cino.

Angelo Levullo:

"Two weeks before he [Joe Cino] died, he told me he was on LSD in a cab heading toward the west side. And his head began to open up and his ears fell off. He was having a terrible hallucination. He said he was never gonna take it again... But he was on LSD the night he died." (GO66)

Jimmy McDonough (from The Ghastly One: The Sex-Gore Netherworld of Filmmaker Andy Milligan):

"Michael Smith saw Cino a week before the end. Cino, Dodd, and Ondine were bouncing off the walls at Orion's uptown apartment. 'They had been there all night. Tripping, doing speed, crazed out of their minds. We actually wrote a play that night. Joe got very self-destructive and despairing that night, first time I'd ever seen it happen...

[A few nights later] Cino showed up at Neil Flanagan's apartment. 'He was talking suicide, all this stuff,' said Neil's wife, Jackie... The phone rang at Johnny Dodd's apartment that night. Dodd was asleep. Michael Smith answered. It was Joe Cino. 'He called for Johnny. He said, 'I'm just calling up to say good-bye.' He sounded very weird. I said, 'Where are you?' He wouldn't say. It was at the crack of dawn, just beginning to get light.'

Smith grabbed Johnny's keys and tore over to the Cino... Once inside, Smith found Joe Cino eviscerating himself. 'He [Joe Cino] was in the back by the coffee machine, covered with blood, trying to stab himself in the chest with this big knife, and it was just bending, just wouldn't go in. It was grisly, utterly horrifying. I tried to get the knife away from him, but he was very slippery from the blood... a total bloody mess.'" (GO67)

Although Smith got Cino to the hospital, he (Cino) developed peritonitis from his wounds and died on April 2, 1967. His death made the front page of the 6 April 1967 issue of the Village Voice.

Michael Smith ("Theatre Journal," Village Voice, 6 April 1967, pp. 1, 29)

"Joe Cino is dead. He committed suicide early Friday, survived for three days in critical condition, and died Sunday evening in St. Vincent's Hospital...

His death is unthinkable because he was always a creator of life. In 1958 he opened the Caffe Cino at 31 Cornelia Street and the fun began. Poets came in and he let them read. Actors came in and he let them act. Playwrights came in and he let them put on their plays... Before long Joe Cino had created the prototype for Off Off-Broadway.... Cafe La Mama, Judson Poets' Theater, and Theatre Genesis came into being, all doing new plays, followed by a dozen more cafes, lofts, workshops, church groups. Off Off-Broadway was born...

What he demanded of a play and production was that it come to life; when it didn't, he could drive people to hysteria trying to kindle the spark he believed in. He had little patience with limitations of nerve, passion, or energy. He despised ego games when they detracted from the work. If he was sometimes impossible to work with, it was because he was sometimes bitterly disappointed.

Joe Cino loved people for their uniqueness. He loved the energy that flows from people doing what they love to do. Best of all he loved 'magic time,' that moment of infinite possibility when the lights dim and an unknown world miraculously comes alive."

The actor/playwright Charles Stanley and Michael Smith managed to keep the Caffe going after Cino's death but it finally shut its doors in March 1968. In March 1985 a tribute to the Caffe took place at Lincoln Center in New York. (GO69)

Gary Comenas
Warholstars/2009/rev. 2015


Caffe Cino Links

A short history of the Caffe Cino by Robert Patrick is here

Michael Smith's website is at: here. His blog page can be found here.

Doric Wilson's website is here. His blog page can be found here. Some of Wilson's plays are available here (And He Made a Her includes a recording of the Caffe Cino production on CD.) The website for "The Other Side of Silence" - the first professional gay theatre company in NYC - founded by Wilson, Billy Blackwell and Peter Dell Valle - can be found here.

Selected Caffe Cino Productions
A partial list of productions at the Caffe Cino


And He Made a Her by Doric Wilson (pre-June1961)
Babel Babel Little Tower by Doric Wilson (June 1961)
Now She Dances! by Doric Wilson (1961)
Pretty People by Doric Wilson (1961)
The Rue Garden by Claris Nelson (dir. Marshall W. Mason) (1961)
The Maids by Jean Genet (two prods - dir. Andy Milligan) (July 1961)
Deathwatch by Jean Genet (dir. Andy Milligan) (October 1961)


One Arm by Tennesse Williams (adapted for the stage and directed by Andy Milligan) July 1962
The Two Executioners by Arrabal (dir. Andy Milligan) September 1962


The Lesson by Eugene Ionesco (January 1963)
You May Go Home Again by David Starkweather (February 1963)
So Who's Afraid of Edward Albee? (February 1963)
Miss Julie by August Strindberg (dir. Joe Cino) (July 1963)
So Long at the Fair by Lanford Wilson (dir. Denis Deegan) (August 1963)


Home Free! by Lanford Wilson (January 1964) (dir. Neil Flanagan) (Toured by La Mama in 1965)
The Madness of Lady Bright by Lanford Wilson (dir. Denis Deegan) (May 1964)
The Haunted Host by Robert Patrick (dir. Marshall W. Mason) (December 1964)


With Creatures Make My Way by H.M. Koutoukas (May 1965)

The Bed by Robert Heide (July and September 1965 (CC105)) (Directed by Robert Dahdah)

The Bed was previously performed at a Cino benefit at the Sullivan Street Playhouse. According to Wendell C. Stone in Caffe Cino, The Birthplace of Off-Off Broadway, the benefit performance took place on April 26, 1965. (CC105) However, that is the same date that John Gilman gives for the opening of the film - see below - and it is not clear where Stone got his date from. Callie Angell writes that the play premiered in March 1965.)

John Gilman:

"Warhol came on several occasions to see his play The Bed at the Caffe Cino in 1965.  The Bed featured two young men in an oversized bed and was filmed straight-on by Andy Warhol with Danny Williams shooting specific close-ups, hand movements and zoom-ins at Richard Bernstein's loft on the Bowery in the fall of 1965.  It opened on April 26, 1966 at Jonas Mekas’ Filmmakers Cinematheque on 4lst Street.  The script written by Robert Heide was a close adaptation of his one-act play The Bed, an off off Broadway hit at the Caffe Cino.  Projected onto two adjacent screens the film anticipated Warhol’s famous double-screen The Chelsea Girls."  (27 July 2009)

Callie Angell (from the first volume of the Warhol film cat. rais.):

"The Bed was a play written by Bob Heide, which premiered at a benefit for the Caffe Cino at the Sullivan Street Theater in March 1965; the play reopened at the Caffe Cino on July 7, 1965, and ran for 150 performances. In the fall of 1965, Warhol and Dan Williams shot a double-screen film version of Heide's play. In 1966 Warhol appropriated the basic idea of the play, without using Heide's script, for a three-reel remake callled The John, two reels of which, Boys in Bed and Mario Sings Two Songs, were included in The Chelsea Girls." (AD193)

All Day for a Dollar by H.M. Koutoukas (dir. Robert Dahdah) (December 1965)


Speak, Parrott (dir. Soren Agenoux) ( November 1966) (RP121109)

Chas. Dickens’ Christmas Carol by Soren Agenoux (dir. Michael Smith) (December 1966) (starred Ondine) (filmed by Warhol at the Cino) (RP121109)

Callie Angell:

"... Chas. Dickens' Christmas Carol at the Caffe Cino... was filmed by Warhol and incorporated into **** (Four Stars) as Reel 27." (AD149)


Donovan’s Johnson by Soren Agenoux (dir. Michael Smith) (May 1967) (starred Ondine) (run cut short) (RP121109)

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