Part 1 of a Series of Interviews
Pillow Talking has the distinct honor of presenting this interview with acclaimed playwright Robert “Bob” Patrick, one of the earliest and most innovative voices of gay theatre at New York’s famed Caffe Cino in the 1960s. “The Cino” was a coffee house with an eight-foot square stage run by Joe Cino, who allowed something akin to magic to grow and thrive at his little venue. The Cino would ultimately give rise to what we know today as Off-Off-Broadway theatre – it was a place for experimentation and uncensored free-expression, launching the careers of notables such as playwrights John Guare, Tom Eyen, Sam Shepard, William M. Hoffman, and Lanford Wilson, as well as performers Al Pacino, Fred Willard, and Bernadette Peters.
We had the pleasure of speaking to Bob via Skype (his much preferred method of conversing long-distance). As we fumbled to launch a program we’d downloaded in order to record our virtual “face-to-face” conversation, Bob asked, “Has the interview officially started?”
“Um,” we said in unison. “Sure.”
“Because I have a first line for it,” Bob said.
“We who are about to lie salute you,” Bob responded and we laughed. “I saved that all day!”
So here goes…Part 1 of our three-hour long interview with a very fascinating and truly endearing man.
PT: Well, you are a tough interviewee. You have been interviewed so many times, we’ve been wracking our brains to come up with some unique and spectacular things to ask you!
RP: I can’t wait.
PT: We thought it would be fun to start with the present and move backward.
RP: Well, the immediate present turns out to be much like the past. I just received word that the principle space I’ve been performing in for three years got a liquor license and is becoming a sushi bar as of January 31 . That’s the bad news. The good-ish news is that my wonderful producer/director/father-figure Jason Jenn is programming a farewell month of revivals of all the best incredible “performance art” pieces he’s presented there, including all three of my one-man shows, so at last I’ll be able to arrange good videos of them.
But three years ago, I’d been quietly vegetating in Los Angeles for nineteen years. I went to my doctor for my regular check-up. And he said as he always does, “Get out of here, you’re as healthy as a thirty-year-old man. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
And I said, “Good.”
Then he said, “But I’ll tell you this – if you don’t lose weight, you’ll die.”
And I said, “Wha-?” Then I looked in his mirror, and lo and behold, there was a fat man. I hadn’t even noticed for eighteen or nineteen years – I’d been so indifferent to myself that I hadn’t even noticed that I weighed three hundred pounds. And so I started dieting and walking. And then I ran into these people who had read my plays in school – young people. And they persuaded me to be in a show – a narration and a little bit of singing. And to all of our surprise, people applauded my singing.
Then other friends talked me into going to open mic nights. Now you should know I never dreamed [about doing something like this]. When I was about five years old I saw a Judy Garland movie where she sang in a night club. And [back then] I thought that was the most marvelous thing – to sing while people ate. That was as far as it went though, because all of my life people told me I couldn’t sing. So I never even had the ambition to sing because so early on it was pointed out that it was impossible.
But about three years ago now I started singing at these open mic nights and at friends’ parties and the acclaim just got more and more vociferous. So I was taken by a singer named Jane Cantilion and a former Esquire editor named David Parke Epstein to open mic nights run by a marvelous pianist and singer named Lori Donato. I sang a couple of my own songs, and then she [Lori] asked, “Do you know such and such…” and I sang things like “Night and Day.” And then Lori, a very expensive and exclusive voice coach, asked me to her house – and I couldn’t pay her, but she said, “It doesn’t matter.” She gave me a lesson in some basics, and it just inspired me.
