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Ken Lustbader, NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
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Caffe Cino Listed on National Register of
Storied theater venue nominated by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project for its pioneering role in the development of gay theater and for its importance as a pre-Stonewall meeting space for the LGBT community
New York, NY – This month, the Caffe Cino — long recognized as the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway theater in New York City — was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The announcement comes nearly 60 years after the theater’s opening in a storefront space at 31 Cornelia Street in Manhattan by Joe Cino, an openly gay man. The venue is significant for its role in the development of gay theater and support of gay playwrights at a time when depicting homosexuality on stage was illegal.
The Caffe Cino was nominated to the State and National Registers of Historic Places by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, a scholarly initiative and educational resource dedicated to broadening people’s knowledge of LGBT history beyond Stonewall and to placing that history in a geographical context. In so doing, the Project is acknowledging sites that are important to LGBT history as well as those that illustrate the community’s influence on America at-large.
“We are delighted to see the Caffe Cino listed on the National Register of Historic Places, following our nomination,” said Amanda Davis, Project manager and lead author of the nomination. “How fitting that today, on what would have been Joe Cino’s 86th birthday, we are able to honor his work and the legacy of the Caffe Cino in this way. LGBT history is American history, and tragically it is too often lost due to a lack of focused efforts of documentation and education. The Project’s work to reverse that trend is immensely important, and the State and National Register listings are validation of LGBT history’s significance to all Americans.”
The office of Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press release, supporting the nomination of the Caffe Cino to the State and National Registers of Historic Places: “The Empire State proudly celebrates its diverse culture and rich heritage, and with the addition of these significant sites to the Registers of Historic Places, we will continue to honor all of the great things that make New York, New York. Listing these landmarks will honor the contributions made by so many New Yorkers throughout our vast history, and helps advance efforts to preserve and improve these important historic sites for future generations.” Of the Caffe Cino itself, the Governor’s office acknowledged the site as “the first venue of importance to continuously stage Off-Off-Broadway theater and was critical in the development of gay theater and supporting gay playwrights at a time when depicting homosexuality on stage was illegal.”
The listing concludes a long process of archival research as well as oral history interviews, culminating in the Project’s nomination of the Caffe Cino site. Research work was funded, in part, by a grant from the National Park Service Underrepresented Grants Programs, administered through the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.
Opened in December of 1958, the Caffe Cino was initially intended as a coffeehouse with space for art exhibitions, but the venue soon began allowing patrons to stage poetry readings and short theatrical performances. “The Cino” as it became known was a showcase for original, experimental theater, beginning with the anti-war themed Flyspray in the summer of 1960. It subsequently became New York’s first significant venue to feature work from then-unknown playwrights including Doric Wilson, Robert Heide, Tom Eyen, Sam Shepard, Robert Patrick, Lanford Wilson, H.M. Koutoukas, William M. Hoffman, and many more. Artists who showcased their work there went on to win Pulitzer Prizes, Tony Awards and various other recognitions, and a few became founders of influential theater companies. The most successful production here was George Haimsohn and Robin Miller’s Dames at Sea, which introduced teenager Bernadette Peters in 1966.
The Caffe Cino had a relatively short lifespan. The venue closed in March, 1968 following Joe Cino’s suicide after the death of his partner Jon Torrey. In that short time it evolved from a coffeehouse with art exhibitions into the birthplace of a new theater movement. The cultural scene in New York City was burgeoning and many establishments were beginning to stage plays, but not with any regularity. The Caffe Cino became the first reliable venue to support unknown artists as they honed their craft, allowing them to take risks that would shape the future of American theater.
The Caffe Cino also carries important historical resonance as an incubator of gay theater specifically, and as a support space for gay artists and gay men in general. At a time when depicting homosexuality on stage was a crime, many of the Caffe Cino’s early productions featured gay characters or subject matter. Interest in the arts in New York City’s Greenwich Village was exploding in the early-to-middle 20th Century, but the LGBT community still lacked a physical space in the city in which patrons could gather and see work by and about them. The Caffe Cino was that place, and as such it is a landmark in LGBT culture and history.
Visit the Caffe Cino on the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project website (click here).
About the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project
The NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project is a cultural initiative and educational resource that is documenting historic sites connected to the LGBT community throughout New York City. Its interactive map features diverse places from the 17th century to the year 2000 that are important to LGBT history and illustrate the community’s influence on American culture. The Project is nominating sites to the National Register of Historic Places and developing educational tours and programs. For more, visit www.nyclgbtsites.org, or follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.