The Astro-nut

The story of the first peanut in space

At the very end of Route 66 in Santa Monica, California, sits Chez Jay, a scruffy dive bar with a nautical theme full of Christmas lights that has not changed much since it opened in 1959. Wedged between the headquarters of the Rand Corporation—the global policy think tank created by the Douglas Aircraft Company in 1949—and the Santa Monica Pier, with its Ferris wheel and roller coaster and hot dog on a stick stand, Chez Jay is known, among other things, for the complimentary peanuts it’s put out on its bar since day one. During the early days of the space program, the Rand headquarters right behind the bar attracted astronauts and pilots. A short walk from the building, so did Chez Jay.

Sit around long enough at Chez Jay today, and you are bound to run into its current owner, Michael Anderson, who has been at the bar for about 40 years and is a living repository of its rich history. Ask Mike nicely and he’ll tell you the story of the astro-nut.

Like that time he brought circus elephants into the bar to scarf down peanuts.

Courtesy Chez Jay

Fact: In 1961 astronaut Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into space. His flight lasted 15 minutes. Before he launched into space and history though, he was drinking at Chez Jay with the bar’s owner and founder Jay Fiondella. Now Jay had done his damnedest since the bar opened to promote it, and was not above the occasional outlandish stunt. Like that time he brought circus elephants into the bar to scarf down peanuts. He knew an opportunity for some publicity when he saw it. So, in light of the space-race craze, Jay put a peanut in Alan Shepard’s pocket and made him promise to take it with him in the capsule. The astronaut obliged.

When he came back down to earth, Alan Shepard brought the peanut back to Chez Jay and presented it to Jay, who was understandably proud. In fact, Jay, eager to show off the astral legume, brought it out not long after, one night when actors Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen were enjoying the dark cover of Table 10 toward the back of Chez Jay. Jay showed them the peanut that had been to space, and McQueen asked if could see it. The actor grabbed the peanut and put it into mouth, holding it between his teeth crunching down on the shell as cameras popped, capturing the moment. Lee Marvin hacked a loud, bawdy laugh.

Jay probably panicked a moment, but quickly recovered the peanut, not much worse for wear. Mike says he was less eager to bring it out after that, and it found a safer spot in the building. Mike’s not saying where.

Mike Anderson at Chez Jay.