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Marshall W Mason Interview - PART I

Updated: Aug 28, 2019

Erma: This was written by you, Marshall W. Mason (The Transcendent Years: The Story of a Theater - Circle Rep)

"I found a little street off of Avenue of the Americas that angled to the left, stretching just one block to Bleecker Street. The sign on the corner indicated Cornelia Street, which was my goal. Near the far end of the block I found an open door at number 31 that displayed a poster in the storefront window, advertising a play: Doric Wilson’s “Now She Dances!". This was the Caffé Cino. I stepped through the door like Alice passing through the looking glass. My life would never be the same".

Erma: What does that mean?

Marshall: It means exactly what it says. My life was never the same after that. That's for sure. It was a discovery of magic. There was magic in Joe Cino and his environment and the Caffé that I had never experienced before, and have rarely experienced since. The physical aspects of the Cino were a really important part of why it was so magical at the time. It was the first time, I had ever seen and indeed I don't think there was ever any place in the world where it was lighted by Christmas tree lights before Joe Cino did that with the Caffé Cino. Now it's common. They're all over the place. At that time, it was unheard of. There just wasn't anything like it.

The walls were covered with collages of all different kinds of incredible things. The jukebox in the corner had everything on it that you could possibly imagine. From the Rolling Stones to Kate Smith singing "God Bless America". Maria Callas singing "Vissi D'arte". It was just a great thing, the jukebox.

Joe was himself an impish person with a leprechaun-esque kind of personality. He was very mysterious and cheerful and inviting.

You just felt like you were in the presence of ... like Santa Claus or something. He was a spirit, an elf, a wonderful force of life.

Erma: Now what year was this?

Marshall: 1961.

Erma: 1961, September, 1961. How did you happen to arrive upon the Cino?

Marshall: I was invited by Jane Lowry, a friend from Northwestern who was performing there. We had been in Miss Krause’s [legendary drama teacher, theatrical entrepreneur, "maker of stars"] production of "The Cherry Orchard" together at Northwestern. She was one of our best actresses. I had been her dance partner in the third act of "The Cherry Orchard". She played Varya and I played the stationmaster who gets invited to the party.

I had really remembered the whole experience very, very fondly. I learned a great deal about how to direct and of course about acting, from doing that production. Jane was just fabulous in it. Lawrence Pressman was also terrific in it. He played Pishchik.

So here she was, Jane Lowry now, in New York and I arrived in September and called her up, "Hi, I'm in New York."

Erma: What's happening?

Marshall: Yeah what's happening? She was in this play and told me to come down to see her and I did. You know I just was so totally unprepared for what the Cino really was. It was not at all what I expected New York to be. I think I had a picture of New York as very sophisticated.

The Cino was at the opposite end of that, it was cozy and lovely and warm and friendly and peculiar and surprising. So it was all these things that was the opposite of what I had come to expect New York to be. I thought New York would be cold and forbidding, and here I was in the lap of welcoming.

Erma: What directors were working down there at the time?

Marshall: Neil Flanagan was the primary director. I say that because he seemed to be in everything every week. He was either acting or directing, almost every week. He did not direct the first play that I saw there. I don't remember who did do "Now She Dances!". I don't recall. Jane, however, played the maid.

Let me say about "Now she dances" it was a play by Doric Wilson. The second play I think that had been done at the Cino. He had done an earlier one. It was called "And He Made Her," which was about Adam and Eve. Now he had written a play about Salome, dancing for Herod, and so forth, but written it as Oscar Wilde would've written it. Instead of being a dark tragedy, he wrote it in the style of "The Importance of being Earnest". So it was very, very funny. At the end of the play, John the Baptist's head is brought in on a platter, yes, but under a tea cozy. Jane played the maid in a really frilly white headpiece and white apron and black dress. Tom Lawrence, who is also from Northwestern played the butler.

