Juanita Musson, colorful restaurateur, dies at 87

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Juanita Musson, the outrageous and muu-muued former Sonoma Valley restaurateur who 40 or 50 years ago might arrive at a table holding her pet pig or monkey and might answer a patron's complaint by tipping a heaping plate into his lap, died Saturday. She was 87.

Her death at Sonoma Valley Hospital following a stroke 10 days earlier will surprise many who knew her when she drank, cussed and fought like a 300-pound sailor and who imagined that she probably had passed away decades ago.

After running restaurants from 1953 to 1984 in Sausalito, Sonoma Valley, Contra Costa County's Port Costa, Fairfield and finally Winters in Yolo County, a long-sober and mellowed Juanita returned to Sonoma County more than 25 years ago to retire.

In recent years, the former brawler and friend to animals was a celebrity at Agua Caliente Villa, a resort hotel turned retirement home not far from where one of her restaurants burned with tragic results in 1975.

The home's administrator, Brooke Corro, said Juanita, who dressed every day in a colorful muu-muu and placed a decorative comb in her grayed hair, greeted every visitor and read to each resident his or her daily newspaper horoscope.

Juanita also hounded the staff to make certain they provided for the residence's pet bird.

"Even if the bird had enough food and water, she'd yell at you to make sure they were full to the top. She didn't really have a censor," Corro said.

"She was the light of the Villa. She was the nurturer."

One of Juanita's closest friends was James Hughes, a Sonoma County bail bondsman. He was in the Air Force and stationed at Marin County's former Hamilton Field when he happened into Juanita's Galley, a boisterous dive she'd opened at a Sausalito bait shop on Sausalito's Gate 5 Road in 1953 and later moved into the creaky remains of the paddlewheel Charles Van Damme.

"Oh, my God, what a place that was," said Hughes, who went to work for Juanita as her bookkeeper after she moved north to Sonoma Valley.

Late San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen discovered Juanita in Sausalito and wrote multiple times about her overflowing personality and the eggs, slabs of ham and butter-soaked muffins that burdened her plates. Comics and other entertainers — The Smothers Brothers, Jonathan Winters, Bill Cosby, Noel Coward — made their way their across the Golden Gate Bridge following late-night performances in San Francisco.

"She was something else," Tommy Smothers said Saturday night from his home in Kenwood. He remembers being out late with his brother, Dick, and friends in San Francisco in the late &‘50s and going to Juanita's place in Sausalito at 3 or 4 a.m. for breakfast.

"She was the most intimidating personality," Smothers said. He found her also to be charming, fiery and fearless, someone he equates with the likes of Alan Watts and Margot St. James.

"There was a naturalness. There was no pretense about them," he said.

"Juanita never tried to hype herself," Smothers said. "Her sense was very in the present. She didn't reminisce very much. She was right there.

While in Sausalito, Juanita befriended madam and eventual mayor Sally Stanford. Often enough Juanita was asked if she'd worked for Stanford and she'd reply, "I never charged a nickel from a horizontal position."

In 1960, Juanita left Sausalito and took up Stanford's offer of the use of a derelict filling station and bar in the town of El Verano. She spruced the place up and hung a "Juanita's Galley" sign.

There began her 26-year run in Sonoma Valley.

Her patrons encountered a large, loud, soft-hearted though occasionally terrifying proprietor who gave free range to orphaned deer, a white pig named Erica, the woolly monkey Beauregard, roosters, cats, dogs, goats.

<NO1><NO>Juanita herself said more than once she was no angel, "but I ain't never turned away an animal that didn't have a home, and I ain't never turned away a man who was hungry."

She saw her share of troubles during her nearly 30 years in Sonoma Valley. When that first restaurant in El Verano burned in 1969 she moved the operation to the Fetters Hot Springs Hotel, which burned in 1975. That blaze took the life of a waitress, Lila Christine Hill.

Juanita was asked pointedly over the years if she'd started either fire and she declared she had not. Following the Fetters fire she moved her restaurant to old Grist Mill in Glen Ellen, where she operated until 1976.

That year she left Sonoma Valley and opened a restaurant in Port Costa. She relocated twice more, to to Fairfield and finally Winters.

She was about broke when she quit the business in 1984 and returned to Sonoma Valley. She lived in an old Fetters Springs cabin full of junk and cats until the Burbank Housing Development Corp. bought the property and prepared to build affordable housing on it in 2001.

Burbank had to evict her and put her up in motels in Santa Rosa. Her friend Hughes took her in for a year, then she lived for a period in care homes in Santa Rosa before moving to Agua Caliente Villa.

"She was laughing all day, having a good old time, ordering people around," Hughes said. "Nothing any different."

Juanita was preceded in death by her husband, Dick Musson. It was always a source of sadness to her that they were unable to have children.

Following inurnment, her ashes will be scattered in the bay off Sausalito.

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