Obituary: Caleb 'Cobra' Cornell, owner of Kelly's Bar and Lounge, was beloved in hospitality, music communities

Hal B. Klein / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Caleb “Cobra” Cornell, a beloved fixture of Pittsburgh’s hospitality community for nearly two decades, passed away on June 25. He was 41.

Cornell was the owner of Kelly’s Bar & Lounge, where he was bartender and manager for six years prior to purchasing the historic East Liberty establishment in 2019.

While his old-school, gruff exterior was one of his defining characteristics, Cornell was beloved by his family, staff and both Pittsburgh’s hospitality industry professionals and its musicians for his largely private softhearted, compassionate personality.

“He always worried about other people and things. He would turn himself inside out for somebody. He hated to see people in distress, even if they weren’t close to him,” says his partner, Holly Callender. “I don’t think enough people knew how loyal, sweet and thoughtful he was.”

Cornell’s untimely death from liver failure sent ripples of grief through the city’s hospitality community, where a wide swath of friends and colleagues paid tribute to their relationships with Cornell.

“The thing about Caleb, which is why 200 people showed up to his memorial, is that no one exuded hospitality and community more than he did. At the end of the day, he walked the hospitality walk that so many of us try to. That’s why he was so important to our community,” says longtime friend Matt Zelinsky.

Zelinsky, now general manager of Novo Asian Food Hall in the Strip District, met the Gibsonia native in 2010 when the two of them worked at Harris Grill in Shadyside.

Cornell’s father says his son was an outspoken advocate for unconventional personalities and outsiders from a young age.

“He had strong views from early on about how people treated one another,” his father, Bill Cornell says. “He confronted teachers and he confronted kids when they were mistreating each other. Because of that, he became the product of a lot of bullying.”

Bill Cornell says his son’s willingness to stand up for others, which included being the only person to speak up for a classmate who had been beaten up in a bullying incident, eventually led to his decision to leave Deer Lakes School District and attend his final two years of high school at an alternative high school, The Oakland School.

“It was a place for misfits of one kind or another. That’s what formed a lot of his character as an adult,” Bill Cornell says.

During that time, some of his classmates moved into his father’s large farmhouse in Gibsonia. In his young adulthood, Caleb and a group of pals lived in what they called “The Cobra Cabana” in Garfield.

“Everyone was welcome there. If someone needed a place to stay, they could do it,” says Bill Cornell.

Caleb Cornell founded the punk-metal band Wrathcobra with some of those friends. The band went on to tour the United States and Europe.

He purchased Kelly’s near the end of 2019. Nearly immediately, he had to confront the new realities of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“He kept it going. He used his own savings to pay the staff so that everybody had some income,” his father says. “And then he brought the spirit of Kelly’s back to life.”

“It was just a different place to work. Caleb always had our back 100%. No matter what happened at the bar, he was there for us,” says Moe Bufalini, now Kelly’s general manager. “There are a lot of jobs in the industry where they say ‘you’re family’ and then treat you awful. That wasn’t true with Caleb. We really are a family at Kelly’s.”

Bufalini started working at Kelly’s a month after Cornell was hired, and the two developed a fast friendship. That dynamic didn’t change once Cornell became the owner of the establishment.

“He would always listen to you. He wanted to talk things through instead of saying this is what it is,” she says.

Over the past four years, Cornell, Bufalini and the rest of Kelly's staff brought the establishment back to its pre-pandemic vibrancy, maintaining its spirit of inclusiveness and affordability. You can still get a well drink for less than $5 and a classic craft cocktail starts at $7. The bar’s food menu is similarly budget-friendly, topping out with a hefty, top-notch fried chicken sandwich, including a hefty side of fries, for $13.

“It doesn’t matter who it was, who you loved or what you looked like. You walked into Kelly's, you're welcome. That went from Caleb down to the staff to all the regulars over the years,” Zelinsky says. “Caleb would want his legacy to be for Kelly’s to continue to be the spot that anyone is welcome any time.

Callender confirms that Kelly’s will remain locally owned and continue to move forward with the spirit that Cornell fostered over the years.

She adds that Cornell loved to read, watch horror movies, loved a wide range of music and supporting local bands when he had free time. Over the past few years, Callender says, he was working on himself a lot, too.

“He was looking back and looking ahead, wanting to grow within himself. He was trying to be a little more content and enjoy life, which was something he never felt like he was entitled to do,” she says.

As an example, he officiated over numerous commitment ceremonies over the years, keeping a notebook, his father says, of how he prepared and what he said.

“He loved it. It made him feel like a part of people’s happiness to put into words the testimony of those unions. He let the sweet out in an unfettered way,” Callender says.

Per his wishes, Cornell was put to rest in a green burial ceremony, unembalmed and wrapped in a simple cotton shroud, in Penn Forest Natural Burial Park in Verona. A packed house attended his celebration of life later that evening at Brillobox in Bloomfield.

“I had no idea the number of people he knew and who adored him,” his father says. “It was overwhelming for me to see the outpouring of care, love and humor from his community. It captured him so well.”

Caleb “Cobra” Cornell is survived by his father, mother, two older brothers, his partner Holly and three nephews.