Jay of Chez Jay dies at 82
Jay Fiondella, colorful owner of the Chez Jay restaurant in Santa Monica, died November 6, 2008 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 82. Jay's small, casual "joint" is known worldwide as a magnet for celebrities and is still going strong nearly a half-century after opening. Aside from his incredible longevity as a restaurateur, Jay was equally celebrated for his exploits as an adventurer, playboy, treasure-hunter, sailor, balloonist, boxing manager, stage producer and part-time actor. Jay was a pioneering competitive hot air balloonist and was the only balloonist in the Screen Actors Guild in the 1960’s. He was once Cosmopolitan magazine’s “Bachelor of the Month” in 1970. In the 1980’s he located and helped recover lost WWII aircraft buried in the Arctic’s ice famously known as the “Lost Squadron”. He was also part of a team that successfully recovered millions of dollars worth of silver coins from a sunken WWII era ship off the coast of Yemen. As an actor he appeared in more than fifty TV shows and feature films from the 1950’s through the 1990’s. He invariably played bit parts, although in consistently high profile productions. Jay’s credits include television’s Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, Batman, Mission Impossible and Fantasy Island as well as several of the Lethal Weapon films and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.
His tiny restaurant was frequented by an endless list of show business icons, many of whom were Jay’s personal friends, including Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Lee Marvin, Robert Stack, Natalie Wood, Warren Beatty, Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Carson, Nancy Sinatra, Clint Eastwood, Michelle Pfeifer, Mel Gibson, Jerry Seinfeld, Sean Penn, Drew Barrymore and countless others. Jay was always protective of his famous customers and forbade any photographers, reporters or autograph seekers from staking out his place. A Chez Jay staple is its free baskets of unshelled “gourmet” peanuts one of which Apollo 14 Commander Alan Shephard took to the moon and back in 1971. Jay dubbed it his "Astro-nut", proudly showing it off to patrons at his bar until the night actor Steve McQueen nearly ate it. The Astro-nut has quietly resided in a safe deposit box ever since.
Born Jay Anthony Fiondella on August 6, 1926 in East Haven, CT, Jay served in the Navy in World War II as a Seabee in the Philippines and China. After attending the University of Miami, he moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950’s hoping to become an actor. His first Hollywood roommate was another young struggling actor named Leonard Nimoy. In the early days Jay supported himself by bartending at Sinbad's, a lively restaurant on the Santa Monica Pier. In 1959, he opened his own place nearby and named it Chez Jay as a tribute to his eventual friend Frank Sinatra who ran a joint named “Chez Joey” in his film Pal Joey. A self described “lousy businessman”, Jay’s widowed mother Alice handled the books for the next thirty years while Jay gallivanted from one adventure to the next. Chez Jay is now managed by Michael Anderson, Jay's co-owner.
Married twice, Jay is survived by his daughter, Anita Fiondella Eck, his son, Chaz Fiondella, his sister Rita Luarte and many nieces and nephews.
Jay's life will be celebrated at Chez Jay on Saturday, December 6, 2008 from 2 to 5 pm. To RSVP, call (310) 395 -1741.
Written by Jon Stebbins and Jim McGinn