Joe Cino Appreciation Day 

Dave Edson 

OK. Here's a riddle: What do you get when you combine a bunch of strippers, some comic books, Rosemary Clooney's voice, a handful of sailors, and a teenage Bernadette Peters? Answer: Any given night at the historic Caffe Cino and the origins of Off-Off Broadway Theatre.

How about a joke? So, two playwrights walk into a bar…oh, go ahead and insert your own set up and punch line. When the playwrights are John Guare and Lanford Wilson, it's no laughing matter. Although back in the day, it was just another night.

To even attempt to imagine the days of the Caffe opened by Joe Cino (1931-1967) between 1958 and 1968 and the countless (and now legendary) productions, actors, directors, designers, and especially playwrights from that time- boggles the mind. To actually hear the endless anecdotes of humor and passion from the surviving artists on the rainy, early evening of April 28th, 2008, you had to squeeze down the steps at 31 Cornelia St. in the West Village like clowns cramming into a V.W. bug. Affectionately referred to as a "rabbit hole", the tiny basement space, at what is now The Cornelia Street Café, holds a magic that would make Alice and her Wonderland friends jealous.

A gathering of about 60 gracefully aging artists including Doric Wilson, Bob Heidi, Marshall Mason, and Bob Dahdah- who can claim 50 productions (no repeats) during the Caffe's prolific decade- gathered to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Caffe's opening. Christine Karatnysky, Scripts Librarian from the New York Public Library, emceed the evening. Although archives from the Cino era are rare, the air was absolutely buzzing with priceless memories, insights, and laughter. No document could compare to Mr. Wilson's witty, masterful story telling live on stage. He had the audience in stitches in a matter of minutes.

A plaque was unveiled and a proclamation from Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer declaring April 28th as Joe Cino Appreciation Day was proclaimed by none other than John Guare himself. Times have changed since the NYPD used to frequently shut down the gay-friendly shows and Ed Koch eventually closed the doors forever.

Besides the fact that producing a play 50 years ago in New York City could be pulled off for less than a hundred bucks, some of the same quirks, eccentricities, and remarkable coincidences still occurred regularly. Take the fact that because Mr. Cino was Italian, the prospective landlady trusted him enough to declare from her window "I don't even need to come down, I'll just throw down the keys". Or since the fresh out of the Air Force John Guare had NOT been born in, say, October, he was able to have his first plays produced at the Caffe. Well, first he had to prove to Cino that he was indeed an Aquarian by showing him some ID. To which Cino replied, "I've been waiting for you. You open in May and get a third week extension".

Not shockingly, mistakes were made. In Cino's own words: "Sometimes I'll realize after a night or two that a play is very bad." With only one unanimous exception, every production got a ful run. No matter what. Even if they had an audience of zero, the cast did the show "for the room." Sweet murmurs of agreement from the reunion confirmed this dedicated mission. Rumor is, these were some of the greatest performances.

The times seem to inform the work. In the early 1960's the West Village was the kingdom of the Bohemian counter-culture. Post McCarthy era writers were terrified of writing anything political. Pre-AIDS crisis times called for a sexual revolution. Back then, these outlaws and angels thought that it was about NOW. Everything was dramatic and happening for the first time. Writers were writing. The Caffe Cino seemed to be more of a safe haven than anything else.

So, how do we, the current torchbearers of the Off-Off Broadway community, learn from our elders and keep the light bright for the future? Well, in case you haven't heard, there's a pretty big election coming up. Authority and life still need to be questioned. The globe is still warming. AIDS is still around, and rent doesn't appear to be getting more affordable. Yikes.

The good news: last time I checked, there are hundreds of Off-Off Broadway theatre companies and about 40,000 artists rocking in all five boroughs. Ensembles are getting more and more creative with using space, loads of grants are being written, as is the future of American theatre.

Fortunately, people still need to laugh, to gather as a community, to strike up a conversation, and simply be moved. At one point in the evening, someone cried out for inspiration, "Where are the emerging playwrights? We need a jolt from the entire country!" These are our times now. Clearly the need to create theatre is no less important today than it was 50 years ago.

And you have been sitting on that idea for a show for…how long now?

Perhaps Mr. Guare put it best when he remarked, "We need to take the generous spirit of Joe and to find a 31 Cornelia St. anywhere we can! Here's a room, make a play."

Photo of the Joe Cino Appreciation Day ceremony.

More Photos from the Caffe Cino.


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