Gerald McCabe dies at 82; founder of folk music venue McCabe’s Guitar Shop


Gerald McCabe, a furniture designer whose passion for woodworking and love of music led to the creation of the Santa Monica folk music institution McCabe’s Guitar Shop, died Sunday in Eugene, Ore., two days after suffering a heart attack. He was 82.

McCabe left his namesake operation before it became celebrated for the intimate concerts that have been held there for decades, but in its earliest days the store, on Pico Boulevard a block west of its current location, played a crucial role in the evolution of the Southern California folk music community.

The narrow storefront became a magnet for folk fans and musicians who had few other places to gather. It was a place to find song books and Folkways albums, get a guitar repaired or sample an instrument.

Guitars, banjos, mandolins and exotic hybrids hung on the walls, each bearing a printed flier with the warning, “Refrain from clutching to bosom.” It was a rule that was rarely enforced, enabling patrons such as a 13-year-old Ry Cooder to access a new world.

“Musicians were in there all the time,” the guitarist and record producer said this week. “I’d take the bus home from school and drop in in the afternoon and sit there and basically wait to see who’d come through the door. A lot of bluegrass players came through. That’s where I first encountered the White brothers, Roland and Clarence.

“It was fascinating for me to see people sit down and play something really good that you wanted to learn. The idea that you can sit a couple of feet away from somebody who’s good and watch them do it, that’s a way to be imprinted in that kind of work.

“If it hadn’t been for McCabe’s, I don’t know what I would have done. I might not have been able to learn enough soon enough, and I might have gone over to sacking groceries or delivering pizza. God only knows what.”

But as McCabe’s stature grew and its ambitions expanded into offering music lessons and then concerts under McCabe’s partners Walter Camp and Bob Riskin, its founder kept much of his focus on a design career that became increasingly prominent.

A free spirit, he also restored and sailed a tugboat, built a home in Santa Monica Canyon, taught design at area universities and art schools, became a yoga instructor and repaired Citroen automobiles.

“Jerry was just a singular person,” McCabe’s current owner, Riskin, said this week. “He had great enthusiasms.”

Gerald Lawrence McCabe was born in Long Beach on Jan. 30, 1927. After graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High School, he served in the Navy during World War II. He earned a bachelor’s degree at UCLA and a master’s at Cal State Long Beach, both in fine arts.

McCabe opened a custom furniture business in Santa Monica in the mid-1950s. His first wife, Marcia Berman, was a successful folk singer, and soon her friends were bringing their instruments to McCabe and asking him to repair them.

That inspired him to open the guitar shop, at 3015 Pico Blvd. Camp became the first employee and introduced a table, chairs and coffee pot. An ethnomusicologist named Ed Kahn had the book and record concession.

With folk music’s popularity growing, business was booming by 1963, but McCabe was concentrating on his furniture design, and eventually sold his interest in 1986.

McCabe’s work was featured often in The Times’ weekly Home magazine and was regularly showcased in the Pasadena Art Museum’s series of California Design exhibits. A famous Julius Shulman photograph of Pierre Koenig shows the architect standing near a McCabe-designed stereo cabinet.

“Jerry was a very big personality, and he was a really great spirit who loved life,” said Gerard O’Brien, owner of the Reform Gallery, a Los Angeles space that includes McCabe’s work.

“He wasn’t held down to one particular area. What’s interesting when you look at his furniture design is what a wide swath he cut. His earlier work is much more Case Study like, very architectural. . . . And then as he went on, he became much more interested in the craft side of things and started to do a lot of solid wood furniture. . . . It was letting the wood speak for itself and just being a very functional solid thing.”

McCabe’s daughter Hally McCabe said that her father attributed his individualistic sensibility to a physical condition. “My dad was dyslexic, and one thing he would always say was that his dyslexia helped him see things in a different way. He always was very proud of that.”

McCabe lived and worked at studios in Venice for most of his career, then moved to San Pedro in the late 1990s. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2004, and he soon moved to Eugene to be closer to his daughters.

McCabe’s four marriages all ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter Halley, he is survived by another daughter, Molly McCabe; his sister Janet Owens; and two grandchildren.

A celebration of his life will be held Jan. 30 at Hally McCabe’s home in Eugene. A celebration in Los Angeles will be announced.

Cromelin is a freelance writer.