He was a California Avenue fixture for more than 42 years, but Antonio's Nut House owner Antonio "Tony" Montooth died suddenly on Saturday at his home, longtime friends said. According to the Santa Clara County Coroner's Office his physician reported the probable cause of death as metastasized lung cancer.
Montooth, 79, was a character known for his jokes, patrons and friends said. His Nut House, with the squirrel plaque over the door and caged gorilla statue where people can get roasted salted peanuts, is a much-loved watering hole where anyone from construction workers to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg were known to hang out.
People come to the bar at 321 S. California Ave. for the cheap drinks -- a margarita is $3 during an extended happy hour and a gin and tonic is just $3.50. They buy space to paint their messages and artwork on the ceiling tiles, and they cover the walls with graffiti and the floors with peanut shells. But mostly, they come there for the unpretentious vibe and camaraderie. The Nut House is a place where people come to talk over their troubles or share a laugh, regulars said.
There was no one more adept at jokes than Montooth. An electronic news ticker or "crawler" even displays some of his jokes behind the bar, longtime friend Tom Brown said. On Tuesday afternoon the scrolling lights scrolled some of his last jokes and sayings:
"So a dyslexic walks into a bra."
"Booze is the answer. Now I can't remember the question."
"Welcome to Antonio's Nut House!! Get a drink and grab your nuts."
On Tuesday, the mood was decidedly muted at the Nut House as regulars sauntered in. Some remembered him with reverence; others did not want to talk about him at all.
"It is too soon," Kelly, a bartender, and some patrons said. Another bartender said the family had asked staff not to discuss Montooth.
But Tom Brown, a friend for eight years, said he met Montooth at the Cupertino Homestead Lanes several years ago and they became good friends, bowling on the Nut House team. Montooth and his wife, Aloha, were on the same bowling team. "Tony had a 170 to 180 average, and it slowly went down from there," he said.
Brown said he always wanted to be on a happy bowling team, and Montooth's Nut House team was the right fit.
"Their shirts said 'I'm on a drinking team with a bowling problem,'" he recalled.
"I always thought he was going to be here forever," said Brown, a moving and storage company sales manager.
Friends said that Montooth was having some difficulty breathing lately.
"I was so upset with him. I said, 'Why aren't you going to the doctor?'" Brown recalled.
Brown remembered how years ago he, Montooth and others in their crowd were drinkers, but since then he and Montooth both quit drinking. Still, Montooth asked why Brown wasn't coming to the Homestead Lanes bar much anymore.
"I told him, 'I quit drinking'. Tony kept saying, 'So did I, but I still come to my bar,'" he recalled.
But after more than 40 years in the bar business, Montooth was starting to think about retirement when his lease ends. Brown was seriously thinking about taking over the business and had talked to Montooth about the possibility, he said.
Now Montooth's family will have to decide what to do with the bar, other longtime patrons said, and they hope it will still be around for years to come.
Mahmood Saljooqi, a piano technician, said that he last spoke to Montooth on Friday when the longtime patron came to the taqueria that serves food inside the bar. He learned about Montooth's death after a friend texted him, he said.
"Tony was a good guy. He was the friendliest guy. He loved his grandchildren and he loved to tell jokes," Saljooqi said.
The late bar owner was originally from Tennessee, Brown said. There are several children and grandchildren between Montooth and Aloha. Before he started the Nut House he owned an Italian family-style restaurant at the location, patrons recalled. But the Nut House, with its wacky signage and decorations, such as bras hanging from the ceiling, soon became the place to hang out.
On Tuesday, patrons tried to recall the history behind some of the many signs and props. The bras got started after a patron felt uncomfortable, removed hers and tossed it up toward the ceiling, a patron recalled.
Saljooqi said that Montooth sold space on each of the ceiling tiles to businesses and patrons, who painted messages and images that go back decades. Patrons would pay $5 or $10 to paint one of the tiles. Charles Anderson, a patron since 1980, pointed to his tile, a work of art that stated his was the "Sportsman of the Year" in 1986, with a painting of a broken nine-iron. It was one of the first on the ceiling, he recalled.
Montooth told the Weekly in April 2015 that he took pride in keeping his bar affordable and down-to-earth.
"My prices are like happy hour all the time," he said.
But he also faced frustration from run-ins with the City of Palo Alto. In 2003 the city tried to reduce his hours of operation to midnight on weekdays and 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, after complaints about noise and fights, which were mostly caused by the now-defunct The Edge night club, which was located down the street.
"They blame me for everything but the rain," he told the Weekly at the time, expressing irritation about complaints from residents of nearby condominiums about California Avenue bars and restaurants.
Montooth prevailed in an appeal and the Nut House today is open from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily.
Saljooqi said there are occasional fights outside the bar -- that's to be expected when people have been drinking -- but Antonio's has always been a welcome place to hang out.
"The city gave him a hard time all of the time, but this place gives people somewhere to come together. People talk about their problems. I've met a lot of great people here. It's an awesome place."
Montooth saw many changes to California Avenue, particularly in recent years. Many of the small shops that gave the avenue its character are gone now, such as The Bargain Box and Know Knew Books, which were replaced by offices, upscale restaurants and businesses that can pay higher rents.
In 2014, Montooth told the Weekly after the Bargain Box and other small businesses lost their leases that he did not know what the future would bring for the Nut House. He planned to add improvements to Antonio's, including a new floor to replace the worn-out one "where the peanut shells have done their harm." He also wanted to add a patio that would coincide with the city's new streetscaping plans, but didn't want to make the investment if he would later be evicted in favor of a tenant who could pay higher rents, he said.
Brown said he recalled a conversation he had with Montooth's wife.
"She said that Tony will never give up the bar," he recalled. "He loved coming here. He would never sell out the bar. People would come and want to rent out the bar. But Tony would say, 'Where would the regulars go?'"
Montooth's family members are still processing his death and are not ready to speak publicly, friends said.
Brown said a mass is planned for Montooth on June 10 at 11 a.m. at the Darling & Fischer Chapel of the Hills, 615 North Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos.