Downtown Pop Underground
The 1960s and 1970s produced seismic shifts in American popular culture that can now be felt on a global scale. One major epicenter was downtown New York City, where the inhabitants of a roughly one-square-mile area of Lower Manhattan changed the way we think about music, art, performance, and human sexuality. These events were set in motion by a tight-knit creative community that made sparks fly as they brushed against each other. Expressing themselves without much thought about career development or sound business plans, they did it collectively in the spirit of fun and adventure.
The escapades of these experimental musicians, writers, activists, dancers, film- and video-makers, theatrical performers, and visual artists were set against a backdrop of social decay. New York’s economy was decimated by a wave of white flight to the suburbs, starting in the 1950s, and its old industrial base also declined as manufacturers abandoned the city’s crowded factory lofts and inadequate transportation systems, favoring the West Coast’s tax breaks and better infrastructure.1 Postwar optimism gave way to rot in many downtown neighborhoods, which were disproportionately affected by deindustrialization. By the early 1970s, New York was in the midst of one of its most violent periods, with 1,691 murders and over 20,000 assaults in 1972 alone.2
The rise in poverty and crime was devastating for those who remained, but at the same time the downtown became a magnet for artists and other outsiders. Together, they escaped into music, art, film, theater, and other fantastical worlds—their creativity enabled by inexpensive rents that lifted the burden of securing steady employment. “It was much, much cheaper,” recalled underground filmmaker and Village Voice critic Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian immigrant who came to America after World War II. “Between ’53 and ’57, I lived downtown on 95 Orchard Street,” he said, “and I paid fourteen dollars and ninety-five cents a month, for one floor. That was how cheap it was. During the same period, the same space uptown would be maybe seventy-five dollars, which made a big difference.”
Andy Warhol’s longtime residence on East Seventy-Fifth Street, in the tonier Upper East Side, stood in sharp contrast to the decrepit downtown environs where he socialized. Manhattan’s midtown, sandwiched between these two zones, was the nation’s center of cultural power in the decades after World War II. Along with the Broadway theater district, it hosted all three national radio and television broadcasting networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC), as well as major book, newspaper, and magazine publishers. They presented images of Eisenhower-era idealism and a conformist culture—skin-deep representations that would soon be punctured by this book’s protagonists.
The peak period of mass media’s influence coincided with an explosion of localized independent media. This was enabled by several technological breakthroughs: audiocassette recorders, portable movie and video cameras, and public access cable television. The older medium of print also felt a jolt thanks to the mimeograph machine, a relatively cheap duplicator that was later supplanted by photocopiers and home printers. Mimeo made possible the instant publication of zines that writers distributed in the streets and at indie bookstores, underground cinemas, and do-it-yourself (DIY) performance spaces. Alternative newspapers such as the Village Voice and East Village Other also fostered community connections and encouraged new forms of expression to flourish, as did the free-form New York City radio station WBAI.
The fact that midtown and downtown were just a few subway stops away from each other sparked a dialogue. Unlike other avant-garde scenes that existed outside New York City, the downtown area’s close proximity to the nation’s media capital helped circulate cutting-edge ideas and innovations. Underground culture and popular culture have traditionally been viewed as diametrically opposed to each other, but the boundaries dividing the two are often blurry. Rather than living in different universes, they developed a mutually constitutive relationship that was transformative—a point underscored by this book’s title.
The Downtown Pop Underground examines the intersecting lives of those who played major roles in the downtown arts scenes, creating a whole that was far greater than the sum of its parts. By surveying the social networks they were a part of, we can get a clearer view of how these artists worked across mediums and collaborated with their neighbors.
As a key connector figure, Andy Warhol circulated not only through uptown art circles, but also within the underground film, poetry, theater, and music scenes. He is joined here by an ensemble cast of seven other main characters: H. M. Koutoukas, an outré playwright with a kaleidoscopic way with words; bohemian dancer Shirley Clarke, who evolved into a headstrong indie filmmaker and early video pioneer; Patti Smith, a punk-poet with roots in the underground theater movement known as Off-Off-Broadway; the trashy bleach-blonde Debbie Harry, who imploded the boundaries between pop and punk; Ed Sanders, a mimeo publisher, potty-mouthed poet, and frontman of the Fugs; DIY theater impresario Ellen Stewart, who cultivated an extended family of theater folks; and Hibiscus, the gender-fluid performer and founder of the psychedelic drag troupes the Cockettes and Angels of Light.
