At Cornelia Street Café, always something to say

Photo by Ellen Mandel A fondness for toaster ovens and an eye for talent: Robin Hirsch has presided over four decades of words, music, food and drink at Cornelia Street Café.

Photo by Ellen Mandel
A fondness for toaster ovens and an eye for talent: Robin Hirsch has presided over four decades of words, music, food and drink at Cornelia Street Café.

BY MICHAEL LYDON | Robin Hirsch sipped thoughtfully on a glass of red wine in a quiet corner of the Cornelia Street Café. For an hour or more, with many a twinkle in his eye, he’d told tall tales of his four decades as the Café’s fearless leader — the legendary toaster oven that served as the their first kitchen, the spindly, splintery ladder down to the junk-filled basement, the night hundreds showed up to hear Oliver Sacks discuss the mysteries of mental abnormalities, and could I guess who had been the first poet to read at the Café? No, I couldn’t. “Eugene McCarthy,” said Robin, “That’s right, the senator, the presidential candidate!”

Now for a moment he turned serious. “Our commitment to putting all kinds of music on our little stage, plus prose, poetry, science, drama, puppetry, mime, you name it — 700 shows a year. That’s no accident. I’ve always tried to stick to an open-minded sensibility, never thought that we have to do either this style or that style to succeed. Both — and that’s what I love!”

In the constant battle to keep their tables filled through the vagaries of popular taste, most Village club owners find an “either/or” booking policy their safest bet: the Village Vanguard is a jazz club, Sidewalk Cafe a folk club, the Bitter End a rock club. Hirsch knows his “anything goes” policy poses risks — he’s seen many eclectic clubs go belly up — but even through this winter’s deep freeze, the Café has held its own. “By now,” said Hirsch, “people know they’re going to get a you-never-know-what-to-expect variety from us. That’s why they come.”

Painting by Stephen Magsig

Painting by Stephen Magsig

A look at the Cornelia Street Café’s upcoming calendar proves his point: at 6 p.m. on March 12, Slapering Hol Press will feature poet Richard Parisio reading from his chapbook, “The Owl Invites Your Silence,” joined by a half dozen other Slapering Hol poets who will read their work. They’ll finish by 8 p.m., and drummer Harris Eisenstadt and his Golden State group, featuring saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, will take the stage, celebrating the release of a new CD, “Golden State II.” More poetry March 13 at 6 p.m., drawn from Autumn House’s “Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry,” followed by two jazz sets by bassist Michael Formanek’s Cheating Heart Band. On March 14, award-winning R&B and jazz vocalist Lili Anel has the 6 p.m. slot, and then the Cheating Heart Band will return for two more shows before flying to Europe for a festival tour.

Liz Stretch will return to the Café at 6 p.m. on March 15 for “Fork It Over” — a talk about food that she promises will “inspire and entertain,” and the Café’s chef, Daniel Latham, will offer a tasty menu to match her tasty words. At 8:30 p.m., seven-string guitarist Jason Ennis and the Trio Jota Sete will play a blend of jazz, blues, and bossa novas — and for more Brazilian music, stick around for pianist-singer Abelita Mateus at 10 p.m. On March 16 at 6 p.m., Susan Sindall and Nancy Kline, friends for decades, will read from their poetry and prose. At 8:30 p.m., pop-jazz vocalist Tracy Michailidis will sing tunes culled from the great American Songbook, gathered around the theme “To Build a Home.”

And on it goes: March 17 at 6 p.m., Red Hen Press will offer an evening of “witty poetry with a surrealistic twist” that promises “to stir the soul,” and at 8:30 p.m., NYU psychologist Gary Marcus will give a talk: “The Future of Minds, Brains, and Machines” considers the overlap between neuroscience and artificial intelligence. At 6 p.m. on March 18, Philip Giambri (known on the downtown reading scene as the Ancient Mariner) hosts the first night of his new series. “What The Hell Is Love?” is a reflection, Giambri says, of “a lifetime of loving and being loved.” Guitarist Tom Chang’s jazz quartet follows Giambri’s gang at 8:30 p.m., playing new compositions and music from “Tongue & Groove” — Chang’s debut CD.

