On Joe Cino, Diasporic Sicilian Culture & Queer Theater
Happy Birthday to il mio paesano (my kin), Joe Cino.
Born to Sicilian immigrants in 1931, Joe ran from Buffalo to NYC at age 16 with dreams and not much else. In 1958, he took his last $400 and started Caffe Cino, which is now largely recognized as the birthplace of Off-Off-Broadway.
The coffeeshop started with poetry readings but quickly morphed into theatre performed on a stage made of milk cartons and carpet remnants while Joe’s partner, Jon Torrey, whipped up the lighting.
A haven for queer people, creatives, and people of color, Caffe Cino (pronounced “chino” in English and Spanish) nurtured the development of American queer theatre at a time when it was illegal to portray homosexuality on stage.
From the (U.S.) National Park Service:
“The location also gave gay people a place besides a bar to be themselves, but with one advantage over bars: there was something to do besides drink. For the price of a cup of coffee, patrons could be themselves, embracing all their own complexities. The Caffe may have been the origin of an American gay theater, but it was never confined to a single idea of what it was to be gay.”
One thing that the resources for this post didn’t directly state but described well was the amount of diasporic Sicilian culture pulsing through Caffe Cino. It was described as having a warm, welcoming atmosphere with no waiters, just friends serving friends. The walls were covered with not only theatre posters and magazine cutouts but also religious iconography. There was a jukebox full of opera records, a gigantic coffee-grinding machine just for decoration, and the single espresso machine which, technically, made the place a business.
Like other such NYC cultural refuges of its times, Caffe Cino found itself heavily policed and managed to keep going by, somewhat miraculously, coming up with enough money to keep paying off the cops.
Joe’s life ended tragically 9 years after opening the Caffe, but his legacy continues. From the Greenwich Village Society For Historical Preservation:
“Joe is still remembered as a warm, irreverent, generous, creative, and supportive dreamer. Joe ignored Andy Warhol, kept Bette Midler’s early resume taped up behind the espresso machine, and was always there for his community.”
Off-Off-Broadway and the queer culture that Caffe Cino nurtured is also thought to be linked to early queer activism’s use of theatrical tactics.
Today in queer Sicilian-Italian diaspora communities, one conversation I hear a lot is around a search for links between our queerness, our culture, and (in some circles) our change-making. In Joe’s legacy, we can see all these pieces embodied in a way that feels cohesive, integrated, and intact.
Joe shares his birthday with another community hero born just one year earlier, Father James Groppi who dedicated his life’s work to the Civil Rights Movement… which makes today, November 16th, a great day in Sicilian-Italian America.
Greenwich Village Society For Historical Preservation: https://www.villagepreservation.org/2018/10/24/an-intimate-and-unconventional-space-caffe-cino/
In Life Media “Caffe Cino” (YouTube): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wKS3f5zxdys&list=PLYVN_LR1tMrgNLlpJL2OiIaukf_xAdsw0&index=11&t=2s
The Lost World of Italian-American Radicalism, ed. Philip V. Cannistraro & Gerald Meyer
U.S. National Park Service: https://www.nps.gov/articles/caffe-cino.htm