These interconnected individuals were nodes within a circuit that linked them to national and international mass-media outlets. Jacked into a system that amplified the downtown underground’s subversive signals, their whispered messages could eventually be heard loud and clear. Of course, dozens of other downtown figures also broke new ground and had widespread influence—far more than could be catalogued in a ten-volume magnum opus, let alone this one book. A comprehensive history of this milieu is a fool’s errand, so I accepted some constraints.
While sorting through stacks of archival research and over a million transcribed words from my interviews, I gravitated to those individuals who straddled multiple mediums and art forms. This book’s primary themes—experimentation, hybridity, and border-crossing—are embodied by Warhol, Koutoukas, Clarke, Smith, Harry, Sanders, Stewart, and Hibiscus. My focus on these eight people and their social networks limited The Downtown Pop Underground’s scope, but trading encyclopedic expansiveness for a comprehensible narrative has advantages. A close attention to detail provides nuance that other histories sometimes bury in generalities—and when viewed collectively, these personal experiences shed light on more universal dynamics that drive culture, creativity, and connectivity.
This book is organized into three parts, beginning in the late 1950s with Off-Off-Broadway and concluding in the mid-1970s during the rise of punk rock. Along the way, it ricochets back and forth between Pop Art, pop music, avant-garde rock, contemporary dance, Happenings, alternative newspapers, underground film, public access television, gay liberation, antiwar activism, street poetry, urban planning, and even early reality television—all of which are intertwined in one way or the other. Part One (“Setting the Scenes”) shows how downtown artists crossed paths and fed off each other, while Part Two (“Action!”) is full of the sort of conflict that marked the Vietnam War and Civil Rights eras. In Part Three (“The Twisted Road to Punk”), that vortex of energy was channeled into a new scene that included many familiar faces from earlier in the book.
The Downtown Pop Underground tracks the movement of these starring and supporting players through time, and also through space. The first chapter opens during the late 1950s in Greenwich Village, a place that attracted oddballs looking for a place to fit in—whether they were peace freaks, artists, homosexuals, or all of the above. That neighborhood has a long bohemian history that stretches back at least to the nineteenth century, and by the 1940s and 1950s it was home to several notable Beat writers, jazz musicians, and visual artists. The West Village, particularly Christopher Street and Sheridan Square, created spaces for gay men to openly experiment and develop new sexual identities.
This was certainly true of the pioneering Off-Off-Broadway theater venue Caffe Cino—located on Cornelia, a one-block-long street that terminates to the north at West Fourth Street. One block to the right of that intersection is Washington Square Park, a central gathering spot for New York’s folk and Beat scenes in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The area surrounding the park was filled with coffeehouses, particularly on MacDougal Street, a staging ground that launched Bob Dylan into the pop culture stratosphere and provided a home for more unorthodox folk artists like the Holy Modal Rounders.
On the south side of Washington Square is Judson Memorial Church, less than a five-minute walk from the Cino. It mixed radical art, politics, and performance by hosting experimental music composer and theorist John Cage, choreographer Merce Cunningham, painter Robert Rauschenberg, and so many others. These artists used the church’s space to expand the possibilities of mixed media, chance strategies, and nonlinear narrative—all of which dramatically altered the direction of twentieth-century dance, theater, visual art, and musical composition. Judson, along with Caffe Cino and Café La MaMa, also welcomed a large theatrical family that included George Harris III, later known as Hibiscus.
The dividing line between downtown and the rest of Manhattan is Fourteenth Street, where the Living Theatre was housed in an old four-story department store building on the corner of Sixth Avenue, ten blocks north of Judson. Shirley Clarke adapted her first feature film, 1961’s The Connection, from the Living Theatre’s 1959 production of that play, which was a downtown hit. In 1965, Clarke began living and working at the Chelsea Hotel—about nine blocks north of the Living Theatre, on West Twenty-Third Street and Seventh Avenue. A kind of downtown annex, this residential hotel housed many artists and bohemians through the years: poet Allen Ginsberg, philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, singer Janis Joplin, couturier Charles James, and playwrights Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Sam Shepard, to name but a few of the dozens of prominent figures who lived there at one time.
Patti Smith also spent time in the Chelsea after moving to New York in 1967, not long after fellow Jersey girl and future Blondie singer Debbie Harry settled on the Lower East Side. Much of the pop music Harry and Smith listened to as adolescents was a product of record companies and song publishers that were located in the midtown area. The music industry was concentrated around the Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, which was packed with songwriters who pitched their musical products to hit-seeking record labels. Midtown was also Manhattan’s primary entertainment district, where popular and highbrow fare could be enjoyed in Broadway theaters, Radio City Music Hall, and Carnegie Hall. Additionally, the area had several large movie palaces, such as the Bryant Theatre on Forty-Second Street.