Then after some really well-received appearances at places like Akbar, Spirit Studio and Antebellum Gallery, Mr. Jason Jenn, himself a playwright actor, entrepreneur, “performance artist” as they call it, asked me to do a full-length show at Spirit Studio. So I made up this one-man show during my daily seven-mile walks, and included two or three songs. And the result was called “What Doesn’t Kill Me Makes a Great Story Later,” and it was the story of my brief years of what is called “fame” – or as I put it, my “trip through the success pool.” It went over like wildfire; we repeated it for two or three other presentations. The songs in it got us special attention so we did another one called “Bob Capella” because I sing only my own songs but I don’t write music, so I sing acapella. So we thought “Bob Capella” was cute – “Bob Capella: Songs of Love and Laughter,” which went even better.
And then recently we did “New Songs for Old Movies.” All my life I’ve loved movies, and often, I would see a movie and think, There should be a song there. And from the time I was about twelve, I wrote songs for the movies I saw. Even for the musicals, if I thought I had a better idea than the writer of the musical, I wrote it. So we did a show with those [songs] where I did Julie Andrews, and Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and Harvey Fierstein, and Louis Armstrong, Judy Garland. I did my own songs with wonderful slides. We didn’t use stage lighting, we used colored slides from movies to light the show. And that was so well received we are repeating it in January.
PT: That sounds amazing! Where are you going to be doing that in January?
RP: Spirit Studio in Silver Lake.
PT: So you created these on your seven-mile hike.
RP: Yes, but I think I finally had to type up the script for the lighting man. But it wasn’t originally written at a desk – it was made up on my walks. We did a preview of it that ran an hour and a half and it needed shaping so I hacked out a bit of it and brought it down to seventy-five minutes. And it was dynamite.
On the other hand, I felt so bad because one of the disappointments I’ve had lately, David LeBarron of Akbar and Andrew Henkes asked me to be in a wonderful play by David called First Elders, a brilliant idea – this is the first generation of gay men who have had “elders” to go to for advice, openly. And David had written a wonderful play about a young gay man who goes to a group of seven of his elders, who are just ordinary men from whom he seeks knowledge and experience and advice about his own life; and I was asked to play one. But I’m seventy-eight. I was afraid I couldn’t memorize. And so I had to drop out; they got a wonderful person to do the role. But now after doing my own shows and memorizing an hour-and-a-half long monologue easily, I hope that if David ever does his play again, he’ll ask me.
PT: That sounds like a great premise! We were talking about being out your way possibly in January; we love to come to see your show.
RP: Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it coincided with my show? If you want I could do it for you over Skype!
PT: (Laughs) That’s a promise! Our own private show!
RP: These people have been wonderful. And through them I have discovered this kind of unnamed world. They call it ninety-nine-seat theatre out here [in LA], but many of them don’t even have ninety-nine seats. It’s like our Off-Off-Broadway, like in New York, but with some differences. In most of these theatres the performers have to pay to appear; whereas of course, the essence of Off-Off-Broadway was that it was done in places that made their living in some other way – like coffee houses or bars or churches or bookstores – so that the players didn’t have to pay any rent to appear there. Of course they didn’t make any money to appear there either. But because of that novel arrangement, it was the first time in history that theatre didn’t have to appeal to anybody. Not the public or the press or the police or the priests or the pundits.
