Tuesday, 9 December 2008

OFF-OFF STARTED OFF HERE

There's life after Mario Batali, the original chef/owner of Po Restaurant, 31 Cornelia Street, near 4th Street, as crowds flock for the affordable enticing fare offered by his predecessor's fetish for chili pepper. If you do go, try to score a window table - it always feels like to most romantic spot in town.

There was, however, life before Po Restaurant, and that was Caffe Cino where the beginning of the Off-Off-Broadway theater movement is generally reckoned to have started. In 1958 Joe Cino rented a storefront at 31 Cornelia Street, in the heart of Greenwich Village, in order to open a coffeehouse in which his friends could socialised.


Pioneer of the off-off Broadway Movement

Originally intending only to host folk music concerts, poetry readings, and art exhibits, a little later that it was decided to add a performance mix and from 1959, plays were staged on the coffeehouse's floor (see picture below). Caffe Cino's first theatrical offerings were plays from established playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Jean Giraudoux and soon Joe Cino organised a weekly schedule for theatrical performances and would introduce acts with the phrase "It's Magic Time!"


When it became impracticable to continue staging shows on the floor, Cino constructed a makeshift 8' X 8' stage from milk cartons and carpet remnants. The limited space dictated a need for small casts and for minimal sets, usually built from scraps found in the streets. Electricity for the stage lighting was stolen from the city grid. However, all of this created an intimacy between performers and audience.

Earliest known published Caffe Cino performance photo, Shirley Stoler in Tennessee Williams' "Camino," 1961

Joe Cino, the son of first generation Sicilian-Americans, came from a working-class family in Buffalo, moving to New York City when he was sixteen, studying performing arts in hopes of becoming a dancer. He became addicted to amphetamines as he struggled to keep the pace that Caffe Cino demanded from him. He began socializing with members from Andy Warhol's Factory, with whom Joe did a lot of drugs.

On March 30, 1967, Cino hacked his arms and stomach with a kitchen knife and died a few days later aged 36 years. Caffe Cino was not prospering at the time of his death, as it was not eligible for government grants which had allowed other experimental theaters to prosper, and Joe had refused to charge an admission or even a minimum. Though friends tried to keep Caffe Cino open, it closed in 1968, finally falling victim to new cabaret laws strictly enforced by the young, ambitious alderman, Ed Koch.

In honor of Joe Cino's courage and innovation the New York Innovative Theater Awards presented the first "Caffe Cino Fellowship Award" in 2005 to be given annually to an extraordinary Off-Off-Broadway theater company. In 2008, the office of the President of the Borough of Manhattan issued a proclamation honoring Joe Chino's achievement in founding Off-Off-Broadway' which "altered the world's conception of drama's possibilities forever." The proclamation was read by the distinguished playwright, John Guare at the unveiling of a bronze plaque attached to the wall at 31 Cornelia Street, the Caffe Cino site.

1 comment:

Mberenis said...

Grrrrrrrrrreat blog!!!
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