Midtown was home to the original location of Warhol’s studio, the Factory, which was known for its silver spray-painted decor, electric atmosphere, and eclectic cross-pollination of people and scenes. The studio’s name was inspired by the artist’s assembly line–like production of silkscreened prints and, a bit later, underground films and music. Unlike many critics of mass culture during that time, Warhol didn’t draw distinctions between the downtown’s “purer” kinds of artistic expression and the “commercial” products pumped out of these midtown office buildings. This flattening of cultural distinctions helped usher in a new postmodern aesthetic.
Warhol lived uptown and worked in midtown, but his heart was very much tied to the downtown’s arts scenes. In 1967, he moved the Factory to 33 Union Square, between East Seventeenth and Eighteenth Streets in Manhattan. Across Union Square Park was a restaurant and bar named Max’s Kansas City, one of Warhol’s regular haunts even before the move. Max’s became a key destination where radical politics, painting, poetry, rock ’n’ roll, and Off-Off-Broadway theater crossed paths, and the downtown’s center of gravity continued shifting eastward as the 1960s progressed.
People moved away from Greenwich Village to the much cheaper Lower East Side, which nurtured everything from avant-garde poetry to the radical Puerto Rican nationalist organization the Young Lords. It was also where poet and indie mimeo publisher Ed Sanders opened his Peace Eye Bookstore, where he used to crank out printed matter on his mimeo machine and rehearse with his irreverent underground rock band the Fugs. Peace Eye was located between Avenues B and C, on East Tenth Street, in what was later known as Alphabet City—where the cost of living was lower, but life was harder. By the mid-1960s, parts of the Lower East Side were renamed the East Village by developers hoping to rebrand the neighborhood’s sketchy image, but the streets could still be dangerous.
Ellen Stewart’s Café La MaMa was located in the East Village and, like Caffe Cino, was among the first to uproot theater from its midtown home. With seemingly unlimited energy, she charmed the Ford Foundation and shook other money trees to sustain her growing theatrical empire. Stewart was an exemplar of self-invention, a black woman with zero theater experience whose distinctive accent was somewhere between truth and put-on, depending on who she was speaking to. La MaMa cultivated innovative performative styles that eventually injected new life into Broadway theater, as when its star director Tom O’Horgan turned Hair into a pop culture phenomenon in 1968.
A short walk from La MaMa’s East Fourth Street location was the Mercer Arts Center, where underground theater, glam rock, video art, and performance art briefly intersected in the early 1970s. After part of the building collapsed in 1973, the music scene that developed at Mercer’s shifted to Club 82, a basement disco and proto-punk venue located on East Fourth Street, right next to La MaMa. Just around the corner was CBGB, a large bar at 315 Bowery where many of the scene’s key players finally put down roots.
Punk absorbed energy from Off-Off-Broadway, which had been one of the downtown’s primal cultural forces since the late 1950s. Underground theater broke down the barriers between performer and audience with provocative low-budget shows in DIY venues, activities that later became associated with punk. In addition to sharing several social connections, punk and Off-Off-Broadway theater made magic by appropriating found materials and makeshift spaces—much like Andy Warhol’s silkscreened prints and indie films, Ed Sanders’s mimeo publications, Shirley Clarke’s film and video experiments, Debbie Harry’s trashy camp pastiches, Patti Smith’s independently released musical debut, Ellen Stewart’s basement theater, H. M. Koutoukas’s paper cup telephone props, and Hibiscus’s glittering homemade productions staged by his loving family.
Collectively, they blurred several entrenched dichotomies: art and commerce, high and low culture, corporate and independent media, center and margin. The residents of Lower Manhattan may have been subterranean, but their position deep inside America’s media capital enabled them to reshape the larger culture by causing the underground to go pop.
Haralambos Monroe “Harry” Koutoukas took a bus from his home in upstate New York to Greenwich Village just as the 1950s came to a close, in search of adventure. “When Koutoukas hit town, he was an Adonis, a Greek youth with abundant energy, personality, and natural wit. He was able to express himself in the vernacular of downtown—being free,” said Agosto Machado, a Chinese-Spanish Christopher Street queen and Zelig-like figure who witnessed the rise of the underground theater and film movements, the 1960s counterculture, gay liberation, and punk rock. Even in the Village, which was bursting with theatrical flourishes, this Greek American cut a striking figure. Entering a coffeehouse, Koutoukas might come swooshing in the door with a large swath of fabric flowing behind him—all while holding a cigarette high, for dramatic effect.
“It was sort of grand,” Machado said, “but it wasn’t a pretentious-grand. It was a fun-grand.”
