Caffe Cino is widely recognized as the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway theater and is also highly significant as a pioneer in the development of gay theater, at a time when it was still illegal to depict homosexuality on stage.
In 1958, Joe Cino (1931-1967) rented a ground-story commercial space here, originally intending to operate a coffeehouse with art displayed on the walls. He then allowed patrons to stage small avant-garde theatrical performances. This became one of New York’s first significant venues to feature the works of unknown playwrights, which were often experimental, controversial, or campy, and produced at very small budgets. Cino’s partner Jon Torrey worked as the electrician and, early on, as the lighting designer. By July 1961, Johnny Dodd took over as the lighting designer and became known for his innovative work here.
“I never would have been a playwright without the Caffe Cino. I never
certainly would have written about gay subjects that freely. That was the kind of empowerment that the place gave us. We were no longer victims.”
Many of its early productions featured gay characters or subject matter. The staging of Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright in 1964 was both the Cino’s breakthrough hit and an early play to deal explicitly with homosexuality. The Caffe Cino provided an important platform for newly emerging gay playwrights such as Doric Wilson, H.M. Koutoukas, Robert Heide, William M. Hoffman, Lanford Wilson, Tom Eyen, Jeff Weiss, Ronald Tavel, Jean-Claude van Italie, David Starkweather, Charles Stanley, Paul Foster, and Robert Patrick, and for directors such as Marshall W. Mason, Tom O’Horgan, and Neil Flanagan. The most successful production here was George Haimsohn and Robin Miller’s Dames at Sea, which introduced teenager Bernadette Peters in 1966.
The coffeehouse itself also served as a significant meeting spot for gay men. It closed in 1968, a year after Cino’s suicide following Torrey’s accidental death.
In November 2017, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project successfully nominated the Caffe Cino to the National Register of Historic Places, following its listing on the New York State Register in September.