Jay Fiondella, owner of the Chez Jay restaurant in Santa Monica, died November 6th, 2008 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 82.
Chez Jay, Fiondella’s small, casual “joint” is known worldwide as a magnet for celebrities and is still going strong nearly a half-century after opening, said friends.
Aside from his longevity as a restaurateur, Fiondella was equally celebrated for his exploits as an adventurer, playboy, treasure-hunter, sailor, balloonist, boxing manager, stage producer and part-time actor, friends said. He was a pioneering competitive hot air balloonist and was reportedly the only balloonist in the Screen Actors Guild in the 1960s.
Fiondella was Cosmopolitan magazine’s “Bachelor of the Month” in 1970. In the 1980s he located and helped recover lost World War II aircraft buried in the Arctic 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 World War II-era ship off the coast of Yemen, friends said.
As an actor, Fiondella appeared in more than 50 TV shows and feature films from the 1950s through the 1990s. He invariably played bit parts, although in consistently high-profile productions, friends said. His credits include television’s Gunsmoke, Perry Mason, Batman, Mission Impossible and Fantasy Island, as well as several of the Lethal Weapon films and director Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.
Friends said Fiondella’s restaurant was frequented by an endless list of show business icons, many of whom were his 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 Pfeiffer, Mel Gibson, Jerry Seinfeld, Sean Penn, Drew Barrymore and countless others.
Fiondella was always protective of his famous customers and forbade any photographers, reporters or autograph seekers from staking out his place.
Considered 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, friends said. Fiondella 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 resided in a safe deposit box ever since, friends noted.
Born August 6th, 1926 in East Haven, Connecticut, Fiondella served in the Navy in World War II as a Seabee in the Philippines and China. After attending the University of Miami, Fiondella moved to Los Angeles in the early 1950s, hoping to become an actor. His first Hollywood roommate was actor Leonard Nimoy.
In 1959, he opened his own restaurant and named it Chez Jay as a tribute to his eventual friend Frank Sinatra, who ran a restaurant named “Chez Joey” in his film Pal Joey. Chez Jay is now managed by Michael Anderson, Fiondella’s co-owner.
Married twice, Fiondella is survived by his daughter, Anita Fiondella Eck; his son Chaz Fiondella; his sister Rita Lurate and many nieces and nephews.
A Mass of Celebration for Fiondella is scheduled at 12:45 p.m. Saturday, December 6th, at St. Monica Catholic Church in Santa Monica. In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the Parkinson’s Resource Organization, 74090 El Paseo, Suite 102, Palm Desert 92260.