DORIC WILSON ON THE CAFFE CINO
TO SEE BARRY CHILDS’ HEARTBREAKING VIDEO MONTAGE OF DORIC WILSON IMAGES, CLICK HERE.
(The Caffe Cino was a coffee house at 31 Cornelia Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village. Opened by Joe Cino in 1958, it lasted until his death in 1967. A playwrights theater, the Cino had a major influence on American theatre, beginning what became called Off-Off-Broadway and introducing dramatists as diverse as Tom Eyen, John Guare, Robert Heide, William Hoffman, Harry Koutoukas, Robert Patrick, Sam Shepard, Doric Wilson and Lanford Wilson. Alternative theatre in general, and Gay theater specifically can trace it’s roots directly back to the Cino.)
Doric Wilson On Caffe Cino
(printed in Other Stages (NYC), March 8, 1979) A standard New York snowy city night (circa 1961). I followed Regina Oliver into the Caffe Cino to meet Joe Cino to ask him to read my play And He Made A Her for possible production. Joe (Puck personified) was busy behind the counter. He smiled, asked me my birth sign, again smiled (with marked patience) when I answered Pisces, made an incomprehensible comment to someone (Charles Loubier) in an impossible language (Simuloto), gave me a cup of cappuccino (my first) and a performance date, and politely refused to read my offered script.
Regina moved me to a table. I asked her where the stage was, she pointed to an eight foot by eight foot space of open floor. Maria Callas singing an aria from Tosca ended on the jukebox, a Greek folk song began. A handsome man (Joe Davies – the father of overalls as fashion) stood to dance an impromptu, almost modest male-less-strip-than-tease. From another table, an amply structured, overtly female woman (Shirley Stoller) watched with languid disdain. (Shirley’s expression of approval – I would later learn.) The room was amber and red and warm except for a frigid table in the corner, where a neo-monastic in the sackcloth of corduroy sat reading Sartre (Robert Heide?). Four or five inadvertent impersonations of James Dean wandered in (without cause) – the one with the body (call it chance) was named Dean. With him was a walking, breathing Botticelli (Johnny Dodd). In the months that followed they would perform a dialogue of Andre Gide in very brief fur loincloths.
A lovely, lavender person named Ester joined our table and was even more overjoyed at my pending production than I was. I asked Ester if she would like to read my script. She also politely refused. I asked one of Dean’s Jimmy Deans if he would like to read my script. He politely refused. Among the laughing, hopeful, winking 8 x 10’s on the wall were paintings (by Johnny India) of old men/old women sitting lonely on Washington Square benches. Perhaps they would like something to read.
The Greek folk song ended. I would prefer to remember its being followed by Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child”. It was on the jukebox. Everything was.
I had come to NYC from Kennewick, a wheat town in the banana belt (ask Michael O’Brien) of Washington State to study set and costume design. A closet dramatist from an early age, at ten years old I was writing and staging westerns in the barn of my grandfather’s ranch on the Columbia River (to the chagrin of my cousin Dan Doyle who was always cast as the dance hall floozy.) My first play, The Moon Is August (blank blank verse), was handed in as my senior composition in English Lit. Mrs. Shrieves failed me, convinced I had plagiarized it. She left me with the impression there were no living playwrights. Here I was, in the city barely a year, and about to have a play performed. A play written thanks to the unknowing subsidy of Time, Inc. who were under the naive assumption they were paying me to work for them.
I hurried home to share my news with my director/roommate, Paxton Whitehead. I didn’t mention the eight feet by eight feet. The next night I took him down to the Village to see the Cino. I couldn’t find the Cino, I couldn’t find Cornelia Street, I couldn’t even find the Village.
And He Made A Her
Paxton and I cast the male roles (three angels and Adam) from Cino irregulars. We couldn’t find the right actress to play Eve. Ron Gallardo, the actor playing Urhelancia, had filched from another audition (and for unclear reasons) a photo and resume of a likely candidate. Paxton sent me into my bedroom when Jane Lowry arrived to read – playwrights are to be heard but not seen. Lady Jane got the part (the first of many she would play for me) and became one of Joe Cino’s most beloved actresses (and my Gertrude Lawrence.)
Not wanting people to think And He Made A Her was my first play to be performed, I wore three-piece suits and a trench coat tossed over my shoulder. I also drank brandy and soda. (Until the Devil and Janis Mars introduced me to stingers in the BAQ Room.) I told my good news to Bernie (noblesse oblige) Hart at the Little Bar at Sardi’s. Bernie warned me “not to get involved down in the Village – you’ll never get back uptown”.
