His Sagebrush Cantina gave Calabasas a boost

Times Staff Writer

Bob McCord, whose Sagebrush Cantina restaurant, open since 1974, became a popular destination that fueled the growth of Calabasas and its historic old town, has died. He was 69.

McCord died Monday at his Burbank home of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a rare brain disorder, the restaurant announced.

“Bob is one of the pioneers and legendary characters who has added to the color and success of our community,” said Dennis Washburn, a Calabasas city councilman.

He called the cantina “the financial engine” that has driven commerce in Old Town Calabasas, a quarter-mile stretch of Calabasas Road that reflects the city’s Old West past as a stagecoach stop.

When McCord opened the Mexican restaurant in the shadow of the 101 Freeway, it was “the only game in town,” he told the Los Angeles Business Journal in 2002.

At first, it was a one-room rustic storefront leased from the foundation that runs the historic landmark next door, the Leonis Adobe, built in 1844. The cantina had a hot plate, several stools and tables, and two employees.

“Things were so bad that at one point I had to sell my watch to buy food for the restaurant,” McCord told The Times in 1986.

Within a dozen years, the cantina had expanded to seat more than 800 and employed more than 150. During a typical weekend, 300 gallons of margaritas were served, The Times reported in 1986.

In 2000, McCord estimated that 5,000 customers a week walked the sawdust-covered floors. A favorable review in The Times appeared under a headline that poked fun at its often-upscale clientele: “Where the Elite Compete to Seat.”

With the crowds -- on Sundays hundreds of motorcycle riders gather there -- came criticism from some locals who pined for quieter days and derided the Sagebrush as “McCordland.”

Don Janiro, a business associate and longtime friend, said what many have observed over the years: “Calabasas was nothing before he got there.”

Robert Leigh McCord III was born Dec. 29, 1938, in Carroll, Iowa. After serving in the Army, he became a Hollywood soundman and worked on the TV series “Death Valley Days.”

While on location in Arizona, he and three colleagues went up in private plane that crashed and killed two men. Two days passed before McCord, who had a broken back and ankle, was rescued. He used settlement money from the accident to start the cantina.

Janiro said the restaurant would remain open, but he would not comment on whether it would be sold.

A circus fanatic, McCord showcased some of his artifacts at the cantina. He owned Ferris wheels, carousels, steam organs and banners that advertised old-time circus acts.

After the first of several trips to Africa, McCord started buying school supplies for children in two villages in Zambia. The move was typical, said those who knew him.

He regularly provided free Thanksgiving dinners to the elderly, held toy drives for needy children and supported nonprofit fundraisers.

Almost always, the genial restaurateur could be spotted wearing one of his dozens of Hawaiian shirts.

McCord, who was divorced, is survived by a son, Robert McCord IV; his mother, Wanda; and a sister, Penny.