Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Then and Now: MacDougal at Minetta Lane, NYC

Cafe Wha?

Cafe Wha?, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Cafe Wha?, MacDougal at Minetta Lane, 1968.
In some ways, New York City fits the stereotype of a frantic, ever-changing agglomeration of fleeting reality, where nothing lasts for long and things can change with the seasons. Small street-level businesses, including clubs and cafes, are some of the most ephemeral aspects of Manhattan. They come and go with the fads, an Irish pub one year, a fancy sushi bar the next. Even seemingly immortal venues such as CBGB, which introduced the world to acts like the Talking Heads, Blondie, and the Ramones, closed its doors in 2006 (the early 2000s was a very bad period for Village institutions such as Caffe Borgia and Florent). The clubs that survive are special. When I came across the above photo from 1968, I had to do a little digging to see if the club shown was still there. So, this is a comparison of Cafe Wha? from 1968 to 2018, a nice, even 50 years.

Cafe Wha?, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Cafe Wha?  in July 2018 (Google Street View).
Well, we have kind of an exception here - sort of. Cafe Wha? has been at the corner of MacDougal and Minetta Lane since 1959. Well, sort of. It is a bit of a tale. Opened in 1959, Cafe Wha? was a venue for up-and-coming comedians and musical acts (Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby, and Peter, Paul, & Mary, among others) that actually closed down around 1968 (the date of the picture above) when its owner sold it. The new owner changed the name to Cafe Feenjon and featured Middle Eastern acts. In 1987, the club changed ownership again, and the new owner (Noam Dworman) changed the name back to Cafe Wha? And, thus it has remained since 1987. It features the Cafe Wha? House Band, which is very popular, and also showcases celebrities with various talents. While the current signage looks vintage, in fact, it is all a very careful recreation or intended resemblance rather than the original items from 1968.

Cafe Wha?, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
MacDougal at Minetta Lane, Greenwich Village (Google Street View).
There's a bit more to the history of Cafe Wha? which resonates with later events. The original owner of Cafe Wha? was Manny Roth. Dworman, who took over the club in 1987, was a family friend of Roth. However, Dworman had a reason to know about Cafe Wha? besides simply a casual relationship and fond remembrances from his own childhood. Manny Roth's nephew was David Lee Roth. You may recognize that name from a band called Van Halen. As David Lee Roth wrote in his autobiography, "Crazy From the Heat," he began hanging out at Cafe Wha? not long after his uncle established the club. Manny Roth, incidentally, passed away in 2014, revered in the rock-n-roll world for helping to discover or at least establish the careers of artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Jimi Hendrix.

Cafe Wha?, NYC, randommusings.filminspector.com
Manny Roth and David Lee Roth (Courtesy of David Lee Roth/Ultimate Classic Rock).
Anyway, as you can see from comparing the above photos of the Cafe Wha? location, not much has changed. Cafe Wha? has the huge location advantage of being near the Minetta Lane Theatre, the best part of Bleecker Street, NYU, and the West Fourth Street subway stop. While a bit difficult to make out in the 1968 photo, the NYU School of Law was in the distance on the right in 1968 just as it is today. This par of MacDougal, incidentally, is not part of a Historic District, so the block's preservation was based on its intrinsic merits and not legislation.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of one of the more well-preserved areas of Manhattan in our "the more things change, the more they stay the same" series. Please visit some of the other pages in the series!


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