“Harry dressed extravagantly,” added playwright and Village Voice theater critic Michael Smith. “He had a kind of flamboyant Greek personality, and was very funny. He would make fun of you, and he would make fun of himself. His plays were extremely fanciful.” This provocateur, poet, and playwright had a knack for wordplay that spilled over into the titles of his “camps” (Koutoukas’s preferred term for plays), such as the following:
All Day for a Dollar, or Crumpled Christmas
Awful People Are Coming Over So We Must Be Pretending to Be Hard at Work and Hope They Will Go Away
Feathers Are for Ramming, or Tell Me Tender Tales
The Man Who Shot His Washing Machine
Medea, or Maybe the Stars May Understand, or Veiled Strangeness (a Ritualistic Camp)
Pope Joan, or A Soul to Tweak (a Divine Camp)
Tidy Passions, or Kill, Kaleidoscope, Kill (an Epic Camp)
Too Late for Yogurt
Turtles Don’t Dream, or Happy Birthday, Jesus
Harry’s first play, With Creatures Make My Way, was about a semi-human figure that lived in the New York sewers along with rats, baby alligators, and “little tweekies,” and who longed to be reunited with his love—a lobster. The show’s subterranean setting was a metaphor for the underground culture Harry helped shape in Greenwich Village and its surrounding downtown neighborhoods.1
Playwright Robert Heide first met Koutoukas around 1959, when both young men followed bohemian paths that had been blazed by the Beats. “I met up with Harry several times on MacDougal Street, in the coffee shops,” Heide said, “where he would be carrying a copy of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, and I would as well. So we began talking existentialism.” When he first crossed paths with Koutoukas, Heide thought he was a lesbian with a 1950s-style DA haircut. He was very petite at the time, though Harry’s waistline expanded along with his corpus of plays (he wrote dozens upon dozens throughout his life).
They’d congregate at Lenny’s Hideaway, a Greenwich Village cellar gay bar that was an important node in the downtown’s overlapping social networks. Heide met playwright Edward Albee there, and the two eventually became close. “Edward and I would take long walks,” he said. “We would say nothing. Later he told me that there were characters running around in his head that he was thinking about. We would drink at Lenny’s Hideaway ’til four in the morning, then maybe we’d go back to his place, like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Wandering around downtown late at night, the couple sometimes stopped by Bigelow Drugs on Sixth Avenue, between West Eighth and Ninth Streets, to have a black-and-white ice cream soda with seltzer.
The streets were much quieter in Greenwich Village, compared to the bustle of today, and it felt as though everyone knew each other. “You would run into people that you knew,” Heide recalled. “I’d run into Sam Shepard at a coffee shop. You could have a hamburger and apple pie and coffee for ninety-five cents. You have to remember, everybody’s rent was low, like that song ‘Bleecker Street,’ by Simon and Garfunkel, that goes, ‘Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street.’ Ha! Thirty dollars!” Even though they lived in a big city, it felt like a small town. This self-contained metropolis even had its own directory, Greenwich Village Blue Book, which was published from 1961 to 1968 and contained listings for stores, doctors, churches, theaters, and other establishments in the area.
By the early 1960s, Heide rented an apartment at 84 Christopher Street, which was crawling with artists. “Upstairs from me lived Dick Higgins, who was involved with the Fluxus movement and Happenings,” he recalled. “The actress Sally Kirkland lived in the building. She was studying at the Actors Studio. Zal Yanovsky of the Lovin’ Spoonful was my downstairs neighbor, and his band was performing at a place called the Nite Owl, where the Mamas and the Papas played when they were in town.”
Lisa Jane Persky entered Harry Koutoukas’s life in 1965, when she was about ten years old and her family moved into 87 Christopher Street. This nineteenth-century tenement apartment building was a microcosm of the neighborhood, hosting everyone from the playwright Persky and Yoko Ono to a mother-daughter pair who were always standing at the building’s entrance. Rosie was a diminutive older lady, and her daughter Ernestine was in her forties or fifties. “Harry is not a homosexual,” Rosie would insist. “He is refined.”
“The thing about the Village that I really miss now,” Persky said, “there were lots and lots of old ladies in the doorways, just enjoying the night air and hanging out.” In these small residential buildings, neighbors passed each other returning with groceries or coming home from work (if they had jobs, which wasn’t true of Koutoukas). People were coming and going at all times of the day and night, and they inevitably stopped and talked to each other. The surrounding streets were also a mixture of old and new worlds, where openly gay street queens crossed paths with those from more traditionally conservative immigrant backgrounds.
