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2008 FILE PHOTO--Juanita Musson was a genuine character who decades ago ran the wildest, crudest, liveliest restaurants in Sonoma and Contra Costa counties. Musson resided at the Agua Caliente Villa where she entertained fellow seniors. Photo taken July 11, 2008. (Crista Jeremiason/Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

Juanita Musson ran a series of restaurants in the Bay Area -- including a short but memorable stint in Port Costa in the 1970s -- and left a lasting impression at each of them based entirely on her personality.

Something of a legend among longtime Bay Area residents, Musson died Feb. 26 at Sonoma Valley Hospital in Sonoma, where she had been staying after a stroke. She was 87.

Starting in Sausalito in the 1950s Musson opened -- and closed -- a series of restaurants that all bore the name Juanita's Galley, claimed a large following and were run in a manner that would seem to follow a how-not-to-do-business plan.

"For the uninitiated, visitors to Juanita's restaurants in the 1950s, '60s and '70s were dished up equally huge portions of prime rib and profanity from Musson, who reigned over her kitchens in immense muumuus," a 1991 Times story explained.

Musson, a native of Texas who weighed more than 300 pounds in her prime and was known to all simply as Juanita, became famous for serving customers what she wanted, rather than what they ordered, and woe to the patron who dared to question her choice. "Eat it or wear it" was a phrase she frequently used -- and could have been her restaurant's slogan.

In fact, "The Eat It or Wear It Cookbook" was one of two books about Musson by Sally Hayton-Keeva, who also authored "Juanita! The Madcap Adventures of a Legendary Restaurateur."

"If any person is a living legend, she truly is, because she's larger than life," Hayton-Keeva said in the 1991 Times story. "She's the goddess of culinary terrorism."

That attitude, fueled by Musson's heavy drinking in those days, became the stuff of legend and newspaper columns, particularly by Herb Caen in the San Francisco Chronicle. The publicity and word-of-mouth brought in people who came just to see if what they'd heard and read was true.

As the Times story put it, "Juanita's restaurants were a place where a penniless man could be ordered to eat a free meal and movie stars could be humiliated."

The experience included seeing if she would pull her famous prank of coming up behind a male diner and smothering his head with her ample breasts, a trick she pulled more than once on comedian Tommy Smothers, among many others.

After the Juanita's Galley location in Sausalito burned down in a fire, a second met a same fate and she relocated to Sonoma in the mid-1960s, bringing her following with her. Chickens, pigs and monkeys would roam inside the Galley and out, amusing customers and annoying health inspectors.

"When we met her, she had just come up to Sonoma from Sausalito (in 1965)," said Marilyn Duggan, whose Duggan's Mission Chapel funeral home is handling Musson's arrangements. "She was quite a character. A lot of people went just for the show."

In the mid-1970s she brought her act to quiet but quirky Port Costa, where she took over at the restaurant and bar known The Warehouse and quickly stood out in a small town already known for its characters.

"We've never seen a more colorful character," said longtime resident Lewis Stewart.

"Bill Rich turned over the restaurant to her, he never did sell the property," said Stewart, who had a less than pleasant experience working as a waiter and bartender during her Port Costa tenure. "She took over and of course she had a big following who came to hear her crack jokes and yell at the help."

According to the Times article, she was in Port Costa intermittently -- depending whether she was feuding with Rich -- from 1976-82.

"She certainly stirred things up in the short time she was here," Stewart said. "She did bring a lot of people to town so it was good for the economy."

Musson retired from the restaurant game in 1982, moving back to Sonoma and living largely on Social Security payments. In 2002 her still loyal following raised the funds that allowed her to move to a retirement community there.

Duggan said services for Musson will be private and her ashes will be scattered near the Golden Gate.

Contact Chris Treadway at 510-262-2784. Follow him at Twitter.com/christreadway. Stay up-to-date on West Contra Costa news at IBABuzz.com/westcounty.