Manny Roth, colorful owner of New York’s Cafe Wha? club, dies at 94

August 2

Manny Roth, a colorful New York club owner whose Cafe Wha?, with its basement-level stage, was a rite of passage in the 1960s for Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix­, Bruce Springsteen and many others, died July 25 at his home in Ojai, Calif. He was 94.

His daughter, Jodi Roth, confirmed the death but did not provide a cause.

Mr. Roth, the uncle of Van Halen singer David Lee Roth, was a good man to know during a special place and time — when Greenwich Village was a magnet for upcoming artists and bohemians. On a given night, you might see Woody Allen doing stand-up or take in performances by Peter, Paul and Mary as well as such future musical stars Dylan and David Crosby.

Founded in the late 1950s, Cafe Wha? was a former stable that Mr. Roth personally helped renovate, laying a new floor and bringing in friends to help decorate.

The look was such a mishmash that Roth named the club Cafe Wha?


Manny Roth, founder of the Greenwich Village club Cafe Wha?, where future stars got their start. He died July 25 at 94. (AP)

It was a true starter club, with low pay, no liquor and little space. But Mr. 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,” Mr. Roth 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 mike, 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. By the next year, Jimmy James was Jimi Hendrix­ — the most talked about guitarist in rock.

Springsteen turned up in late 1967, a teenager without a record deal. Mr. Roth also was a major booster of comedians, including Bill Cosby, George Carlin and a young troublemaker named Richard Pryor, whom Mr. Roth briefly managed.

Manuel Lee Roth was born Nov. 25, 1919, in New Castle, Ind., and had no special talent growing up beyond a willingness to take chances. After high school, he 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 U.S. Army Air Forces­.

He left Cafe Wha? in the early 1970s amid financial problems and over the past 40 years worked in various businesses, including restaurants and nightclubs.

His first marriage, to Jai Italiaander­, ended in divorce. Survivors include his second wife, Marlyse Roth, and three children.

Cafe Wha? was back in the headlines in early 2012 when a reunited Van Halen chose Mr. Roth’s former business to launch a tour. Mr. 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.”

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