Within spitting distance of 87 Christopher was Jimmy the Fence, who ran a barber shop that sold items of questionable origin, along with a fancy dress shop, a grocery store, a butcher, and an old-fashioned Jewish department store. Like many city kids in those days, Lisa had a lot of unsupervised time, and she used to wander the streets, exploring various shops. “I’d just go in and started talking to people about what they were selling. There were these two women who ran this bakery called Miss Douglas Bakery. Were they girlfriends or were they sisters? What was going on there?”
Persky also couldn’t help but notice that Christopher Street was a place where many gay men congregated, including Koutoukas. “I remember thinking that Harry was so exotic, because he dressed in a really flamboyant way,” she said, “but to me it was just fashionable and lavish. He had really cool clothes and other stuff. He had a very fanciful way about him that was, to a kid, so attractive—because it was totally genuine, not false.” She recalled that everything was theater to Harry, including the exaggerated way he carried himself while swooping to pick up a bag of groceries, or rounding a corner. He once described these fluid movements to Lisa’s mother as being “like the inside of a washing machine.”
Koutoukas likely picked up this flair for the dramatic while growing up outside of Binghamton, New York, in the “Magic City” of Endicott. His family ran a restaurant and entertainment establishment that booked “female impersonators,” though he was forbidden to see those shows when he was an adolescent. Undeterred, Koutoukas snuck in to see the outlandish performers (who were a bit taller than ordinary women, with large hands and an exaggerated sense of femininity).
This planted a seed in Harry’s mind that a weirder world was within his reach, and through magazines and movies he discovered Greenwich Village. Ahh, Koutoukas thought, now there’s a place I’d like to go. “By the time Koutoukas came to the Village,” recalled Agosto Machado, “things were shifting. There was a ferment of sexual revolution, the beginnings of a youthquake.”
Harry Koutoukas was one of many men and women who gravitated from other cities and countries to the Village, a catch-all term that included Greenwich Village, the East Village, and other surrounding neighborhoods. Soon after arriving, he befriended a gay coffeehouse proprietor named Joe Cino, who helped spark the underground theater revolution known as Off-Off-Broadway. “Caffe Cino encouraged creativity and no barriers,” Machado said. “You’d just say you’re a playwright, and then you would put on a play.”
This storefront theater was located on Cornelia Street, a block-long side street that connects Bleecker with West Fourth Street and got little foot traffic. Cornelia was one of those charming little Village roads near Washington Square Park that could have easily appeared on Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (that iconic album cover was shot on Jones Street, just one block to the north). Coffeehouses proliferated in Greenwich Village because the area had plenty of empty commercial spaces; these establishments were much cheaper to run than bars, which required the proper city licenses and Mafia protection rackets.
Caffe Cino had six or eight little tables with wire-back chairs that were complemented by a hodgepodge of other furniture found in the street. Its stage was usually set in the center, among the tables, though this arrangement often changed from show to show. In the back of the Cino, to the left, was a counter with an espresso machine and a hallway that led to a tiny dressing room and a toilet. During its early days, the place was lit by Chinese lanterns and other little lights, though Caffe Cino grew more cluttered as time went on.
Joe Cino opened it after giving up on his dream of being a dancer, for he was too heavyset to make it in the dance world. “Joe wore sweatshirts on the street, like dancers did,” recalled Robert Patrick, another Cino regular-turned-playwright who entered the fold in 1961. “He wore them backwards for the high neck. He was an affected faggot before it was fashionable.” He could be found behind the espresso machine—which served some of the best coffee in town—surrounded by photos of James Dean, Jean Harlow, Marilyn Monroe, and other movie stars. Joe didn’t bother reading scripts; he read people’s faces instead, or asked them their astrological sign.
“The Cino was one of a number of little coffeehouses and alternative spaces,” said Michael Smith, “and I liked that it was so intimate. There was no proscenium. You were not separated from the play by some kind of frame. It was happening in the room with you. It was a very free atmosphere. Joe Cino was very supportive and just encouraged people to be themselves and be free. It’s quite unique that way, and I’ve never really been in another theater that was quite as supportive.”
Caffe Cino became an alternative to Off-Broadway, which emerged in response to the conservatism of Broadway—whose producers, even then, were loath to take risks and instead relied on revivals of established hit shows that could guarantee a return on their investments. Off-Broadway shifted American theater from its midtown Manhattan roots after venues such as Cherry Lane Theatre drew audiences further downtown. This new theater movement created a low-budget style that offered artistic freedom, but by the end of the 1950s Off-Broadway’s budgets rose and its theaters followed the same cautious logic of Broadway producers.
The time was ripe for Off-Off-Broadway. “There was no way to get a show on Broadway,” said Michael Smith. “At that point in time it cost a lot of money to put a show on Off-Broadway. You would have to go raising money, and a lot of the budgets at that point were $20,000. That was a lot of money.” Instead, Caffe Cino staged shows for a few dollars or for nothing (when Smith staged his first play there, he dragged his own bed down Cornelia Street to be used as part of the set). Off-Off-Broadway locales were akin to the barebones venues where punk rock developed in the mid-1970s—introducing the idea that one could simply do it yourself, without waiting for funding or the approval of cultural gatekeepers.
“Arrogant peacocks like Harry Koutoukas were a product of the Off-Off Broadway milieu,” recalled Robert Patrick. “Since nobody was making any money and hardly ever getting reviewed at that time, it was the first time in history that theater became this totally self-expressive art form. A playwright could produce whatever they wanted.” Koutoukas was free to craft his playful, poetic wordplay and unconventional scenarios that never could have made their way to Off-Broadway, much less Broadway, and he immediately attached himself to Joe Cino.
“Harry just worshiped Joe,” Patrick said. “Most of my Cino memories of Harry are him at Joe’s side, or talking to Joe by the counter, or at a table with him.” The café owner sometimes spoke in a very high-cultured purr, though he also employed a pseudo-Italian language that was kind of campy—like, “Mamma mia! Here’s another group of lost boys!” He liked eccentric people with wild personas and wanted to create an open atmosphere that was like an ongoing party, blasting Maria Callas and other opera divas at top volume on the phonograph. Joe loved the 1940s pop singer Kate Smith, and sometimes wrapped himself in the American flag—occasionally completely naked—while playing the famed contralto’s rendition of “God Bless America” at top volume, just standing there.
Cino’s appetite for a good time was equaled by his warmth and generosity. If one of his starving young artists was actually starving, he would offer them bread or pastries, even when he couldn’t pay rent himself. His café offered a warm refuge for the poor, tired, huddled gay masses who increasingly congregated in the Village—like a young Agosto Machado, who met Joe in 1959. “I was on Cornelia Street, around Bleecker,” he recalled, “and it was still heavily an Italian neighborhood, and there were these young men who were so attractive, carrying things like panels of wood. I thought I was being discreet, but I just got overwhelmed by their handsomeness and I followed them as they went up Cornelia Street.”
When this group of men walked through Caffe Cino’s doorway, Agosto peered in. “May I help you?” Joe asked. “Oh no,” he replied, “I was just wandering about the neighborhood.” The friendly coffee shop owner ushered him in. “This is a café, and you’re welcome here. We don’t sell alcohol. We sometimes have poetry readings and little presentations. There’s hot cider, or espresso, or some cookies.”
Machado came from other parts of the city, though several other villagers came from much farther away—like Robert Patrick, another bohemian immigrant who was drawn to the Cino. After working a dishwashing job at a summer stock theater in Maine in 1961, he made a stopover in Greenwich Village on his way back home to Santa Fe, New Mexico, on a Greyhound bus. As he walked down West Fourth Street, Patrick saw a young long-haired man with jewelry around his neck who was clearly not wearing underwear.
“His name was Johnny Dodd,” he said of Caffe Cino’s genius lighting technician. “So I followed what I call the ‘other brick road’ down to Sheridan Square. I followed him a couple of blocks and he looked over his shoulder at me and turned the corner.” Patrick continued down Cornelia Street, which had a little art gallery and bookstore, then followed Dodd into the Cino—which was dark and smelly. Actor Neil Flanagan and director Andy Milligan were in the midst of rehearsing a show, so the newcomer sat down, watched, and basically never left Caffe Cino until it shut down in 1968.
“We were raised in an America that hated art, sex, and intellect,” Patrick recalled, “and sex was not the worst offense.” He was beaten up in grade school, junior high school, and high school not for being gay—which he was—but for carrying too many books. “Once we all left the small town to hit the big city, we were ready to explode. There were people at the Cino who were versed in every aspect of history, arts, science. Nobody beat you up for it there.” Patrick surrounded himself with creative, forward-looking people who were smart, friendly, and supportive. “Most of us had never been part of a group where we came from, so it was rather intoxicating to be in one.”
Sitting around having coffee, they shared their frustrations and aspirations with each other, so it wasn’t much of a stretch for them to say, “Hey, let’s act this out—let’s put on a show!” Every night at Caffe Cino, Joe walked from the espresso machine to his makeshift stage, rang chimes, and announced, “Welcome ladies and gentlemen, it’s magic time!” When the lights went down, a different reality materialized: “It was the magic and ingenuity of Off-Off-Broadway,” Machado said. “You had to suspend belief, because you wanted to, and you’re enjoying it. If you didn’t have money, you used your ingenuity. It was so magical, so special. It was a playhouse for yourself and the selective group of people who were seeing this.”
