On September 18 I gave a presentation, at the invitation of The Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, on the origin of Off-Off Broadway, and to be specific on Joe Cino, a Sicilian who arrived in Manhattan from Buffalo, on February 7th, 1948, during a blizzard, by bus, sixteen and broke. Joe worked two jobs, saved money, opened a small storefront studio at 31 Cornelia Street on a Friday night in December 1958, and gave poets and playwrights a place to create–for free. The room could hold about 45 people and was officially full when two people were seated on top of the cigarette machine. The Caffe was Joe’s gift to the world. People worked together like parts of the sky. Joe was always the moon. The music of Mozart, Gene Autry, Kate Smith, Shirley Temple, Billie Holiday and Callas overlapped with the scent of good cappuccino.
Trying to condense the history of Joe and the Caffe and the staggering quantity and quality of playwrights, directors and actors who learned their craft on an 8-foot bare stage is an almost insurmountable challenge, but it’s a story that begs to be told, and it’s true. I was there. As were others. Tom Eyen, Lanford Wilson, Bernadette Peters, John Guare, Sam Shepherd, Marshall Mason, Edward Albee and Tom O’Horgan worked there. The list is as long as the telephone directory in a small village. Tom Eyen created a character that would become Bette Midler and I stage managed a very young Bette. Lanford Wilson sketched plays that would later win a Pulitzer and Tony. Joe saw the genius of people who walked into the Caffe and offered them freedom, but most of all friendship. There was no fee, nor any box office. Pass the basket after a show, split the proceeds. Maybe $10. a week. Subways were cheap then–it wasn’t until 1966 that they went up to twenty cents. Joe gave people a place to create, and in 41 minutes I sketch that story, now on YouTube, “The Story of Caffe Cino”, the story of a small storefront studio that turned into an Italian caffe, which turned into the incubator for some of the greatest theater talent of the 20th century. For ten years that tiny 8-foot stage opened up like a chakra. The Caffe Cino shaped who I am, and will forever be. That tiny room at 31 Cornelia gave me my sense of the world.