Joe Cino

Joseph Cino (November 16, 1931 – April 2, 1967), was an Italian-American theatrical producer and café-owner. The beginning of the Off-Off-Broadway theatre movement is generally credited to have begun at Cino’s Caffe Cino.

Joe Cino (L.) and Edward Albee at a benefit for the Caffe Cino after a fire, 1965, Photo: James D. Gossage.

Caffe Cino

Pioneer of the Off-Off-Broadway movement

In 1958, retired dancer Joe Cino rented a storefront at 31 Cornelia Street in New York City's Greenwich Village in order to open a coffeehouse in which his friends could socialize. So intimate was his clientele that he and those customers in his inner circle actually created their own patois, a mixture of Italian and English. Not originally intending that Caffe Cino would become a theatrical venue, Cino instead visualized a café where he could host folk music concerts, poetry readings, and art exhibits. Actor/director Bill Mitchell says it was he who suggested that Cino add plays to the performance mix. Dated photographs show that plays were staged on his coffeehouse’s floor from at least December 1958, after 1960 usually directed by actor/director Bob Dahdah. Cino at first saw theatre as just another kind of event to host. (Color photo of the Cino by James D. Gossage.)


Painting and literature are comparatively inexpensive arts which individuals such as the late 19th and early 20th centuries Realist writers and Impressionist painters could afford to experiment with, whether their works were accepted or not, but theatre requires a space and collaborators, and is a public art subject to the scrutiny of church, state, and the press. At the Caffe Cino, which made its meager living not from public approval of the work it presented, but from selling food and drink, where no one was paid except the police who were paid off, where reviewers seldom came (and reviews were usually published after a show had closed), theatre effectively entered the Modern era which the other arts had entered a hundred years before. Dozens and then more dozens of theatres appeared, based on the Cino model, in places which made their living other ways—cafes, bars, art galleries, and churches. To distinguish it from Broadway (large Equity theatres) and Off-Broadway (smaller Equity theatres), this new outside/underground theatre world came to be known as "Off-Off-Broadway." For the first time in history, the stage could be an area of primary expression, rebellion, novelty, and a vehicle for social and aesthetic change—in a word, unpopular. As a novelist has described it: "Off-Off-Broadway: The first place in human history where theatre is treated as the equal of the other arts, as a thing responsible and important above popularity ratings, outside monetary concerns, beyond academic and legal restrictions: The first studio of theater where playwrights can experiment as painters and poets have done for a century, free from the tyranny of audience, box-office, church, and criticism."

Popular Cino Plays. "Clown" and "Hanna" photos by James D. Gossage.

Caffe Cino’s first theatrical offerings were plays from established playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Jean Giraudoux. The first original play Cino produced is thought to be James Howard’s Flyspray (summer of 1960). Cino became so excited by the audience’s and his own response to the plays that he quickly established a weekly schedule for theatrical performances. He would introduce the acts with the phrase, "It's magic time!"[1]

The first performances at Caffe Cino were done on the café floor. Eventually, Cino constructed a makeshift 8’ x 8’ stage from milk cartons and carpet remnants which was used for some productions. The limited space dictated a need for small casts and for minimal sets, usually built from scraps Cino found in the streets. Cino relied heavily on lighting designer Johnny Dodd, who lit the stage using electricity stolen from the city grid by Joe Cino’s lover, electrician Jon Torrey. The space made for intimacy between the performers and audience, with little room for typical fourth-wall illusionary theatre. Cino decorated the café with fairy lights, mobiles, glitter dust, and Chinese lanterns, and he covered the walls with memorabilia and personal effects.

Selection of plays

Cino seldom read the plays submitted for his consideration; rather, he was more likely to ask a novice playwright what his astrological sign was. If he liked the answer, he staged the play. However, many of the young playwrights who premiered their works at Cino's venue, including Doric Wilson (later founder of TOSOS, the first professional gay theatre), William Hoffman (later author of "As Is"), Robert Patrick ("Kennedy's Children"), John Guare ("Six Degrees of Separation"), Tom Eyen ("Dreamgirls"), Sam Shepard ("True West"), Robert Heide ("The Bed," filmed by Warhol), Paul Foster ("Tom Paine"), Jean-Claude van Itallie ("America Hurrah"), and Lanford Wilson ("Burn This"), as well as directors Tom O'Horgan ("Hair") and Marshall W. Mason ("Talley's Folly") and players such as Al Pacino and Bernadette Peters would go on to significant commercial and critical success, winning Tonys and Pulitzers, among other honors. Doric Wilson's four 1961 hits made him Off-Off's first cult success and proved that there was an audience for new and daring plays. Paul Foster's Beckettian puppet play, "Balls," was so talked about that one of the first articles about Off-Off-Broadway was titled, "Have You Caught 'Balls?'" But Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright (May 1964), a devastating actor’s tour-de-force about a lonely, aging queen, was the Cino’s breakthrough hit and was performed over 200 times with actor Neil Flanagan in the title role. Although playwrights Jerry Caruana, Doric Wilson, Claris Nelson, and David Starkweather had each previously presented numerous well-received original works at the Cino, it was the success of Lady Bright which convinced Joe Cino to concentrate on works by new playwrights.

