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An Interview With Cafe Wha Musical Operations Director Hap Pardo

Epic Walking Tours Greenwich Village Variety Tour stops at Cafe Wha?. This article contains excerpts from a February 21, 2024, interview with Cafe Wha? Director of Musical Operations Hap Pardo.  

Epic Walking Tour’s Greenwich Village Variety Tour visits Cafe Wha?. If you were giving people a tour of CafeWha?, what would you want them to know?

Hap Pardo: “I’d want them to know about Manny Roth’s vision. Cafe Wha? was a horse stable and a gas station. Someone told him about the basement space. There was nothing there. He saw something in that basement that made him say, ‘I could put a club there.’ Somehow this little odd basement on the corner became this legendary club. He put so much effort into it, even laying the marble floor himself, which gave him great pride. It is still there today.”

Cafe Wha 1940
Future site of Cafe Wha?, 1940

So many of the country’s best entertainers performed at Cafe Wha? before they were famous. Do you have any stories you can share with us?

Yes, Bruce Springsteen played at Cafe Wha? as a teenager in the 1960s. He played with a high school band called the Castiles on Sunday afternoons. In his autobiography, he wrote that he was supposed to graduate high school, but the principal told him he had to cut his hair. He came to Cafe Wha? instead.” 

Bruce Springsteen 1967 the Castiles Cafe Wha
Bruce Springsteen (far left) with the Castiles, 1967

What makes Cafe Wha special today?

“We have managed to keep its legacy alive. New York is full of places that once were. A lot of historic places are no longer around, so we take pride in being able to preserve Cafe Wha?”

Greenwich Village’s Cafe Wha business card
Manny Roth's business card

How has Cafe Wha? changed through the years?

The club has been dominated by house bands since the 1980s. The intention was to put the best band in front of people. That strategy took off and has been the driving force ever since. When COVID happened, it put a wrench in the process. We wondered what the future held for live events, especially in a basement. During that time, we thought about what we could do with the space. We were not getting a lot of up-and-coming acts as we did in the ‘60s, so we decided to try some new things. We have a talent mining team now that searches for new talent. Anything plays here. We will give anything a shot if it’s good. It’s now a big part of what we do today.”

Cafe Wha Photo courtesy of the NYPL 1960s
Cafe Wha, 1960s, photo courtesy of the NYPL

How does new talent get to play at Cafe Wha?

We are actively involved in the scene and pride ourselves on looking for talent. Up-and-coming artists typically establish their act at a bar with about 25 people. As they start to prove themselves, they start to make noise. We tap into that market. The New York market is merit-based. People talk about you. If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere. We see them as they are coming along. We monitor downtown Manhattan but also Brooklyn, Queens, and other places. They get to a point where we see they are ready. We might start them on a bill with another act. Our hope is that one day they will come back when they are big and famous, playing at MSG, and return to Cafe Wha? for a performance.”

Greenwich Village’s Cafe Wha ad

What can people expect to see at Cafe Wha? today?

It doesn’t matter what is on the calendar. Guests can expect the highest quality no matter the day. We only book fantastic talent. Sometimes it is packed. Sometimes it is not. We try to appeal to every taste. We hope every show is killer. Our house band is renowned for what they do. We have a French Parisian jazz singer. We never use tracks. It’s always a live band. We offer everything from hip hop collaborations to acoustic—the Americana folk scene is popular. We partner with stalwart places in Brooklyn. Neo-soul and R&B to straight rock, funk, and pop.”

Cafe Wha

What is on your wish list?

“We wish we had more photos of the people who played here back in the day. If anyone has them, Cafe Wha? would love to see them. A customer sent us a menu from 1962. We put it on display. It is special for us to be able to share the history with everyone.”

Cafe Wha Musical Operations Director Hap Pardo
Cafe Wha Menu, 1960s

Click here to learn more about Cafe Wha?’s history.

Andrew Kirschner is a licensed New York City sightseeing tour guide. He founded Epic Walking Tours, which offers historic walking tours in Greenwich Village. 

Picture of Andrew Kirschner

Andrew Kirschner


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About the Author

Andrew Kirschner is a licensed New York City sightseeing tour guide and the founder of Epic Walking Tours, which offers historic walking tours in Greenwich Village.

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