‘Magic Time’ at the Caffe Cino

Joe Cino, left, and the director Marshall Mason. Photo by James Gossage.

Joe Cino, left, and the director Marshall Mason. Photo by James Gossage.

BY DUSICA SUE MALESEVIC | Learning the lingo of the famed Caffe Cino — for many the birthplace of Off-Off Broadway  — is easy.

Start with “phonaca.” Longtime Chelsea resident, author, artist and Caffe Cino chronicler Magie Dominic explained a “phonaca” is a person who is a real phony, or something that is real pretentious.

Next up, “ella,” which could be either a person or a thing, Dominic recalled in a phone interview.

“Everything was ‘ella.’ Bring the ella back and put the other one on ella’s table,” she continued. “His inflection probably helped you understand what he was talking about. For some reason, after awhile, it became understandable, and you know what the ella was and what ella to bring back.”

Tourists peeking through the Caffe door, in August of 1966. Photo by James Gossage.

Tourists peeking through the Caffe door, in 1966. Photo by James Gossage.

Joe Cino, the man behind the influential and iconic Greenwich Village cafe of the ’60s, is the focus of Dominic’s upcoming presentation at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center on Dec. 7, at 6 p.m.

Cino ran away from home when he was 16 and came to New York City, Dominic said.

“He worked for 10 years and saved every cent, because he had this dream of having a little art gallery and a little Italian café,” she said. “He wanted to show art. That was it. That was his dream.”

Dominic met Cino through a friend of a friend. Originally from Newfoundland, Canada, Dominic first moved to Pittsburgh for her studies, and then to New York City sometime around 1964. She immersed herself in the city’s poetry scene, much of which was intertwined with the peace movement. 

The cast and crew of “Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down” (1965). Its playwright, Tom Eyen, at right in sports jacket; Joe Cino, left, with shirt sleeve rolled up; stage manager Magie Dominic at center, in black. Photo by James Gossage.

The cast and crew of “Why Hanna’s Skirt Won’t Stay Down” (1965). Its playwright, Tom Eyen, at right in sports jacket; Joe Cino, standing, left, with sleeve rolled up; stage manager Magie Dominic at center, in black. Photo by James Gossage.

“I was writing a lot and reading a lot in coffeehouses, in churches, wherever people were congregating,” she recalled.

Someone at a reading introduced her to La MaMa — the experimental theater started by Ellen Stewart. Dominic was working as a stage manager for a show at La MaMa when she encountered playwright Tom Eyen, now best known for “Dreamgirls.”

Eyen introduced her to Cino.

“We just got along really well, and I was there from that moment on, until the day it closed,” she said.

Dominic acted, worked on sets and costumes, and was a stage manager and assistant director for productions.

When Cino opened the Caffe in late 1958, he started by having his friends’ artwork on the wall while serving coffee and pastries. Then there were poetry readings. Those led to staged readings of plays, and eventually to productions.

“That happened really fast,” she explained. “It just took off because there was no place like it.”

A lot of the playwrights were gay men that had no other place for their voice, she said.

“People felt safe there,” Dominic noted. “It was a very troubled time. The country was exploding with the anti-war movement, the gay rights, civil rights, women’s rights. All these struggles were happening all at the same time.”

This poster for the venue’s first original play is part of the Magie Dominic Caffe Cino Archives, open to the public for viewing at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

This poster for the venue’s first original play is part of the Magie Dominic Caffe Cino Archives, open to the public for viewing at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.

Dominic said Cino only had one rule about the plays: they had to be under 30 minutes. “Joe said the seats were so uncomfortable no one would sit any longer,” Dominic recalled.

The tiny storefront at 31 Cornelia St. had small ice cream parlor chairs and tables, said Dominic.

“It wasn’t even a stage, it was just, like, the space between tables,” she said.

“The place was officially full when two people were sitting on top of the cigarette machine. That was it, door was closed.”

The first original play performed at the Caffe Cino was the anti-war “Flyspray” in the early ’60s, said Dominic. The play’s poster is now part of the Magie Dominic Caffe Cino Archives at the New York Public Library. Discussing pieces from the archive will also be part of her talk.

For instance, one of the items in the archive is the Caffe’s menu, which states on its back a $1 minimum per person for the shows.

“For a dollar, you could get a coffee and an Italian pastry and see a show,” Dominic said. “That was a pretty good deal.”

It was also a bargain because of the caliber of talent — actors and playwrights — on display. That list includes Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Bette Midler, Edward Albee and Bernadette Peters.

“The Cino was [a] very small place, but ended up being incredibly important ’cause so many people got their start there,” she said.

Lanford Wilson in “Clown” (1967). Photo by James Gossage.

Lanford Wilson in Claris Nelson’s “The Clown” (1967). Photo by James Gossage.

Dominic said that at the Caffe Cino they were like family, and she is still in touch with many of them 55 years later. 

“I am stunned at how that little place that began with such a humble intention has turned out to be, historically, so important,” she said. “It really changed the face of modern theater. It gave voice to new people.”

“Magic Time at the Caffe Cino” with Magie Dominic will be presented on Mon., Dec. 7, 68 p.m. at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center, Bruno Walter Auditorium (111 Amsterdam Ave., btw. W. 64th & W. 65th Sts.). Admission is free. Reservations suggested via eventbrite.com/e/magic-time-at-the-caffe-cino-tickets-18824519645. For NYPL info, call 212-642-0142. For artist info, visit magiedominic.blogspot.com. Twitter: @magiedominic.

 

 

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