Erma: You have quite the memory. You are the only director I've ever worked with that never writes down a note, but gives notes aplenty and always spot on. Back to the Cino, so you went and you saw this play and then you hung around afterwards and got to meet Joe.

Marshall: That's right. He, of course, was very immediately, oh very excited to meet me because I was a director and he was putting on plays. "Oh you've got to come do something for us." I said, "I'll try and find something." I didn't come up with a play to do until my friend, Claris Nelson, arrived from Northwestern. She had begun writing plays and I knew this from back at school. So the first play she had was a play called, "The Rue Garden." It was a very charming, whimsical, sort of fairytale.

Soon as she arrived, I took her to the Caffe Cino and introduced her. Here was a playwright and she had a play. I was a director so Joe gave us a date and we produced “The Rue Garden”. It was quite successful. It was one of the first plays ever reviewed in the Village Voice or anywhere actually from Off Off Broadway. Prior to "The Rue Garden" there may have been one review that basically said, "Coffee houses shouldn't do plays." So ours was a positive review, "almost pure magic", Michael Smith called it. So if it was not the first review, it was probably the first favorable review.

Another person from Northwestern, Ronald Willoughby, played the young man. Claris appeared in the play herself and Linda Eskenas, who became a big star at the Caffé Cino played the ingénue. An older actress that I cast from auditions, Lynn Rogers, was terrific in the play.

We finally got around to doing a play and then we did one right after another. "The Rue Garden" was followed by "The Clown", which Claris had written earlier. Then we followed that with a play for Valentine's Day called "Romance d' Amour," which was a collection of wonderful speeches and scenes of love - Balcony scene from "Cyrano de Bergerac", the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet", the scene with Rosalind in "As You Like It", and various poetry, some of the sonnets.

Erma: How many cast members were you able to accommodate in the space at the Caffé?

Marshall: The biggest cast was probably "The Clown". I don't think I ever saw a bigger production than that at the Cino. It had, probably eight people altogether in it. The dressing room was very small backstage. We were right in each other's laps, as it were.

Joe loved "The Clown". He was crazy about "The Clown". At the Cino at that time, the staff was made up basically of Joe Cino, who did the coffee at the coffee machine and ran the place. Johnny Dodd was the waiter. And also did the lights, and John Torrey, who was Joe's lover. He was a very tall Germanic looking guy, blond hair. Maybe 6'4". He was sort of the technician. He did everything that was needed technically… And Kenny Burgess who became quite a wonderful artist, he was the dishwasher. Actually there was another fellow, Joe Davies. That was the staff of five people.

Erma: That's incredible. What about audience size?

Marshall: I think it could seat 30 about that. 30, 35, if you really scrunched them in. In shows that were really popular they did. They squeezed them in and people sat on the jukebox and in the window sills, what have you.

Erma: How many performances usually?

Marshall: We played every night, Tuesday through Thursday at 9:00 and 11:00 o'clock. On Friday and Saturday, we played 9:00, 11:00 and 1:00. That was fun. Then there was a Sunday performance, of course, 9:00 and 11:00 as the others were.

Erma: Did you have audiences?

Marshall: Oh we did, definitely. We would play Tuesday through Sunday, and that was it. Then there would be a day off for the new show to come in and set up and then they would start on Tuesday. So it was a very busy place, very active. With a quick turnover like that, there was always something happening at the Cino. People came by just to see what was going on. Because they didn't know what they were going to see. It was going to be new plays, for the most part.

Although initially there were a lot of classic revivals. Things like, Neil Flanagan did a wonderful adaptation of "The Stranger" by Camus. I think the first show that Lanford saw there was a production of "The Chairs", Ionesco.

Erma: Then that's where you met your longtime collaborator and the history breaking record of playwright/director collaboration was established, yes?

Marshall: Yes, well actually I never did anything with Lanford at the Cino. I mean I never directed him. I did later, much later, after I'd done the play at La Mama we brought it to the Cino.

Up next PART II

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