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Published: Sunday, August 3, 2014, 12:45 p.m.

Manny Roth, founder of Café Wha?, dead at 94

Manny Roth, a colorful club owner in Greenwich Village whose Cafe Wha? and its basement level stage was a rite of passage in the 1960s for Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Springsteen and many others, has died. He was 94.
Roth, the uncle of Van Halen singer David Lee Roth, died July 25. His daughter, Jodi Roth, said Friday that he died of natural causes at his home in Ojai, California.
As boisterous as his loud-mouthed nephew, Roth was a good man to know during a special place and time — when Greenwich Village was a mecca for upcoming artists and bohemians, where on a given night, you might see Woody Allen doing standup, or take in performances by Peter, Paul and Mary and such future rock ‘n’ rollers as Dylan and David Crosby.
Founded in the late 1950s, The Cafe Wha? was a former stable that Roth personally helped renovate, laying down the new floor and bringing in some friends to help decorate. The look was such a mish-mash that Roth named the club Cafe Wha?
It was a true starter club, with low pay, no liquor and little space. But Roth’s stage was an essential first stop for young performers looking for a chance, or even a place to stay. Dylan showed up in early 1961, not yet 20 years old and fresh from his native Minnesota.
“He was just a kid,” Roth later recalled, noting how he announced from the stage that Dylan needed a room for the night. “The first time I heard Dylan get up on an open mic, I’m thinking to myself, ‘This kid doesn’t have a prayer. He can’t sing, can’t play and certainly doesn’t have any stage presence.”’
In his memoir “Chronicles: Volume One,” Dylan remembered Cafe Wha? as “a subterranean cavern, liquorless, ill lit, low ceiling, like a wide dining room with chairs and tables.” Dylan was especially fond of the afternoon hootenannies, calling the potpourri of performers an “extravaganza of patchwork.”
You never knew who might be the next superstar. In 1966, a band named Jimmy James and the Blue Flames got a gig. His future manager was in the audience. By the following year, Jimmy James was Jimi Hendrix and the most talked about guitarist in rock. Springsteen turned up in late 1967, a teenager without a record deal. Roth also was a major booster of comedians, including Bill Cosby, George Carlin and a young troublemaker named Richard Pryor, who Roth briefly managed.
Roth was born in New Castle, Indiana, and remembered no special talent growing up beyond a willingness to take chances. After high school, he took off for Miami, attended the University of Miami and acquired a taste for performance when the school staged one of his plays. During World War II, he served with the Army Air Corps.
He left Cafe Wha? in the early ‘70s amid financial problems and over the past 40 years worked in various businesses, whether opening a restaurant in Woodstock or helping to run the West End Gate in uptown Manhattan.
Cafe Wha? was back in the headlines in early 2012 when a reunited Van Halen chose Roth’s former business to launch an upcoming tour. Manny Roth was among the guests as David Lee Roth bowed to the club he visited as a boy.
“It took us 50 years to get this gig. It was easier getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame than getting this gig,” David Lee Roth said from the stage. “This is a temple.”
Roth is survived by his first wife, Jai Italiaander; his second wife, Marlyse Roth; and three children.
Story tags » Rock Music

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