overview

The Caffe Cino is widely recognized as the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway theater and was located on the ground floor of this building from 1958 to 1968.

It 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.

Header Photo
Credit: Christopher D. Brazee/NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, 2016.

History

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.

William M. Hoffman, playwright, c. 2009

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 WilsonH.M. KoutoukasRobert HeideWilliam M. HoffmanLanford WilsonTom EyenJeff WeissRonald TavelJean-Claude van ItallieDavid StarkweatherCharles StanleyPaul Foster, and Robert Patrick, and for directors such as Marshall W. MasonTom O’Horgan, and Neil Flanagan. The most successful production here was George Haimsohn and Robin Miller’s Dames at Sea, which was directed by Robert Dahdah and 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.

LANDMARK DESIGNATIONS FOR LGBT SIGNIFICANCE

In June 2019, based on recommendations by the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, the NYC Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the Caffe Cino a New York City Landmark. In November 2017, the NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project’s nomination of the Caffe Cino to the National Register of Historic Places was approved by the National Park Service, following the site’s listing on the New York State Register of Historic Places in September 2017. The nomination is available in the “Read More” section below.

Building Information

  • Architect or Builder: Benjamin Warner
  • Year Built: 1877

Sources

  1. Billy J. Harbin, Kim Marra, and Robert A. Schanke, “Joseph Cino,” The Gay & Lesbian Theatrical Legacy : A Biographical Dictionary of Major Figures in American Stage History in the Pre-Stonewall Era (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007).

  2. Christopher D. Brazee, Gale Harris, and Jay Shockley, “Gay Pride Month 2015,” New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission (June 2013).

  3. Daniel Hurewitz, Stepping Out: Nine Walks Through New York City’s Gay and Lesbian Past (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).

  4. Paula Martinac, The Queerest Places: A Guide to Gay and Lesbian Historic Sites (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1997).

  5. Robert Heide, “Magic Time at the Caffe Cino,” New York Native, May 6-19, 1985, 29-30.

  6. Wendell C. Stone, Caffe Cino: The Birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway Theater (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005).

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National Register Listings

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