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From the Bee archives: 1998 obituary of pizza chain founder ‘Shakey’ Johnson

Capitol Neon crew removes Shakey’s Pizza sign Thursday morning June 20, 2002, from in front of what was then the East End Bar and Grill. The building was the beginning for pizza chain that started in Sacramento and the sign was donated to the Sacramento Historical Museum. It will now be housed in Golden 1 Arena.
Capitol Neon crew removes Shakey’s Pizza sign Thursday morning June 20, 2002, from in front of what was then the East End Bar and Grill. The building was the beginning for pizza chain that started in Sacramento and the sign was donated to the Sacramento Historical Museum. It will now be housed in Golden 1 Arena. Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Editor’s note: The Bee originally published this story on Nov. 3, 1998. We have republished it online to give readers background information on a historic Sacramento retailer that will be memorialized in the Golden 1 Center. The East Sacramento Shakey’s location closed after a 1996 fire; it has housed several restaurants in recent years, currently Mimosa House.

Sherwood “Shakey” Johnson is credited with opening the world’s first “pizza parlor” at 57th and J streets in Sacramento, but friends remember him more as a one-of-a-kind character who would do almost anything - even take nearly two dozen friends to Kauai for a three-day luau if the mood struck him.

And it did.

Mr. Johnson, 73, who died of a heart attack Saturday, was a wise-cracking, fun-loving, joke-telling, prankster-playing partygoer who was kind and sentimental as well: For years, he made sure a poverty-stricken boy he had met in Hawaii had whatever he needed - even a new suit when the child was killed.

“He was bigger than life, “ recalled his daughter, Bonae Paustian. “He did everything in a large way. He really did have a big heart - and it finally gave out on him.”

Mr. Johnson’s legacy is Shakey’s Pizza, a worldwide restaurant chain that still has scores of parlors in the United States and abroad. He sold his 50 percent interest in Shakey’s for about $4 million in 1967.

After retiring to a 105-acre estate with hacienda-style house in the Yuba County foothills, Mr. Johnson, then in his 40s, never lost his perspective or sense of humor. “I don’t kid myself that I’m a rancher, “ he said. “I’m just a city boy from Sacramento who’s living the life of a country squire.

“I make a nice living from all these people flushing their toilets. . . . When I got all that money (from Shakey’s), I invested it - mostly in municipal sewer bonds.”

Sherwood Johnson was born Sept. 2, 1925, in Sacramento, to homemaker Mildred and Chris D. Johnson, a deputy state attorney general and a prominent attorney in private practice.

After graduating from Christian Brothers High School in 1943, he joined the Navy and served two years in the Pacific theater aboard the USS Alnitah - where he got the nickname “Shakey.”

He weighed about 155 pounds when he entered the service, he once explained, but had a difficult time eating during his stint in the South Pacific and began to suffer from chronic malnutrition.

“I just sort of wasted away - only weighed 93 pounds. I got tremors. My hands shook. The guys started calling me “Shakey.’ It was a name given with love, and it’s been good to me over the years.”

Returning to Sacramento after the war, Mr. Johnson attended Sacramento City College and later Hastings School of Law in San Francisco. In 1950, he married Mary Jane Williams, whom he had met at the American Legion Hall after the war.

Four years later, he and Ed Plummer - a college friend and fishing buddy - each put in $850 and rented a defunct mom-and-pop grocery store at 57th and J streets to open a neighborhood draft beer place.

They later added pizza, using a recipe Mr. Johnson knew from his childhood, some of which he spent serving as a recipe interpreter between Italian housewives and his mother, who was Swedish.

“With the pizza, the business exploded, “ he told reporters.

The partners soon added a room to their establishment that sold only pizza. They advertised it as a “pizza parlor, “ thus coining a phrase that has since become common usage.

Prior to that time, there were no pizza parlors - only “pizzerias” in which pizza was among the menu items, according to a 1975 press release by Shakey’s officials.

Stories abound about Mr. Johnson, though friends say with a chuckle that some of the most colorful ones are unprintable. Among the ones that can be told:

▪ He once gave a party in Mulege, Mexico, that lasted seven days and totaled $10,000 in bar bills. He flew in people from all over. The fun included Mariachi music, Scottish pipers and even an Arab band and bellydancer.

▪ After the death of Carl Estes’ wife, Mr. Johnson made it a point to call his longtime friend every morning to make sure he was up and his spirits weren’t down. “He truly cared, “ Estes said.

▪ Mr. Johnson liked to laugh about what he felt was a world record by Shakey’s for most beer downed in a single night: 50 kegs or more. Turns out three times the normal amount of cayenne pepper was put in the pizza dough.

Asked once why he named the parlor Shakey’s, Mr. Johnson reportedly replied: “Can you imagine anyone saying, “Let’s go down to Sherwood’s for some pizza?’ “

A huge Dixieland jazz fan, Mr. Johnson booked bands into his pizza parlors so patrons could enjoy live entertainment. It became a Shakey’s tradition. Later, he was named the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee’s first “Emperor of Jazz.”

His daughter, Bonae, said Mr. Johnson drank and smoked and once said, “ “If I had known I would live this long, I would have taken care of myself.’ He had two mottos: “You only go around once in life, but if you live it the way we do, once is enough’ “

Mr. Johnson is survived by his wife, Mary of Yuba City; daughter, Bonae of Marysville; son, Chris D. Johnson II of Oakland; brother, Russell Johnson of Reno; and six grandchildren.

At Hutchison and Carnes Mortuary, 830 D St., Marysville, a visitation is planned from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and a rosary will be recited at 7 p.m.

A Mass of Christian burial is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, 702 C St., Marysville. A reception will follow at Forbes House restaurant, 618 D St., Marysville.

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