Sunday, May 10, 2015

179. The West Village Then and Now

     The West Village, the Manhattan neighborhood where I live, has many old buildings that tell a tale.  Let’s have a look at some of them.

     The Northern Dispensary, a triangular brick building at 165 Waverly Place, stands on a triangular plot formed by the intersection of three streets: Waverly Place, Christopher Street, and Grove Street.  A three-story plain brick building in the heart of Greenwich Village, a desirable high-rent district where town houses sell for as much as $11.5 million, it stands there with a sign proclaiming its name, vacant but not abandoned: a puzzlement.  I have often passed it and wondered why, for at least twenty years, it remains empty.  There is, of course, a story.

File:Northern Dispensary.jpg
Beyond My Ken

     The Northern Dispensary was built at the northern edge of the city in 1831 as the city’s second clinic for the poor and infirm and served as such for many years.  Edgar Allen Poe, who lived nearby and squandered what little money he had on liquor, is said to have stopped in there with a head cold.  As the city spread northward, the dispensary staff were kept busy, writing twenty thousand prescriptions in 1886.  By the twentieth century, with the appearance of more hospitals, the number of patients diminished, and by the 1960s, when I first became aware of the Dispensary, it was functioning as a dental clinic only.  In the 1960s, fearing infection, it refused service to an HIV patient, got sued, and was fined thousands of dollars.  Struggling financially, in 1989 it finally shut down.  It was then acquired by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which sold it for $760,000 in 1998.

     The new owner, William Gottlieb, had a fortune in New York City real estate but drove about in a beat-up old station wagon, sloppily dressed and often unshaven, and carried his papers about in a shopping bag.  If you saw him on the street, you’d take him for a bum.  It was his custom to buy buildings – small lots in the West Village, the Meatpacking District, and Chelsea – and sit on them for years.  Sometimes he kept old buildings from being destroyed; sometimes he let them deteriorate.  Under his ownership the Northern Dispensary deteriorated, its paint chipped, its windows broken.  Gottlieb died in 1999, and today his nephew is trying to patch the building up; the roof is being repaired, the interior cleaned up.  The nephew is also trying to decipher the complicated deed restrictions, which require that the building be used to serve the poor, and ban “any obscene performances on the premises or any obscene or pornographic purposes,” and also prohibit abortions.  What will finally become of the building remains in doubt.  Meanwhile it still sits there, a bit forlorn.

     A West Village site that is anything but forlorn is Julius’s, a ground-floor bar in a plain, stucco-fronted building at the corner of West 10th Street and Waverly Place, with a long bar with a brass foot rail, and big windows facing on the street.  When I first came to New York in the early 1950s, a friend described it as “Princeton on a weekend.”  And when I stuck my nose in there, it did seem to be a collegiate hangout, mostly young men, but not a gay bar.  Artists too hung out there, meeting to chat over a beer and burger. 

Julius's today.  The third floor facing on Waverly was added in the late nineteenth century.Americasroof
     What distinguished Julius’s was its ceiling covered with many years’ accumulation of cobwebs and dust, the sawdust on the floor, and management’s determination not to let it become a gay bar, even though gay men were infiltrating it discreetly.  Unlike the gay bars of the time, Julius’s  wasn’t run by the mafia, and it wasn’t paying off the police.  A gatekeeper monitored the percentage of men to women, and if he deemed the number of males too high, he would only admit men in the company of women.  And inside there was a great effort to keep gay men from cruising each other, or at least cruising each other in a way that was obvious.

     But Julius’s, which today claims to be one of the oldest bars in Manhattan, has gone through many phases.  Built in 1826 as a two-and-a-half-story Federal-style house, for years it housed a ground-floor grocery with the owner living on the floor above.  Then in 1864 it became a bar and continued as such for many years until Prohibition was enacted in 1919.  With its façade now stuccoed over, during the 1920s it was a speakeasy named Seven Doors, and with the repeal of Prohibition it took the name of Julius’s, though no one knows quite why.  In the 1930s and 1940s it was patronized by horse-racing and prize-fighting fans, but also by jazz and literary people, a period commemorated in yellowing photos and framed newspaper clippings on the wall behind the bar.
     Also drifting into the place were gay men who lived in the neighborhood, but this was the “Princeton on a weekend” period and the bar resisted becoming a gay bar at first.  But by the 1960s, adhering to the time-tested principle “If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em,” Julius’s became a full-fledged gay bar.  In 1966 three Mattachine Society activists announced themselves as homosexuals and asked to be served.  By prior arrangement with the management, they were denied service, so as to challenge the New York State Liquor Authority’s regulation prohibiting bars and restaurants from serving homosexuals, who were labeled “disorderly.”  The Authority then denied authorizing such a prohibition, the city’s Human Rights Commission investigated, and the courts finally ruled that gay people had a right to peacefully assemble.

     And today?  The ceiling cobwebs and sawdust are long since gone, but Julius’s still functions as a gay bar, albeit a quiet, toned-down one.  A friend of mine visited it recently and found three distinct groups imbibing there: older gay men who were cruising discreetly; older straight women, gay-friendly, whose presence inhibited the men just a bit; and, arriving later, a band of “hunky” twenty- and thirty-somethings, all good-looking, who seemed to be bar-hopping.  Still a pleasant place, it would seem, and still a quiet neighborhood bar.

     The Judson Memorial Church, on the south side of Washington Square Park, is another Village structure with a lot of history.  It was the dream of Edward Judson, a Baptist minister living in the neighborhood, who got funding from fellow Baptist John D. Rockefeller, Sr., the ruthless oil tycoon turned philanthropist.  Built in 1892 in the Romanesque Revival style and flanked by an Italian-style tower, the church is considered an architectural masterpiece from the firm of the renowned architect (and future murder victim) Stanford White, though to my eye it looms massively and oddly in a neighborhood where Greek Revival houses (of whom a few survive) once lined three sides of the park. 

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Beyond My Ken

     The sober interior (Baptists embrace sobriety) was adorned with marble relief sculpture in the baptistery based on a design by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and stained-glass windows by John La Farge in the sanctuary.  The windows were added over the years as funds became available, and in contrast to the windows of the great Gothic cathedrals of France, which tell saintly stories, many of the Judson’s windows honor family members of the donors who made them possible.  (Well, funding is always hard to get.)

     Edward Judson, the founder and first minister, named the church for his long-deceased father, who had been a Baptist missionary in Burma.  Eager to do community outreach in an area with a strange mix of residents – affluent WASPS on the lower reaches of Fifth Avenue, and Italian immigrants in tenements just south of the park – Judson and his parishioners sponsored cooking and sewing classes, a health facility, and employment services, and so began a tradition of social activism that continued well into the twentieth century.  Though the congregation was shrinking, during the Great Depression of the 1930s the church at times let homeless men sleep in the pews.  Services were still conventional in the 1950s, when my friend John and his friend April, a force of nature celebrated long ago in this blog, joined the choir of eight, he with an acceptable tenor voice, and April with a deplorable soprano.  (Being a force of nature doesn’t guarantee good singing.)  A small choir, a small congregation.

     Then in 1957 Dr. Howard Moody became the senior minister with a determination to shake things up and get the church involved in local politics and culture.  With the backing of the church board, he and his assistants gave up their clerical garb, removed crosses and pews from the church, and converted the sanctuary into a stage.  Wild things followed, and I was a witness to some of them, if not necessarily in the church itself, at least with the church’s backing.  For instance:

·      In Circles, 1967, a plotless, shapeless musical with ten singers and a piano, based on an enigmatic 1920 text by Gertrude Stein (all of whose texts are enigmatic), a curious hodgepodge of words that the music -- a mix of ragtime, tango, waltz, love song, lullaby, barbershop quartet, spiritual, and what have you – made joyous, exuberant, and entertaining.  Most memorable moment: the pianist, a little bald gnome of a man, kisses at length the most beautiful young woman in the cast – a beauty-and-the-beast moment that chilled me to the quick.

·      Peace, 1969, a loose adaptation of Aristophanes’ play of the same name, which celebrated an imaginary peace between Athens and Sparta, ending the Peloponnesian War.  This production came during the Vietnam War and the vehement movement trying to end it.  Another hodgepodge, with Aristophanes turned into a minstrel show.  Most memorable moment: Peace, Prosperity, and Abundance, long imprisoned by War, are liberated.  Peace, a remarkably beautiful, slim young blond woman, slowly raises her arms to the audience in a gesture of welcome and radiantly smiling acceptance.  Prosperity and Abundance do the same, Abundance being another attractive young woman, dark-haired, appropriately fleshy and abundant.

·      The Journey of Snow White, 1971, a musical reinterpretation of the Snow White story where Snow White is sought out not by Prince Charming but by three suitors – an opera singer, a singing cowboy, and a rock star reminiscent of Elvis Presley – who fail to rescue her.  In the end she is rescued by the Queen’s Mirror, who decides he wants to become human.  Most memorable moment: when Snow White escapes into the forest and finds refuge among the woodland creatures (a cast of scores of volunteers), the seven dwarfs come marching in, led by a roly-poly girl who you immediately knew had to be a dwarf.