“Do what you have to do,” said Joe Cino, who gave this small group of outsiders a literal stage to act out new ways of presenting themselves in public. Together, they transformed social life by performing openly gay identities in ways that had been suppressed elsewhere in the country. “All the gay guys bought muscle magazines like Young Physique,” Patrick recalled. “At one point, I dared bring in a photo of one of the most popular models, a blond in just the tiniest white bikini. I tacked it on the wall, which is like saying, ‘Yes! We’re gay.’ But we were actually worried if I could legally put a picture of a young man in a bathing suit on a wall.”
Over time, this motley crew grew more confident and confrontational, such as when Patrick and his fellow Cino playwright William Hoffman were attacked in the neighborhood by a group of teenage boys. Patrick and Hoffman turned the tables on the homophobes by breaking off a car antenna and chased them through the streets with it. “I would have killed them,” Hoffman said, vividly recalling this pre-Stonewall memory a half century later. “It was very empowering.”
F. Story Talbot, who had an apartment on Cornelia Street, was one of the token straight guys who hung around the Cino in its early days. “All the guys down there who worked there were making semi-passes at me,” he said, “and we would laugh about it.” Talbot began going to Caffe Cino in 1959, when Joe was starting to program one-act plays. When he approached Cino about doing a musical, Talbot instantly got a date for the show. Herrengasse was a tragic comedy about a German whorehouse, written under the heavy influence of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht (a reviewer referred to it as a “one-penny opera”).
At the time when Talbot lived on Cornelia, it was still a quiet street just far enough away from the bustling coffeehouses of MacDougal Street. One would often see women in upstairs apartments with pillows on the windowsill, leaning out over the street for hours. “They’d just converse with people down below and then watch the scene,” Talbot said. “Sometimes you wouldn’t notice they were there, but they were there—like a Greek chorus.” Whether they were hanging out on stoops or leaning from their windows, many women in the Village kept an eye on the street, serving as an informal neighborhood watch. When Joe first poked around the storefront that became Caffe Cino, interested in renting it, someone on the fire escape yelled down, “Wha’dya want?” It turned out to be the building’s landlady, who asked Cino if he was Sicilian. “Yeah,” he said, so she just threw him the keys. (Joe would place his rent money—often in coins—in an envelope, then wrap it in a scarf, and toss it up to her through the fire escape.)
There were few businesses on Cornelia: a bar across from the Cino, a bookstore, an art gallery, and a couple of small shops, including the original Murray’s Cheese Shop. The gallery was run by a creepy artist and pedophile named Frank Thompson, who sold paintings of nude boys with huge penises. Talbot lived next door to Thompson, and on the other side of his apartment was Mona’s Royal Roost—a quintessentially quaint Greenwich Village cocktail bar run by two older women. On the Bleecker Street corner was a butcher shop with rabbits hanging in the window, and down Cornelia Street an Italian bakery named Zampieri infused the street with the smell of bread.
Around the other corner, on Cornelia and Fourth Street, was a dress shop with a fancy mannequin in front where movie stars sometimes shopped. It was run by Andy Milligan, a designer who also directed some of the earliest shows at Caffe Cino. He later went on to make trashy low-budget movies such as The Ghastly Ones, Vapors, Seeds of Sin, The Body Beneath, The Man with Two Heads, and Torture Dungeon.
“Andy was an S&M motorcycle freak, but a good director,” said playwright Paul Foster, who was connected to another Off-Off-Broadway theater, Café La MaMa. “He was outrageous. He would say anything and do anything, which was exciting because it was new. Andy was quite a character.” Robert Patrick added, “Andy Milligan was a dress designer and into S&M, as pretty boys learned when they first hit the Cino.” He staged a homoerotic dance during his production of Jean Genet’s Deathwatch at the Cino, and Milligan’s version of Genet’s The Maids had a lesbian sex scene that was sizzling for its time.
For extra money, Joe Cino sometimes tried to capitalize on the Village’s reputation by organizing groups of tourists to watch a “beatnik session.” Talbot recalled sitting outside his Cornelia Street apartment one day with another straight-but-not-square friend, Milton Wyatt, when a tourist bus pulled up. “Milton said to me, ‘Oh, here comes the bus! Quick! Kiss me!’ So we put on our little performance for them.”
