In a city that never sleeps, one made of dreamy eyes and sparkles for miles, music is a big part of the legacy and nightlife of New York City. This has been true since its inception as the best city in the world, the city where dreams come to be born and where dreams come to die. One staple location, found in the belly of Greenwich Village is the Cafe Wha? The venue has seen its ups and downs and through decades has been known for launching the careers of many celebrated artists, most notably Bob Dylan. But what makes this cafe any better than The Gaslight or even just any old day at Washington Square Park? What puts the color into the history of this oddly named Cafe?
The Cafe Wha? was born in 1959 after it’s original owner Manny Roth bought the location. Manny saw promise in the old horse garage, and bought the location. Roth laid the marble floors that still grace the feet of visitors. He painted the walls black, giving it a cave-like feeling. He would open it as a cafe that had the main focus of live music. Manny Roth was one of the original creators of “passing the hat” and provided notable home and nest for beatniks and folk singers. This small, underground venue gave Bob Dylan his first job, playing harmonica as back up in the days, though he was soon fired for missing three performances in a row.
Among others who had their start in the black-walled and buzzing cafe would be Bruce Springsteen, who brought his teenage band “The Castilles” to play a few times during the week. The Cafe Wha? was at the front of all that was folk music and later budding rock music during the 60s. If the black walls of the cafe would talk they wouldn’t, they would play the songs of all who have sung nestled within, and they would tell the jokes of the comedians who delivered their punchlines under the comfortable lighting glazed over with cigarette smoke. One notable comedian, who Mr. Roth later became the manager for, was Richard Pryor, who began to offend and amuse crowds first at The Cafe Wha? Mr. Roth took his vision and turned it into history, myth, a safe place for music and laughs and all that made up the 60s and the vibe with it. The Cafe Wha? epitomizes all of the color, the sounds, the jokes, the weary sighs, the anger of the war, the fear of Cubans and missiles, the very delayed breath, and clenched jaw that the 60s were.
The Cafe Wha? rode it’s long lines and popularity until 1968 when Mr.Roth sold the venue to Menachem Dworman who opened the Cafe Freenjon at the location. The Cafe Freenjon featured middle eastern and Israeli music and food. While not as popular, the Cafe Freenjon enjoyed some mild success until 1987 where the room was taken over by Noam Dworman, who was a family friend to Mr. Roth. Noam brought the original flair back to the Cafe by changing the music to rock music, causing lines to once again wrap around the sidewalk looking to get in. Noam changed the name back to The Cafe Wha? and formed The Cafe Wha? House Band, who has since been called the “Best Damn Band in New York City.” The house band is still a prominent feature for the cafe, with celebrity guest appearances and upbeat renditions of popular songs.
Once a staple of the beatnik, folk, poet communities, The Cafe Wha? is now still an important part of the city’s nightlife, offering an experience that one could get nowhere else. With live music nightly, food and an atmosphere of freedom and smokey rebellion that has lasted throughout the decades, The Cafe Wha? is a favorite location for many. One never quite knows what they’ll experience The Cafe Wha? and in 2012 a crowd got to experience David Lee Roth, the nephew of original owner Manny Roth, who had visited the club as a child. Many celebrities and their counterparts sometimes show up in surprise shows and events at the cafe.
While the times certainly are a changin’, a lot about the Cafe Wha? has happily stayed the same. From the cafe’s look to it’s iconic and electric feel, this cafe has seen it all. From being the very first venue Bob Dylan set foot in, to its odd moonlight as an Israeli venue back to the famed cafe that history and it’s visitors has known and loved since McCarthyism was still a hushed topic and Vietnam was still a country that most high school kids haven’t heard of yet. It has seen the best and the worst of history, and it has undoubtedly highlighted the absolute best of music and entertainment that the past 60 years have seen. The Cafe Wha? is still at its original location, on the corner of Macdougal Street, featuring original decor and a spirit of the time that has sadly since passed us by.
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