Theatre at the Caffe Cino and La MaMa and Theatre Genesis and Theater for the New City and the Dove Company – for the first time became an implement of free self-expression for the playwright – because he didn’t have to please anybody. Or as I like to put it, rather pretentiously – at the Caffe Cino in the 1960s, theatre entered the “modern era” which the other arts had entered in Paris a hundred years before. It was a tremendous thing to be part of and it spread worldwide. There are, I’m sure, at least a couple of hundred what would be called Off-Off-Broadway theatres in LA, probably more. There’s nowhere that lists them. There is no paper that covers it. Even though it’s been going on a long time, it’s still like the earliest days of Off-Off-Broadway. You go into a place like Akbar, which is a gay bar out on Sunset, and you get up and you do your show – and they let you charge admission – which is something we couldn’t do Off-Off-Broadway. And these people build up a following. I’ve built up a following. It’s very hard to promote it and publicize it, because you can’t afford to take ads in papers for a one-night show with forty-five seats. A sixteenth of a page in the LA Weekly paper costs four-hundred twenty-six dollars, so it’s very hard to promote. And it’s different because people have to rent theatres, but otherwise the feeling of it all is so much like the earliest days of Off-Off-Broadway. There are these fantastic, florid, overflowing personalities, brilliant talents, expressing themselves so freely and innovating at will because there is nothing to stop them…it’s like the earliest days of Caffe Cino and La MaMa…watching these brilliant talents flower in oblivion. I don’t like the oblivion. I think these kids deserve coverage and they deserve recognition even if it spoils the scene. Somehow they’ve got to be recognized and some of them are capable of moving on to more commercial theatre and making money at it – and why not? But right now, there’s no path for them to do that through. It’s heartbreaking to see. Most of them aren’t exactly “actors” or “playwrights” – they classify themselves together under the “performance artist” title, which means a kind of abstract theatre – often very collage-like, what they call a “mash-up” with slides and lights and projections and dance and costumes and moving scenery and oblique, indirect, disjointed texts that build sort of musically like dance to a great big crescendo. Often it’s extremely political or obscene. I wish you could see some of them!
PT: We have seen some rather interesting pieces here in New York, especially in our experiences at Manhattan Repertory Theatre. We were lucky – we kind of just walked into Manhattan Repertory and have been fortunate to put on numerous plays there. It also is a fabulous forum for new and young playwrights and actors to be able to hone their craft and to test the waters to see what people will be receptive to. Some things work, some things don’t. Some we’ve brought our children to and that also has been very interesting. That must be similar to what it was like at Caffe Cino.
May I take a photo of the screen?
PT: Oh, gosh…sure!
RP: (Laughs) It’s charming! Your faces except for your features disappeared!
PT: (Laughs) Wayne – maybe that’s a good thing for me! I’m not very photogenic. (Stephanie – of course he is!)
RP: You look like a drawing by Edvard Munch. (Laughs)PT: (Laughs) So, you said you didn’t have to please anybody, but we’ve read how you brought your first play to Joe Cino and he threw it in the garbage.
RP: He did. I was the general factotum at the Cino. I wandered in [to the Cino] the first half hour I was in Manhattan. I was enchanted. And I stayed. I took an office job just a few blocks from the Cino so I could rush over every day after work. And I just did whatever needed doing – I swept or shopped or anything. And they just got used to me.
PT: How old were you at the time?
RP: I hit New York when I was twenty four. So after I had been there about two and a half years – when I was twenty seven and I’d helped with dozens and dozens of plays in every capacity, and I was living with Lanford Wilson – the great playwright to come out of the Cino…do you know that story?PT: Yes, in fact, we wanted to know how it was to room with Lanford – and how was it for you when he told Joe Cino to take your play out of the garbage?
RP: Lance said if Joe didn’t do my play he wouldn’t do any more plays at the Cino. And so Joe pulled it out but he said, “You’ll be sorry,” because he said being a playwright made a person vain and self-centered. And [he said] I was a nice guy and it shouldn’t happen to me. But I loved theatre, I loved being with theatre people. I was just happy to be in this magical environment. Then one say I helped to move the scenery in for Lanford’s first play and I suddenly got an idea for a play – just Wham! out of nowhere. And because there was the Cino, I wrote it. I mean I had a million ideas for movies, for novels – but here was an idea for a play and a floor to put it on. That’s all you need, you know, is a floor! If someone will give you a floor, you can create a theatre revolution!A lot of people lived with me [in New York] because I had a steady employment, a small apartment, no private life to speak of, and a lot of people who were hard up would come live with me. Lanford and his friend Michael Warren Powell lived with me for a long time. Lanford would write by day at the kitchen table, then I’d come home from work and write at night.