Greenwich Village was filled with eccentrics and bohemians, but it was also where many families and kids resided, such as Lisa Jane Persky. “This place had a certain history in it,” she said. “It called to people who wanted to feel comfortable being different.” When Persky’s parents first moved to the Village in 1962, they stayed in a nearby apartment building off Sheridan Square. One of the first sights she saw while looking outside her bedroom window was Bob Dylan, who was sporting the same coat he wore on his first album cover.
Bibbe Hansen was another kid who grew up in the Village—living at 609 East Sixth Street, between Avenues C and D, and on Great Jones Street. Her junior high school was in Greenwich Village, where her teachers imbued students with a utopian outlook. “One of the things to really get about these times is how incredibly optimistic we were, how incredibly blessed we felt,” Hansen recalled. “We conquered childhood diseases and diphtheria and smallpox and polio, and we were conquering the civil rights injustices.”
It felt like so many evils were being eradicated, and they were inheriting a new world in which the seeds of social justice were finally bearing fruit. “When I was little, going to P.S. 41 in second and third grade,” Persky added, “it was hammered into us that we were in a melting pot. So I thought by the time I’m an adult, there will be so much interracial marriage that we’d all just be one color.” It was common to see interracial couples in the neighborhood, along with other sights that would have scandalized people in other parts of the country.
The peace movement thrived in the Village, and Hansen’s school chums were the son and daughter of poet and activist Grace Paley. One day in 1963, she tagged along with them to an early protest against the Vietnam War while conservative Italian Americans threw tomatoes and shouted epithets at them. (As the 1960s wore on, New York City became a hotbed of antiwar activism.) The poet and activist Ed Sanders also joined Paley when they renovated a storefront on West Third Street, between Bleecker Street and Sixth Avenue, which became the Greenwich Village Peace Center. “Meeting Grace Paley and Bob Nichols was a big inspiration,” recalled Sanders, who had recently relocated from his Missouri hometown before gaining notoriety as the frontman of the Fugs and the publisher of Fuck You/A Magazine of the Arts.2
In addition to biological families, Greenwich Village offered informal kinship systems that welcomed people like Agosto Machado. He arrived there in the late fifties after growing up in some rough New York neighborhoods, such as Hell’s Kitchen, where he heard schoolyard taunts like “Ooh, you’re so queer you should go to Greenwich Village.” “People came from different parts of the city to express yourself in the Village,” Machado said. “I didn’t really feel I was part of the majority culture, which is why so many people who were trying to find themselves gravitated there.”
Just being gay made one a criminal and an outsider. In the early 1960s, a man still could be arrested for wearing women’s clothes in public, so Machado and his friends would carry their drag finery in shopping bags and then change once they hit a critical mass. After the sun went down, they promenaded up and down the street—sometimes gathering by Gay Street, which intersected Christopher. “Honey, where are we? Gay Street!” they’d all shout. It was safety in numbers. “The queens, all the way down Sheridan Square, would have an audience,” Machado said, “people walking by, people on the stoop. And as the evening wore on, they got a little louder and grander—showing their new fabric they got, or a new wig. It was a street society, and you could walk around and feel that your community would protect you.”
The street scene on Christopher functioned like an extended family for those who had been rejected by their own relatives, an embracing place where social networks formed. “There was no internet,” Machado said, “so how do you find out what’s happening? You go out on the street and you can hang out in Sheridan Square, Washington Square Park, and you’d find out more or less what people were doing.” He likened it to street theater, with different people making an entrance—“Hi, girl! What are you doing?”—and putting on a show.
Roller-Arena-Skates (also known as Rolla-Reena Skeets) glided around on cobblestone streets while wearing a soiled dress and holding a wand, looking like a shabby Glinda the Good Witch. Another street character named Bambi cruised Christopher Street with his little dog, day and night, until some queens found him frozen to death one winter evening. That night, Lisa Jane Persky huddled on the stoop with her neighbors Rosie and Ernestine as they watched the cops zip Bambi into the body bag. The next day, he was back in his spot sitting on the stoop across the street; it turned out Bambi had awakened in the morgue. “I don’t know who was more scared,” he told Lisa, “me or the guy who heard me scream.”
Machado fondly remembered the vibrancy of Sheridan Square and Christopher Street, where people socialized and made connections. “Oh, I’m going to sing in the chorus at the Judson Church,” someone might tell him, “and why don’t you join?” Agosto added, “There was the Judson Church circle merging dance and Happenings, and Caffe Cino and La MaMa, plus other alternative groups, plus street theater. They were just hanging out, and you expressed yourself on the street, developed your own persona, and then figured out your own place in that world. You could reinvent yourself.”