A Soloist’s Closing Coda

 Cliff Mabra with his sister, Celeste, center and other relatives.Photo courtesy of Jason Farris

Cliff Mabra with his sister, Celeste, center and other relatives. Photo courtesy of Jason Farris.

It’s not a headstone or even a permanent marker, but a sentimental sendoff written in a storefront window last week that publicly signaled the death of a longtime homeless Laguna Beach street musician.

Clifford Harrison Mabra Jr. spent the last several years playing tenor saxophone almost daily in a downtown alley, just feet away from the Toes on the Noes surf shop window that now bears his epitaph.

So many passersby asked about his absence that it seemed fitting to acknowledge his death in some way, said assistant manager Sydney Hensler, who didn’t recognize most of the jazz standards Mabra favored, but relished the off-tune experience of his Christmas carols ringing out in the wrong season.

Some from among the town’s homeless population this past Saturday, Feb. 15, remembered Mabra at a park gathering, according to three people who had indirect knowledge of the service.

Mabra died in Costa Mesa on Dec. 15, according to Eugene Corral, deputy registrar for the OC Health Department.

A written memorial to Cliff Mabra at Toes on the Noes surf shop.

A written memorial to Cliff Mabra at Toes on the Noes surf shop.

Shortly after losing an apartment in the canyon where he had lived for the past few years, Mabra sought shelter at the Alternate Sleeping Location as well as medical help, said the police department’s community outreach officer, Jason Farris. Mabra was admitted to a hospital and then to a hospice, where he died, said Farris, who helped reunite Mabra with his sister, Celeste, who came to Laguna looking for him a few years ago.

Much else remains a mystery about Mabra, almost always a solitary figure who performed as a street soloist for decades, though he would join jam sessions at the Sawdust Festival in its fledging years in the 1970s, recalls violinist and artist Doug Miller.

For at least 20 years, Mabra would also show up to play at the late Eugene Auerbach’s annual Christmas 1.2 cliff 2party, said Miller, who guesses the street player had no formal musical training.

Miller recalled Mabra worked briefly at a burger stand in the food court near Main Beach, but quit after his arms were badly burned by splashing hot oil.

More recently, Mabra was a fixture playing outside the Chantilly ice cream shop at the corner of Forest Avenue and Coast Highway. Music quit spilling from that corner in 2010 after someone stole Mabra’s sax as he slept under the library. A story about the theft in the Indy struck a chord with resident Caroline Wright, whose efforts to find Mabra a replacement instrument led to a reunion with an old band mate. Chris Clark, of Laguna Niguel, recalled filling in with Mabra’s band Din at the Coach House in the ‘80s. He was more than willing to supply Mabra with a substitute sax.

It wasn’t the first time Mabra’s gear was taken. In a handwritten lawsuit in 1994, he claimed that city officials threw out his belongings, including six musical instruments, while he was in custody. He had been cited and jailed for sleeping in a parking structure, a Los Angeles Times story reported.

“We no longer have any of the files,” said City Clerk Lisette Chel, when asked this week about whether the suit resulted in a settlement.

Miller believes the incident made Mabra bitter and mistrusting. Between 2006 and 2009, he was cited for 17 times for similar infractions and misdemeanors, court records show.

But Wright, who went on to enlist Mabra to join other street performers in playing during the town’s annual Fête de la Musique solstice celebration, saw a different side. Though Mabra clearly wasn’t a conformist, his breadth of knowledge dazzled Wright. She recounted a surprising conversation with him about the science and toxicity of snake venom.

She will remember Mabra as much for his music as his intellect.


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  1. Barbara

    Beautifully written, Andrea – thank you for this. The fact that Cliff was hounded by the authorities – ticketed 17 times for sleeping in public and whatever else, having his belongings confiscated – is an injustice. Sadly, it is too late for Cliff, but we are closer than ever to creating a real, permanent solution that will help people like him find stability, better health, and access to available social services. A permanent supportive housing project, at the site of the current ASL (Alternative Sleeping Location), is in the works and needs your attention and support. It will actually save money, too – it’s estimated that it costs $3,000 in public money to leave a homeless person on the streets (in the form of the unhelpful revolving door of ER visits, police calls, jail and court time). With this proposed program, which, incidentally saves lives and is the compassionate, right-sized solution – the estimated public cost is less than $850 per month. Seems like the right thing to do, wouldn’t you agree?
    Check it out:
    Thank you, caring citizens of Laguna!

  2. Mark Bosko

    I met and worked with Cliff in the early ’70’s @ a local spoon ring jewelry maker in Laguna Beach. It’s strange to think how we were living in such similar circumstances then and how are lives took such divergent directions.

    “Luck, karma, fate, health, personal choices – who knows what could have been”,


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