So how was it? It was fun. Lanford’s personal conversation was as clever and unexpected and brilliant as that of the characters in his plays. But my sweetest memory of Lanford is of the last time I saw him. A lot of us playwrights from the Cino were brought to New York to be in a TV segment about the birth of gay theatre at the Cino. So they interviewed us all together and then they wanted to take us to lunch at the place where the Cino used to be – it’s now an Italian restaurant called Pó. So while we were waiting for the cars to come get us, I said to Lanford, “I always wondered what it was I had that let me be with all you beautiful people.” And Lanford tilted his head and said, “You had a job, Bob.”
PT: (Laughs) That’s great! What was it about Joe Cino for him to have allowed all of you playwrights to come in and do your thing?
RP: Joe would look at you and say, “Do what you have to do.” He gave absolute permission. He didn’t want anything from you. And he wasn’t at all self-sacrificial about giving to you. He had this floor. A boy named Billy Mitchell, who was a dancer, director, and the lover of Joe’s best friend Charles Loubier told me this story. When Joe opened the coffee house, he had these plans to do folk music and poetry readings like all the coffee houses did; and Billy said, “Why don’t do you do plays? It’s no harder than doing poetry or music.” And Joe said, “Oh, okay.” He was that casual.
And the first one Billy said was a reading of a Dorothy Parker short story. I have a photograph of it. And the idea just caught fire. People would come in casually and just see a play. Not in the huge, formal, expensive settings they were used to, but just whatever was on that night. And if they didn’t like it, it didn’t matter because they could come back the next week and they would like it. It was a “world a week” at the Cino. They started out doing well-known, preexisting plays. They did all the classic playwrights and most of all Tennessee Williams. I think they did every one-act he had published at that time. And then somebody brought in an original play, “Flyspray,” and that went well, then somebody brought in another and pretty soon, playwrights had discovered the Cino and then people who had never thought of writing a play, like me, saw a place where they could bring in their play and do it for a weekend. And it just caught on. And there began to be star playwrights. A man named Jerry Caruana did five plays at the Cino before I came. And he only quit because the city department he worked for was trying to close the Cino – because it was not legal to do plays.
PT: Right. Back then, I think you even needed a cabaret license, correct?
RP: Yes. Overall, we’ve never been sure what the legal situation at the CIno was. Joe was Sicilian. And so was the lady he rented the Cino from, Josie. In fact, Joe said he was looking at the place and a lady on the fire escape said, “What are you looking at it for? You want to rent the place?” And he said, “Yeah.” And she said, “What’s your name?” And he told her. Then she asked, “Are you Sicilian?” He said, “Yeah.” And she said, “Here’s the keys,” and she threw the keys down to him. But we never had any overt trouble with the place until Joe died. And then all of a sudden, five times a day cops came in with summonses. So we always thought perhaps there was some connection between Joe’s family relations that allowed the place to stay open. Then after he died, literally five times a day they’d come in. Charles Stanley managed the Cino right after Joe died – but we couldn’t pay summonses – we didn’t make any money. We put them [the summonses] on a spindle like a restaurant check and put it on the back of the toilet.
RP: It was absurd. I was the door man; and it reached the point where I’d stand out front, and if I saw a cop coming down the block, I’d knock on the door and somebody inside would have heard and said, “Offstage” and whoever was on stage would hop off and sit at tables with customers…
RP: So when [the cop] would come in he wouldn’t see a play. Sometimes he’d see people in pretty flamboyant costumes sitting at the tables, but he wouldn’t see a play. But of course that sort of thing demoralized everyone and audiences got depressed by it. It all just trickled away. I’m always making it a firm rule to point out that it was no one’s fault that the Cino closed. It wasn’t from any misdoing or mismanagement. It was simply pressures that, after Joe’s death, no one could have kept it open. Michael Smith and a man named Zuckerman took it over from Charles Stanley and things just went downhill. The audiences had fragmented. We were doing plays which were so extremely different like one night we’d do a play with a comic book script; the next night there’d be some kind of drug ritual; the next night would be a Lanford Wilson play; or it would be a classic play. Audiences would come and not know…they’d wanted to see the drug shows but would see a comic book show and say, “No,” and they wouldn’t come back. It just disintegrated. No one’s fault. No misdoing on anyone’s part.
