This undated photo provided by Jodi Roth shows Manny Roth.
“Just got here from the West,” the gangly 19-year-old told Manny Roth, owner of the New York nightclub “Cafe Wha?” “Name’s Bob Dylan. I’d like to do a few songs? Can I?”
Sure, 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 Dylan took out his guitar and sang a handful of Woody Guthrie songs.
The crowd “flipped” in excitement, Dylan later said.
He had hitchhiked to New York from Minnesota, and after showing up at the Cafe Wha?, he mentioned to Roth that he had no place to sleep. So 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 presided over by Roth during a lively and fertile period in Greenwich Village’s history. He died 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.
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.
Manuel Lee Roth was born Nov. 25, 1919, in New Castle, Indiana, 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 called the Cock and Bull, which featured a Broadway theme. It barely scraped by, and in 1961 it became the Bitter End — another landmark — under different ownership.
In 1959, someone told Roth about a garage that used to be an old horse stable. 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. 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.
In his book “Bob Dylan: Behind the Shades,” Clinton Heylin quoted Dylan as saying, “You got fed there, which was actually the best thing about the place.” In his autobiographical book “Chronicles: Volume One,” Dylan recalled a cook named Norbert who let him eat free at Cafe Wha?
“He wore a tomato-stained apron,” 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.”
Roth’s downtown duchy was rich in entertainment history. On the folk singer Richie Havens’ recommendation, 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. Richard Pryor told jokes there, and Roth became his first manager. And Louis Gossett Jr. sang folk songs there before deciding to pursue acting full-time.
Roth was quoted as saying, on the website of the rock band Van Halen, of which his nephew David Lee Roth, the superstar rocker, is a member: “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.”
“I did my share of drugs, I had my long hair,” he continued, adding, “Every day was an adventure.”
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.
Roth later sold real estate in New York City and invested in the West End Gate Cafe, 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.”
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