     Who or what was behind these bold, wild, exciting, unsettling, sprawling, often irreverent, and hugely creative events?  The answer is simple: Al Carmines, assistant minister of the Judson Memorial Church.  Virginia-born and musical from an early age, and a graduate of the Union Theological Seminary in New York City, Carmines was hired by Howard Moody in 1961 to found a theater in the church’s sanctuary and put a little zip into the services and cultural outreach.  A creative and eclectic composer and bisexual to boot, Carmines founded the Judson Poets’ Theater, a major force in the burgeoning Off Off Broadway movement, which challenged the conformity and commercialization of Broadway and Off Broadway.  For inspiration he drew on Gertrude Stein, W.C. Fields, Aristophanes, the Bible, Winnie the Pooh, history, fairy tales, and gay life; his music was influenced by every form of pop music imaginable, with a bit of opera and operetta thrown in.  And all of this on a minimal budget with unpaid volunteer performers.

Al Carmines     A tall, husky, full-faced man who liked gin and cigars, Carmines onstage was described by New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes as “crouched at his piano like a benevolent tiger, seeming cherubic enough yet with a face that sometimes looks like the darker side of the moon.”  Carmines had a Puckish wit, no small dose of irreverence, and liked to shock.  During his productions four-letter words and nudity invaded the church’s sanctuary, to the horror of a few and the delight of many.  The Reverend Al could also act and sing, and somehow found time to conduct services, give sermons where God was rarely mentioned, and perform marriages as a man of the cloth.  If photos show a rather fleshy man with a hint of self-indulgence, it hardly matters; he did wonders – innovative, often shocking wonders – with the full blessing of the church’s congregation.  The average age of that congregation?  Twenty-eight.  Which explains a lot.

     In 1973 the Judson presented Carmines’s musical The Faggot, which consisted of vignettes of gay life and used the word “faggot” to describe anyone living outside society’s concept of “normal.”  Carmines himself appeared as Oscar Wilde, though some felt his writing couldn’t match Wilde’s in wit.  The musical got positive reviews, but the gay community criticized its focus on the loneliness and emptiness of gay life.  It was Carmines’s last notable production.

     I may have seen In Circles after it moved to the Cherry Lane Theater, but  wherever it was, I was so taken with it that I went back to see it again – for me, an almost unheard-of venture.  Worse still, it so inspired me that I began writing a dramatic hodgepodge of my own, a plotless mix of monologues, dialogues, poetic effusions, non sequiturs, one liners, and fractured French in which the six characters confronted one another in shifting alliances: male vs. female, older vs. younger, conservative vs. progressive.  Happily, nothing ever came of it and the script has long since vanished.  It was joyous enough but of its moment; it wouldn’t fly today.  But In Circles won an Obie Award from the Village Voice, one of five that Carmines would receive.  (The mainstream press in those days ignored the downtown Off Off Broadway scene, but the Voice reported it with enthusiasm.)

     The radiantly beautiful young woman playing Peace was Arlene Rothstein, an actress, dancer, and choreographer who often appeared in Carmines’s productions.  She may have been the young woman in In Circles who was kissed by the pianist.  Only in researching this post did I learn that she died later at age 37 of meningitis, a sad ending to a promising career.

     Mortality stalked the Reverend Al as well.  In 1977 his creative career was interrupted by a cerebral aneurysm that required a lengthy operation followed by months of therapy, and he never quite recovered the musical flair and inventiveness that had characterized his career up till then.  Crippling headaches forced him to resign from his post at Judson in 1981, until they were cured by a second surgery in 1985.  In his later years he turned more toward religion, and a Bible study group that he held in his apartment evolved over time into the Rauschenbusch Memorial United Church of Christ at 422 West 57th Street, with him as pastor.  The opening night for the congregation involved hymn, Bible readings, and a soft-shoe routine.  Carmines died in Saint Vincent’s Hospital in 2005 at age 69.

     Another memorable event of those years was Dames at Sea, or Golddiggers Afloat, a light and frothy musical revue that opened at the Caffe Cino on Cornelia Street in 1966, a takeoff on the lavish Busby Berkeley musical films of the 1930s, but doing it on a tiny stage with a cast of six.  Memorable moment: Mona, the self-centered star of a Broadway musical in rehearsal, starts singing “That Mister Man of Mine,” a song that is new to her; after a note or two she cavalierly tosses the music away and continues.  Another memorable moment: Mona performs with a chorus behind her, the chorus consisting of a single showgirl.  Later in the revue, even though the cast, having been expelled from their theater, are rehearsing on a ship in dry dock, Mona gets seasick, so that Ruby, an aspiring young singer from Utah, steps in and becomes a star.  The whole production was a spoof of Hollywood done in miniature, charming from beginning to end.  I saw it twice, and the second time around it had lost nothing of its charm.  But when, being successful, it moved to a larger stage, I doubt if it retained that charm; it needed to be done small-scale.  Yet it endured and in 2014 made its way to Broadway.

