This marvelous August 1, 2014, NY Times obit of 1960s music impresario Manny Roth, written by Douglas Martin, really gives a great flavor of a certain time and place in New York City. I’m guessing that the many patrons of Cafe Wha? would have had great “first apartment” stories—including the guy who put up Bob Dylan on his first night in town from Minnesota (see below). (Interesting factoid: David Lee Roth is Manny Roth’s nephew and went to the club a lot while growing up.)
“I did my share of drugs, I had my long hair. Every day was an adventure.” —Manny Roth
“Just got here from the West,” the gangly 19-year-old told Manny Roth, owner of the Greenwich Village nightclub “Cafe Wha?” “Name’s Bob Dylan. I’d like to do a few songs? Can I?”
Sure, Mr. Roth said; on “hootenanny” nights, as he called them, anybody could sing a song or two, and this was a hootenanny night, a bitterly cold one, Jan. 24, 1961. And so Mr. Dylan took out his guitar and sang a handful of Woody Guthrie songs.
The crowd “flipped” in excitement, Mr. Dylan later said.
He had hitchhiked to New York from Minnesota, and after showing up at the Cafe Wha?, he mentioned to Mr. Roth that he had no place to sleep. So Mr. Roth later asked the audience “if anybody has a couch he can crash on” — and somebody did.
It was all standard fare, recounted again and again in many places, for Cafe Wha?, a large, plain basement room at 115 Macdougal Street presided over by Mr. Roth during a lively and fertile period in the Village’s history. He died on July 25 at his home in Ojai, Calif., his daughter, Jodi Roth, said. He was 94. She said he loved being called the “Duke of Macdougal Street.”
It was at the Cafe Wha? that young performers like Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen, Woody Allen, Lenny Bruce, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor got early chances to hone their talents. Folk singers, artists, poets, beatniks and anarchists came to the club, and so did far greater numbers of tourists, eager to observe those exotic breeds. (The club’s odd name was a shortening of the word “what,” intended to convey incredulity.)
An advertisement for Cafe Wha? featured a picture of a beatnik in beret and sunglasses and the slogan, “Greenwich Village’s Swingingest Coffee House.” Mary Travers, before she was the Mary of Peter, Paul and Mary, was a waitress there.
Mr. Roth abandoned the club in the late 1960s, but it was started up again, after an interregnum as a Middle Eastern restaurant in the 1970s and ’80s, under the same name by a new owner, and it continues to operate.
From acting student to WWII bomber hero
Manuel Lee Roth was born on Nov. 25, 1919, in New Castle, Ind., where his family owned a mom-and-pop grocery. He grew up loving sports and acting. At the University of Miami, he majored in theater and business before dropping out to enlist in the Army in World War II. He became a navigator on bombing missions over Germany and earned the Distinguished Flying Cross, among other medals.
After the war, he helped run a United Service Organization theater in Germany, finished his studies in Miami and studied acting in New York. In the late 1950s, he started a club at 147 Bleecker Street called the Cock and Bull, which featured a Broadway theme. It barely scraped by, and in 1961 it became the Bitter End — another Village landmark — under different ownership.
A dank, dark basement bisected by a gutter for horse dung
In 1959, someone told Mr. Roth about a garage that used to be an old horse stable on Macdougal between Bleecker and West Third Streets. You had to go down steep stairs to reach the dark, dank basement, which was bisected by a trough once used as a gutter for horse dung. Mr. Roth immediately recognized it as an excellent site for a coffee house — that legendary genre of cafe where, at least in the haziness of memory, hipsters smoked, sipped espresso and discussed Sartre.
He spent his last $100 on a truckload of broken marble to make the floor, which he personally laid. He sprayed the walls with black paint to create the feeling of a cave. There were castoff chairs and candles in blue glass flickering on every table. Full occupancy was 325.
At first, baskets were passed to pay the performers, who alternated all day long: conga drummers followed by impersonators followed by Appalachian balladeers. Mr. Dylan’s first regular job there was as a backup harmonica player during the day.
Roth kept a famously tight lid on expenses
“By the time he got finished with a penny, you could no longer see the Lincoln on it,” the folk singer Dave Van Ronk once said.
In his book Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades, Clinton Heylin quoted Mr. Dylan as saying, “You got fed there, which was actually the best thing about the place.” In his autobiographical book Chronicles: Volume One, Mr. Dylan recalled a cook named Norbert who let him eat free at Cafe Wha?
“He wore a tomato-stained apron,” Mr. Dylan wrote, “had a fleshy, hard-bitten face, bulging cheeks, scars on his face like the marks of claws — thought of himself as a lady’s man — saving his money so he could go to Verona in Italy to visit the tomb of Romeo and Juliet.”
Mr. Roth’s downtown duchy was rich in entertainment history. On the folk singer Richie Havens’s recommendation, Mr. Roth hired Jimi Hendrix, who in the mid-1960s called himself Jimmy James as the frontman for a group called the Blue Flames. The Flames played five sets a night, sometimes six nights a week, at Cafe Wha? for little more than tips.
For two months in 1967, a then-unknown Bruce Springsteen brought his band the Castiles to the club to play afternoon sets for teenagers. Louis Gossett Jr. sang folk songs there before deciding to pursue acting full-time. Mr. Pryor told jokes there, and Mr. Roth became his first manager.
The center of the 1960s scene—but not making much money
“I was in the center of the scene there — all you had to do was carry an empty guitar case and girls would follow you,” Mr. Roth was quoted as saying on the website of the rock band Van Halen, of which his nephew David Lee Roth is the frontman.
“I did my share of drugs, I had my long hair,” he continued, adding, “Every day was an adventure.”
There were, to be sure, small problems, like the time in 1961 when the police filed charges against Mr. Roth for allowing an unleashed French poodle to roam the club. (It turned out to belong to a waitress, and the charges were dropped.) Like other Village clubs, Cafe Wha? was occasionally fined for selling food and providing entertainment without a cabaret license. After Mr. Dylan was late for performances three times in a row, Mr. Roth fired him.
Ultimately, revenues from coffee, light food and a cover charge that climbed to $5 — high for those days — could not cover expenses. In 1968, Mr. Roth walked away from Cafe Wha?, essentially penniless, according to his daughter. With his marriage breaking up, he eventually moved to Woodstock, N.Y., where he ran a diner and raised his daughter and son as a single father before later marrying again.
Besides his daughter, he is survived by his son, Brandon, as well as his wife, the former Marlyse Medel; his sister, Jami Roth; and his brother, David.
Mr. Roth later sold real estate in New York City and invested in the West End Gate Cafe at Broadway and 114th Street, a 1990 resurrection of the West End Cafe, a favorite of Jack Kerouac and other beats. He moved to California about 10 years ago.
In 2012, David Lee Roth came back to play Cafe Wha?, which he had loved to visit as a 7-year-old, with Van Halen. It looked pretty much the same as he remembered it.
“This is a temple,” he told the crowd. “This is a very special place, and I am more nervous about this gig than I would ever be at the Garden. There is no hiding up here. There are no fake vocals. There is no fake anything.”
(More about David Lee Roth’s close relationship with his influential uncle here.)