Marshall Mason remembers the date of my first opening night, I don’t (Friday, March 18, 1961). I remember Mona’s Royal Roost across the street. Mostly I remember Lowry’s entrance as Eve – a vision sheathed in apple green, sensually, elegantly toc toc toc’ing her way (in three inch heels) from the Cino’s front door, through the tables, and out into Johnny Dodd’s let-there-be-light to the waiting, less-than-convinced Adam of Larry Neil Clayton. We were a hit. We extended from only playing a weekend, to a week to two whole weeks (two shows a night on Saturdays) to an instant revival. (There was time out for Tennessee Williams as essayed by the smoldering Stoller, and a one-man show featuring an ex-Pro football star who put on a house dress and lipstick, delivered a monologue while tearing a phone book in half, and was never seen again.) We were such a hit that Alan Zamp, the one Equity member of the cast, had to change his name four times during the run to not incur the awful wrath of the tragic Muses of AEA. And He Made A Her received what may have been the first review the Village Voice gave to the yet to be labeled (and oft Equity libeled) Off Off Broadway – the gist of which suggested plays shouldn’t be done in coffee houses. (Note: For archival purposes, a CD of a 1961 Cino performance of And He Made A Her with Jane Lowry and Paxton Whitehead is available from Doric Wilson – firstname.lastname@example.org)
My next play, Babel, Babel, Little Tower was written for the Cino and dedicated to Joe. It made use of the whole room, from behind the counter and the toilet in back (flushed on cue) to the tables which Ralph (Paul Vincent Romeo) took away from the customers and piled on top of each other to build a tower he hoped would prove I-forget-what to Eppie (Jane Lowry). At the time, the NYPD, as happy as hornets, were busy preventing plays in coffee houses by handing out summons when not physically stopping the performance. I incorporated this living history into the climax: a coppish looking actor entered from Cornelia Street, ad-libbed a fracas with the waiter/doorman (Scotty), demanded the actors put the tables back where they belonged. The actors, led by Lady Jane, refused. Authority in blue destroyed the tower. Most of the audience thought it was for real. It was very convincing. Too convincing. Opening night a front table was occupied by strippers from Third Street. They were very protective of us innocents in theatre. As the actor playing the cop approached the stage, Sunny (her specialty was tassle twirling) kneed him in the groin. The show did go limpingly on. The injured actor has since taken up Scientology.
The actors and Joe shared the same butcher block in the kitchen – they, to make up; he, to make sandwiches. There was the night Joanna Vischer (Helen of Troy – and very much so) applied a slice of pepperoni to her cheek at the very moment Scotty delivered to a customer a rouge pad on a roll.
I sat in the New Colony Bar on Greenwich Avenue with Edward Albee telling me, “I was too nice (since disputed) to ever become a playwright”. Nice meant as an euphemism for simple.
And He Made A Her may have been the first play to move from Off Off Broadway to Off Broadway. Richard Barr (regardless of rumors contrary, the most generous man in New York theatre) presented it on the Monday Night Series at the Cherry Lane. The night of dress rehearsal, I was entrapped by a plain (illfittingly) clothed policeman who rammed a gun into my larynx and arrested me for sexual (I was innocent) whatever. This was all part of a Ed Koch-Carol Greitzer-V.l.D. (they now deny it) campaign to clear the queers out of the Village. Richard Barr got me out of jail, I ran to the safety of Cornelia Street, sat at a table and wrote (just like in the movies) Now She Dances!, an angry, ironic, nightmare version of the trial of Oscar Wilde. (I should have dedicated it to the cop who entrapped me, and who, years later, encountered me elsewhere, leered, and suggested maybe he and I might…but that’s another play.)
Now She Dances! was wonderful with the ever articulate Tom Lawrence as Lane, zany Zita Jenner as Lady Herodias, the so very beautiful Lucrezia Simmons as Miss Salome and Lowry as Gladys, the maid. (If you were there, you still remember the soup speech.)
My last play at the Cino was Pretty People. Nancy Wilder played Beauty Unadorned and Tom Lawrence gave his most articulate performance as the Looker.
The stage carpenter who worked on the set (parts of which collapsed every night) was new to the Cino. His name was John Torres. Somebody whispered to me that he and Joe… and it seems they were, and one thing led to another… and to yet another (true love and amphetamines proving a fatal mix.)
I remember a stupid fight Joe and I had over his plan to charge admission at the door. Equity opposed this, and to not put my actors in a spot, I canceled a revival of And He Made A Her. This was one of the last times I was in the Cino. I stood outside of it the night of Joe’s death, kicking the wall, too angry to cry, or crying too hard to harm much but my foot.
I remember most the plays of Lanford Wilson, William Hoffman, Robert Heide, David Starkweather, Claris Nelson, Harry Koutoukas, Jean-Claude Van Itallie, Tom Eyen – I didn`t know the great fun of a Robert Patrick play until I produced one at TOSOS – they and Joe Cino and Johnny Dodd and Joe Davies and the others – all the others. The wonderful words, the laughter, the impossible made magic time by the ringing of a bell – that’s what I remember most. I remember everything but the dates.
For more information on the Caffe Cino and the origins of Off-Off-Broadway, I highly recommend:
Playing Underground: A Critical History of the 1960s Off-Off-Broadway Movement, by Stephen Bottoms (to be published, May, 2004, University of Michigan Press)