     The founder and guiding spirit of the Caffe Cino was Joe Cino, who with friends founded it in 1958.  Born in Buffalo to a family of working-class Sicilian immigrants, he had discovered he was gay and at the age of sixteen escaped to New York, where his hopes to be a dancer were defeated by his short, plump frame.  Renting a storefront at 31 Cornelia Street, where the Italian landlady rented to him because he was Sicilian, he put in some mismatched tables and chairs, a big coffee machine on a counter in back, and served pastries and snacks. 

The Caffe Cino in 1965.

     Joe Cino first meant his cafe to be a place where his friends could hang out, but soon there were poetry readings, then readings of plays, and then amateurish staged productions.  When young unknowns brought in their works, the Caffe Cino began performing them on a tiny improvised stage and so turned into an Off Off Broadway theater playing to a minimal audience – sometimes as few as ten or even one -- that slowly grew over time.  The sets were simple, and for power John Torrey, Cino’s electrician lover, ran cables out to a streetlamp and stole power from the city grid.  There was no admission fee; Cino passed the hat.  With no cabaret or theater license, and an audience that on some nights filled the place beyond capacity, the Cino was repeatedly inspected by the police and building and fire inspectors but was never shut down, perhaps because Joe Cino knew which palms to grace with money. 

     The quality of the plays performed at the Cino ranged from deplorable to weirdly brilliant, but theatrical history was made with the 1964 production of Lanford Wilson’s The Madness of Lady Bright, a monologue by an aging drag queen who gradually descends into madness.  Rarely, if ever, had any New York theater presented such an openly gay character, but Off Off Broadway was ready for it, and audiences flocked.  My partner Bob, then in his twenties, saw it and was mightily impressed, and through a mutual friend met the actor, Neil Flanagan, who won an Obie for his performance.

John Torrey (left) and Joe Cino in 1962.
     In March 1965 a fire gutted the Caffe Cino, reportedly because of leaking gas, though Joe’s friends thought it was started by John Torrey in a jealous rage.  With help from benefits staged by the Village theater world, the Cino reopened in May, but its world of regulars was repeatedly shocked and saddened as friends and acquaintances succumbed to heavy drugs, which one survivor later described as “the dark underbelly of Off-Off-Broadway theater.”  One, a dancer hooked on amphetamines, danced a nude dance in a friend’s apartment and then leaped gracefully out a window to his death.  And when, in January 1967, John Torrey was electrocuted, supposedly by accident, many suspected suicide.  By then Joe himself was on amphetamines and at news of Torrey’s death fell into deep depression.  On March 30 of that year friends found him on the floor of the Cino, bleeding from self-inflicted knife wounds; he died in Saint Vincent’s Hospital on April 2.  A year later the Caffe Cino closed.

     Did I ever see a performance at the Caffe Cino?  I have a dim memory of a play by an unknown author performed on an improvised stage in the middle of a small theater or cafe; probably it was the Caffe Cino.  And since I don't recall buying a ticket, Joe Cino probably passed the hat.  The play wasn't bad and at one point the leading character asked the audience what he should do, at which point a young girl sitting near the stage declared, "You don't have to do anything you don't want to!" -- a response, quite in keeping with the times, that drew applause.

     Joe Cino’s sad ending is a reminder that the wild creativity of the 1960s came at a price.  Many of the participants were heavy into liquor and drugs and failed to sustain themselves as artists.  Inspiration raged, along with a willingness to try anything, but in the long run art needs discipline too, and discipline was the last thing that early Off Off Broadway embraced.  The writers and producers were amateurs, and it showed.  For every theatrical gem that Off Off Broadway produced, there were a hundred botches and flops.  The few samples I saw of Ellen Stewart’s La MaMa – another pioneering Off Off Broadway theater – struck me as amateurish, unfocused, inept.  As for pioneering works in gay theater, neither The Madness of Lady Bright nor The Faggot presented gay life in a positive light; to be gay was to be vulnerable, wounded, and sad. 

     Nor was this image altered when Mart Crowley’s play The Boys in the Band opened uptown in an Off Broadway theater in 1968 and was similarly hailed as a breakthrough for promoting knowledge and tolerance of gay life.  Perhaps it did, but as the story unfolds, the characters become bitter and vicious, and capable as well of self-loathing, as seen in the play’s most memorable line: “You show me a happy homosexual, and I’ll show you a gay corpse.”  I and my friends were glad to see gay life at last treated openly uptown, but we had mixed feelings about how the play presented it.  There was little in Crowley's play to advance the cause of gay pride, which exploded onto the scene with the Stonewall riots of 1969.

     The wild theatrical happenings of those days, many of them in the West Village, are today a treasured memory for the survivors.  But not all the participants survived.

     Coming soon:  My Walks in New York: arcades, diamond districts, Norman Vincent Peale and Minnie Mouse, and the new Whitney.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

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