PT: How long after Joe died did you stay at Caffe Cino?
RP: A year. It only lasted for a year after his death. But already by that time there were dozens and dozens – maybe hundreds – of theatres inspired by it. The Village Voice had the Off-Off Broadway listings. Quite distinct from Off-Broadway. It had done its work. The Cino had done its work – it had created modern theatre and then it trickled away. Ellen Stewart of La MaMa – if not the second person to open an Off-Off theatre, the second person to matter – very near to the end of her life said the one thing that she regretted was that she hadn’t taken over the Cino after Joe’s death and kept it open. And I pointed out to her, “Ellen, you have kept the Cino open! La MaMa is the Cino! La MaMa Bogota! La MaMa Caracas! These are all the Cino. You’ve kept it alive! Joe couldn’t have asked for anything more.” And she was much placated by that thought. Joe Cino is dead – but the Cino is everywhere. Akbar is the Caffe Cino; Spirit Studio is the Caffe Cino. Casita de Campos over on Hyperion (Avenue in LA) where a wonderful creature named John Cantwell puts on shows is the Caffe Cino. Manhattan Repertory (Theatre in NYC) is the Cino for God’s sake!PT: Didn’t you start a La MaMa II out in LA?
RP: She had me and Jacque Lynn Colton and June Perr start a La MaMa Hollywood – our first shows were very well received but we just weren’t used to dealing with Hollywood actors. It was very difficult getting shows on but the few that we did were very, very well-received. Then I left and went to Europe to do Kennedy’s Children in London.
PT: Coming out of New York – New York known as a “theatre town” with stage actors even to this day – so you found a big difference between the “Hollywood” actors and the “New York” actors?
RP: There were big differences out here. One is that there were an awful lot of people here hoping to make it in TV and movies who had no stage experience or ambitions and did not know how to take it seriously. And also, it can take three hours to drive to a rehearsal here; you need a lot of dedication. And it’s expensive out here. People have to have jobs – I’m sure it’s the same way now in New York. It used to be you could work a couple of days a week as a typist and if three or four of you lived together in a small apartment and you didn’t have to worry about money. Life isn’t like that anymore. The LA theatre scene is incredibly vital and it has all sorts of stars – star directors, star playwrights, star actors. It has endless festivals and they are very fond here of…(laughs)…I did a terrible thing to the world. In 1966 I created the “mini play”. At the Caffe Cino with my program “New Works: Lights, Camera, Action, the mini plays” – I invented the five-minute play. It has been taken up and become so widespread. Every day I get requests to submit a play to yet another festival of five- or ten-minute plays. All over the world they do five- and ten-minute plays. And do you know why? Because if you’ve got twenty playwrights and sixty actors, that means there’s that many more people who are going to come see their friends. It’s strictly because it builds audiences. I almost regret having created the form. But there’s a lot of that around here – and around the world. It is amazing.
Did you know there is a gay theatre in Kalamazoo, Michigan?
PT: I’m sure. Why not? But the form is not just for gay theatre. We actually are following in your footsteps. I remember years and years ago, the only place really that was looking for ten-minute plays was the Actors Theatre of Louisville. We use NYC Playwrights’ listing and there are five- and ten- and fifteen-minute plays and festivals everywhere.
RP: Mea culpa. Mea culpa.
PT: Well we have written some so we are happy about it – because that has been a very good mode of expression for us.
RP: It’s incredible, these things we did at the Cino were so influential – it’s just amazing that even out in Kalamazoo – there is an organization called Kalamazoo Queer Theatre.
Stay tuned for Part 2 with Playwright, Robert Patrick — More about the development of Gay Theatre, Kennedy’s Children, Off-Off Broadway and so much more — Coming Soon
Read our other Pillow Talking Interviews