I’ve mentioned before that part of the essential rural experience, for me, would be to collect some Wacky Country Sidekicks. I’m talking Ma and Pa Kettle, maybe a guy with a talking horse or any one of the side characters from Green Acres. (I’m still waiting for Sonoma to elect a pig like Arnold as mayor.) Well, I’ve found exactly the kind of eccentric I’m talking about. It’s a shame I learned of her from her many obituaries. She died this week — but Juanita Musson’s fame will probably live on. This profane, flamboyant, larger-than-life restauranteur was exactly the kind of Western personality I was hoping to find.
Of course, her passing was front page news in the excellent Sonoma Index-Tribune, which I have praised as a shining beacon of what a small town paper should be. (If it didn’t play out in a ten mile radius of Sonoma, the I-T doesn’t cover it. But the essential stuff, like the fact that a local man’s goat gave birth to quadruplets always makes the front page.) Juanita, however, was too big for just Sonoma. The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat, The Marin Independent-Journal and a few others ran lengthy obits. I encourage you to read them all as each one is more outrageous than the last.
Let me give you just a sampling. At the various restaurants she ran in Sonoma, Sausalito and a few other places (not simultaneously, but serially as they kept burning down, getting closed down or running afoul of tax law), Juanita, in all her nearly 300 pound glory, presided in a muu-muu surrounded by a menagerie of animals who had the run of the place. People came from miles around to be insulted by her. She was famous for serving customers what she wanted to, not what they ordered, demanding that they “Eat it or wear it.” Her favorite prank was “the ear muffs” where she’d sneak up behind a customer, one pendulous breast in each hand and clap them over the unsuspecting person’s ears. Apparently Tommy Smothers frequently got this treatment as did a number of celebrities who would make the after-show trek out to Juanita’s Sausalito restaurant on a regular basis in the 60s. Yet for all her pranks and hijinks, Juanita seemed to have her priorities straight. Most of her insults were aimed at the well-heeled and famous, while she always had a hot meal for someone down on his luck. She’s quoted in the Press Democrat article saying:
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.
As you can imagine, giving away the food, insulting the customers and letting chickens, goats, a pet deer and a monkey run around the restaurant is not the best way to run a business. By the time Juanita retired, she was nearly broke. But building up a cult-like following of friends is definitely the way to run your life. And those friends paid to install Juanita in a Sonoma retirement community where she ruled the place in her trademark muu muus until her death last Saturday at age 87.
I never did get to meet Juanita. Her restaurants were closed long before I came to the Bay Area. But if I’d known she was just over in Agua Caliente, one mile from Sonoma, I’d have been down at the home weekly to get my share of insults. While old timers are shaking their heads and saying there will never be another like her, I’m praying there are. Because I’m here for the eccentrics!
Or maybe I’ll become one of the eccentrics and people can write about me.
Except I don’t have the equipment to do a proper “ear muff”.
At top of post: Santa Rosa Press-Democrat Photo