All that makes one ordinarily extraordinary week at the Café, and the week after (story tellers from London, violists from Manhattan, a Jack Kerouac evening…) promises more of the same. Yet even this list doesn’t give a full sense of Cornelia Street’s interwoven bookings. Take me for example: I’ve sung at the Café with my band, as a guest with folk singer Craig Werth, and at Thomas Pryor’s storytelling evenings. I’ve hosted a Mark Twain celebration, acted and sung in the cast of “Gadeng Vadoo,” a folk music musical, and Cornelia Street recently gave me two nights to present my and Ellen Mandel’s opera, “Passion in Pigskin.”

Hirsch’s commitment to eclecticism predates the Café’s founding. The son of Jewish refugees from Germany who settled in London, Hirsch came to the States in 1967 to study American avant-garde theater. Soon he was in the middle of it, acting, directing, and producing at La MaMa, Caffe Cino and his own New Works Project (“We put on an early play by John Patrick Shanley. In verse, no less!”). In this bubbling world of ambitious up-and-comers, Hirsch met Charles McKenna, an Irish-American actor and Raphaela Pivetta, an Argentinian-Canadian-Italian visual artist. McKenna convinced his pals that their ideas needed a seedbed to grow in, and after a long search for a place cheap enough for their $2,500 nest egg, they found a one-room former junk shop at 29 Cornelia, a sleepy block between Bleecker and W. Fourth St.

Courtesy of the artist No need to beware the Ides: pianist-singer Abelita Mateus performs at 10 p.m. on March 15.

Courtesy of the artist
No need to beware the Ides: pianist-singer Abelita Mateus performs at 10 p.m. on March 15.

“Filthy doesn’t begin to describe the place,” Hirsch remembered with a shudder, “it was an Augean stables.” They swept up piles of dried dog poop, hung Raphaela’s paintings over cracks in the walls, bought an espresso machine and the famous toaster oven, and opened the doors, most appropriately, on Independence Day weekend, July, 1977.

To the partners’ amazement, people came in, “and not just anybody,” Hirsch remembers, “but people with something to say, people who knew other people.” He asked poet Siv Sedering if she’d like to read with someone. She replied, “How about Eugene McCarthy? He’s a published poet.” Hirsch heard singer-songwriter Carolyne Mas playing at another hole-in-the-wall club up the block, and when he invited her to perform, she in turn invited so many young Village folkies — David Massingill, Jack Hardy, Rod MacDonald, and Suzanne Vega among them — that Hirsch gave them every Monday night. Soon, the New York Times noted the series as a rebirth of Bob Dylan’s old Folk City days.

Through the decades, the Café expanded to three upstairs dining rooms offering a full French-American bistro menu — “But we put Thai spices in our bouillabaisse!” says Hirsch — and a knowledgeable wine list. Yet it’s the downstairs performance room that makes the Café unique, a long and narrow brick-lined space with the aura of a Parisian cabaret: Juliette Greco singing “chansons d’amour,” Albert Camus arguing existentialism with Samuel Beckett. Hirsch used to do all the room’s booking. Now, poet Angelo Verga books the 6 p.m. spoken-word shows, and guitarist Tom Chang the 8 p.m. jazz slot. “I love Cornelia Street,” says one sax-playing regular. “It’s got a big reputation. DownBeat [magazine] calls it one of the world’s top hundred jazz clubs, yet it’s so small that if you draw fifty people, you’ve got a sell-out.”

Another advantage Cornelia Street offers: the Artist Salon, informally known as the Schmooze, held the first Thursday of every month at 6 p.m., when anyone hoping for a gig is welcome to stop by for wine and cheese and a chat. Artistic job hunting can be as impersonal and soul-wearying as corporate job hunting — sending out email blasts, leaving never-to-be-answered phone messages. Yet if an artist goes to a few Schmoozes, meets and greets Robin, Angelo, Tom and other hopefuls, maybe gets on stage to give a sample of their wares, the chances are fair that soon he or she will get an evening on their own, or another artist may say, “Hey, I like what you’re doing, could you join me next time I play here?”

A growing crowd began filling up the tables around us for dinner, and Hirsch looked about himself with a mixture of pride and disbelief. “The first time we served real dinners here, made in a real kitchen,” he said, laughing at the memory, “we served twenty-nine meals — success beyond our wildest dreams! But our true success is that today, just as in 1977, if someone comes into the Café with something to say, whatever it is, we’re going to give them a chance to say it.”

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