Pioneer in gay theatre

Lucy Silvay, Tom Bigornia, and Neil Flanagan in Lanford Wilson's "The Madness of Lady Bright," 1964, photo by Conrad Ward

The Cino was a friendly social center for gays at a time when most openly gay life was restricted to bars and bathhouses. Although The Madness of Lady Bright is often referred to as the first conspicuous American drama to feature an explicitly homosexual character, a number of earlier Cino productions had also dealt with gay identity, including Doric Wilson's biting satire Now She Dances! (1961). Alan Lysander James presented several gay-slanted programs of Oscar Wilde material at the Cino from 1962 through 1965, while director Andy Milligan also staged a number of heavily homoerotic productions, including Jean Genet's "The Maids" and "Deathwatch," as well as a dramatization of Tennessee Williams' short story "One Arm" which went on to become the first production of the venerable La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club. Only after Lady Bright, however, the Cino came to be recognized as a significant venue for plays dealing with explicitly homosexual themes, principally Robert Patrick's "The Haunted Host," William M. Hoffman's "Good Night, I Love You," Bob Heide's "The Bed," and Haal Borske's "The Brown Crown." Ruth Landshoff York, H.M. Koutoukas, Jean-Claude van Itallie, Jeff Weiss, Soren Agenoux, and George Birimisa also presented Cino plays with incidental gay content which probably would have been unacceptable outside of Off-Off-Broadway at that time.

Conflicts between avant-garde and commercial plays

Donna Forbes in "Dames at Sea," 1966, photo by Conrad Ward
H.M. Koutoukas's "All Day For A Dollar," 1965, photo by James D. Gossage

The musical Dames at Sea opened at the Cino in May 1966 for an unprecedented twelve-week run. That, other long runs, and revivals of past hits (especially those by Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen and Bob Heide), plus the availability of better facilities in some of the new theatres which the Cino had inspired, drove some writers away. Some regulars, accustomed to cutting-edge avant-garde works, such as those of H.M. Koutoukas, disliked the slickly commercial "Dames", while the new, more mainstream audience attracted by "Dames" and Lanford Wilson's plays didn’t necessarily like such experimental works as a string of shows using comic books as scripts (first conceived by Donald L. Brooks).

Police raids

A Comic Book Play. Magie Dominic as Snow White.
1967, Kenny Burgess' abstracted poster for "Donovan's Johnson" by Soren Agenoux, and Ondine and Olympio Vasconceles in performance.

Throughout Caffe Cino’s existence, Cino was plagued by police harassment as he continually took heat for licensing violations. There was no applicable license available. Window posters were designed by artist Kenny Burgess so that they looked like abstract art to passersby, yet could be read by the cognoscenti. But police were aware of the place's activities. Cino paid a great deal of money in payoffs during the 1960s. Rumors abounded that Cino received protection from the Mafia, due to his alleged family affiliations. However, these rumors have never been proven and any connections Cino may have had did not make keeping the cafe open easier. He was nothing if not industrious and he acted as café host while simultaneously serving as its maintenance man, a server, and a barista. Through it all, he generally kept other jobs in order to support himself and the café. His motto, “Do what you have to do,” was one he lived by and encouraged his writers to live by as well. At the Caffe Cino’s peak, plays were performed twice nightly, with three shows per night on weekends. The goal was not just to get as many paying customers in the café as possible. Even if audiences failed to turn up, Cino insisted on a show. “Do it for the room,” he would tell the performers, and they did. After Joe Cino's death, police issued summonses so often that when a policeman appeared down the block, actors had to be ready at a signal from the doorman to leap offstage and sit, often in fantastic costumes, at tables with patrons.

