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MUSIC | LOCAL ANGLE

Happenin' Hangout

A laid-back crowd keeps the Sagebrush hopping on Sundays.

July 02, 1998|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

When Yogi Berra said "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded," he could've been talking about the Sagebrush Cantina in Calabasas. About as secret as the Fourth of July, the Sagebrush has for decades been a happening hangout, especially on Sunday afternoons--but more on that later.

The first known tourist, Juan de Anza, camped nearby in 1776. The first structure in the area, which would later be known as the Leonis Adobe, was built around 1845 by parties unknown. But Miguel Leonis--who was known as "The Basque King of Calabasas"--assumed occupancy with his wife in 1880. Still standing next to the Sagebrush, the Leonis Adobe comes complete with a barnyard, live critters and a garden, not to mention valet parking.

The 6.5 acres that is now the Sagebrush was originally a group of small stores built in the early '20s by Lester Agoure. The parking lot was the local jail and the hanging tree still stands, even though it's as dead as the guests that once unhappily hung out.

Calabasas, incorporated since 1991, is named for the Spanish word for pumpkin or gourd, calabaza; or to others, the name comes from the first locals, the Chumash, and their word for gourd, calahoosa. The Sagebrush, which pretty much describes what used to be in the area, is in Old Town Calabasas, a few blocks long with lots of pretty yarrow plants flowering in the median strip planters in the middle of Calabasas Road. Generally, Old Town Anywhere is a euphemism for wooden buildings, wooden sidewalks and a bumpy street, and this is no exception.

The Sagebrush has been open for 25 years, and seems to be as popular as pro football, but without the timeouts. What can you say about a place that charges a cover just one day a week? (Get this--it's Sunday.) It seems as if all 27,000 people in Calabasas show up for the Sunday blowout, one of the most happening parties in the West Valley.

There's valet parking for cars and do-it-yourself parking for a buck for the zillion motorcycles. Nope, it's not a bunch of rowdy, tattooed, psycho-killer bikers, but rather well-behaved hog lovers who can actually afford to have them Harleys fixed. This, says general manager Charlie Halstead, is a kinder, gentler species of biker.

"A lot of the bikers are Sunday bikers. Monday through Friday, they're doctors, accountants and attorneys."

It is not uncommon to wait an hour or more to get into the Sagebrush on a Sunday afternoon--the usual toll for being fashionably late. But once inside the door, you find Party Central, a huge tarp-covered patio with numerous umbrellas and tables of varying sizes. What first appears to be ill-mannered birds turns out to be an intricate irrigation system overhead that works overtime misting the whole joint. This could be a lifesaver on a typical August day in the Valley.

In one corner of the patio, cover bands play Friday through Sunday, with solo performers the other days. On Sunday, the band begins at 2 in the afternoon and plays until 10 for people who obviously care nothing for "60 Minutes," "The Simpsons" or "The X-Files."

Until guests reach Margaritaville (a house specialty) and feel like dancing, the band is relegated to background music for conversation, gallantly churning out funky R & B cover tunes.

Dress at the Sagebrush is casual--shorts, T-shirts and tank tops for the guys, the same or sundresses for the ladies. Nearly everyone wears shades. Some eat, most drink, some struggle vainly with cell phones, and predation has achieved equality--everybody stares.

"I think we've found the secret formula," said Halstead. "The Sagebrush is a place where people come to forget their worries and enjoy life. It's not stuffy, but very laid-back. Usually, on a really hot day, everyone stops by on their way home from the beach. Sunday is the day when it's like this, but it's also crowded on Friday and Saturday nights. We've been here 25 years in the same place. We get people from New York, Georgia--everywhere--that have heard of us and come here."

There's more to the Sagebrush, of course. On the patio, nearest the street, it's mostly families chowing down. Inside is a bar with sawdust on the floor and a bunch of TVs, but only a few people are watching. The party is clearly on the patio.

"The best thing here is the people atmosphere," said Halstead. "The worst thing is when the place is full and people have to wait one or two hours to get in, and we can't let them in even though all of them have a good reason why we should let them in."

BE THERE

Sagebrush Cantina, 23527 Calabasas Road, Calabasas, (818) 222-6062. $5 cover for the Sunday blowout, 2 p.m. until 10 p.m.

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