Publicity and reputation

Freak show: Joe Cino, Sam Shepard, and Robert Patrick, The New York Times Magazine, December 5, 1965.
Later tributes. L., ed. Leah D. Frank, r., Lincoln Center Tribute, curators Richard Buck and Magie Dominic, photos by James D. Gossage

Caffe Cino shows received little major "uptown" press, a notable exception being the entertainment trade paper Show Business where married critics Joyce and Gordon Tretick risked their jobs by promoting the caffe and other Off-Off venues. Downtown, critic/playwright Michael Smith and some other Village Voice writers were supportive, giving a joint "Obie" (Off-Broadway) award to Joe Cino and Ellen Stewart (founder of La Mama) in 1965. A number of ephemeral downtown publications intermittently covered single shows. Most uptown mentions were coy and condescending, such as a famous 1965 New York Times Magazine "breakthrough" article which basically seemed to be shocked by the movement's poverty (the article was entitled "The Pass the Hat Theatre Circuit"). Playwright Ruth Landshoff York persuaded Glamour Magazine to do an article on a group of playwrights. Life Magazine for weeks took photos around Off-Off for a feature that was never published. In general, such little foreign press as the movement got was much more enthusiastic and understanding. The uptown reputation question is summarized in this anecdote: George Haimsohn, librettist and lyricist for "Dames at Sea" and "Psychedelic Follies," said the reason the Caffe Cino was omitted from all publicity for the musical's uptown move was, "We don't want to be associated with drugs and homosexuality." Resuscitation of the Cino's reputation began in the late 1970s when the by-then world-renowned Ellen Stewart proclaimed, "It was Joseph Cino who started Off-Off Broadway." Leah D. Frank, first editor of the first enduring Off-Off publication, Other Stages, commissioned Cino survivors to write memoirs about the caffe. Recent years have brought the publication of several books about early Off-Off and two specifically about the Caffe Cino, referenced below.

Posthumous recognition

Memorial plaque of Joe Cino.

In 1985, scholar Richard Buck and Cino veteran Magie Dominic curated a pivotal exhibition at the Lincoln Center Library of images and artefacts demonstrating the Caffe Cino's importance in theatre history. In 2005, in honor of Joe Cino's courage and innovation, the New York Innovative Theatre Awards presented the first Caffe Cino Fellowship Award. This award is given annually to an extraordinary Off-Off-Broadway theatre company. In 2007 it was awarded to the first "playwright-in-residence" at the Caffe, Doric Wilson. On April 28, 2008,[2] the office of the President of the Borough of Manhattan issued a proclamation honoring Joe Cino's achievement in founding Off-Off Broadway which "altered the world's conception of drama's possibilities forever." The proclamation was read by John Guare at the unveiling of a bronze plaque depicting Joe Cino at his espresso machine, affixed to the wall at 31 Cornelia Street, the Caffe Cino's site. There have been two books about the Cino, mentions of it in many others, and numerous books about individual Cino artists.

Personal life

Jon Torrey and Joe Cino, September 1962

Joe Cino, the son of first generation Sicilian-Americans, came from a working-class family in Buffalo. He moved to New York City at the age of sixteen, studying performing arts for two years in hopes of becoming a dancer. Though he made a living dancing throughout much of the 1950s, his continual struggles with weight curtailed his dance career.

Cino eventually became addicted to amphetamines as he struggled to keep up the pace that Caffe Cino demanded from him. On January 5, 1967, Jon Torrey was electrocuted and died in Jaffrey, New Hampshire. Though his death was ruled accidental, skeptical insiders claimed that he committed suicide. The event sent Cino into a depressive spiral. He began socializing with members from Andy Warhol’s Factory (attracted by the success of "Dames"), including the notorious Pope Ondine (a.k.a. Bob Olivio), with whom Cino did a great deal of drugs. Caffe Cino itself was beginning to suffer. The Caffe Cino, as a commercial enterprise, was ineligible for the government grants which had allowed other experimental theatres to prosper, and Joe refused to charge an admission or even a minimum.

On March 30, 1967, Cino hacked his arms and stomach with a kitchen knife. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors announced that he would live. However, on April 2, Jon Torrey’s birthday, Joe Cino died. Though friends tried to keep Caffe Cino open, it closed in 1968, finally falling victim to cabaret laws now being strictly enforced by the young, ambitious councilman, Ed Koch.


Further Reading:

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