The Famous Chicken Tirelessly Continues to Work Around the Cluck
By Mike Lopresti
The woman was in her 70s, making her way in her walker along the concourse of a California baseball stadium. She was intent on talking to the guy wearing a chicken suit.
“Young man,” she began “I just want to tell you that tonight was the most enjoyable night I’ve ever spent at a ballpark, thanks to you.”
This was just last week. It was the first thing that came to Ted Giannoulas’ mind when he was asked why he still dresses up like a chicken at the age of 61. How can the joy still be there after four decades?
“Because of the laughter,’’ he said over the phone from San Diego. “There’s an old adage – don’t laugh, it only encourages him. The answer to that is yes. It’s almost like still being the quasi-class clown. Still, I never was that in high school or elementary school.
“But to know you can touch a heart so warmly and so deeply like that with a few laughs…the greatest virtue in our culture in America is our sense of humor. I’m proving that myself in a chicken suit. I’ve been able to fashion a career in a chicken suit, and it’s because people are laughing. As goofy as it is, they’re laughing.’’
You can chirp that again. The San Diego Chicken – Famous Chicken, whatever — will be in Victory Field Saturday night, continuing a made-in-America fairy tale that has gone on…and on…and on. After 41 years, he is the most famous fowl this side of Donald Duck.
It’s not just that he’s funny. And always has been since 1974, when as a journalism student in San Diego State and former dishwasher, he accepted a $2-an-hour job for one week to wear a chicken suit for a local radio station and charm kids at the San Diego Zoo.
It’s not just that he’s been a hit since the Nixon administration. Giannoulas has worked in more than 900 venues in 50 states and eight countries. He has done golf at Pinehurst, boxing in Las Vegas, horse racing in Illinois, baseball everywhere. And Wrestlemania. He has played the White House, the Super Bowl, the Olympics, and an Elvis show. Once, the father of a bride was snowed in by a Minnesota blizzard and couldn’t make the wedding in San Diego. Guess who the couple decided would be a great substitute to give away the bride? “There I was,” he said, “in full regalia.”
It’s not just that he’s reliable. He has appeared at nearly 7,000 games, and double that in conventions, trade shows, etc. And in 41 years, he has never missed an engagement. Not one. Giannoulas correctly noted that you could take Cal Ripken’s record for consecutive games played, add it to Lou Gehrig’s, and still not approach the Chicken.
Though there was the hockey game in Wichita where he had to make only a cameo, because the airline didn’t get his uniform there. All he had was the chicken head and tail, so he put them on, wrapped a towel around himself and said a quickie hello at center ice. He looked like a rooster that had just come out of the shower.
It’s not just that he’s been dedicated. He’s gone anywhere, whatever it took. There was the time he worked one night in Hagerstown, Md., the next night in Honolulu. The night before he appeared at the George W. Bush White House for a T-ball game in 2001, he was at a Fresno baseball game three time zones away.
It’s not just that he’s been durable. I’m 62. I know how much I hurt in the morning. How much must he hurt in the morning when he’s plopped around like a chicken the night before? “I used to dance and do the splits like James Brown,” he said. “I gave that up about the same time James Brown did. Another thing, I used to do was run the bases and do a Pete Rose imitation with a head-first dive into third base. I don’t do that anymore. But I fantasize to myself that if I only worked out a little bit more or lost a couple of pounds, I could do it again.”
It’s not just that he’s been lucky. A man hits the jackpot by dressing up in a chicken suit? Really? And suffice it to say, he hasn’t been working for chicken feed all these years. What might have happened had his interview for a sportswriting job not been postponed two weeks back in ’74? He might never have taken that zoo gig in the interim, with all the fame to come. “I haven’t been back for that interview,” he said.
But the true legacy of Giannoulas – besides laughter, from the luxury boxes to the cheap seats – is that he is the Thomas Edison of sports mascots. He is the Orville and Wilbur Wright of on-field entertainment by people in costumes.
Before the Chicken came home to roost at Padres games in the 1970s, virtually no professional sports teams had ever dreamed of a live mascot to entertain the masses. Now, who doesn’t have them? Whenever Giannoulas flips to a sports event on his TV in San Diego, he is likely to see a mascot somewhere in the background, and understands where it all started.
“Whenever my wife and I are watching, she’ll turn to me and say in jest, ‘I hope you’re satisfied,'” he said. “In the time I call BC – Before Chicken – there was nothing like this on the professional landscape. It changed in the face of sports marketing in a way.”
Saturday night, when the Indians offer poultry and a pennant race, is a return engagement to Indianapolis, and it means something to him. Of all the locations he’s performed – from Australia to the Netherlands, from the Fairbanks Gold Panners to the Nova Scotia Voyageurs – none strike quite the same chord as Indy.
For one, he just loves the place. “I’ve said it for the longest time and it continues to be true; Indianapolis is the most underrated sports town in America. The fans are fantastic, the facilities are super.”
For another, there is the memory of the Pacers game he once worked. While signing autographs afterward, Giannoulas got into a conversation with a woman named Jane who said he didn’t like sports that much, but had come to the game to see him because her boyfriend had promised how funny it would be.
One thing led to another. Now, Ted and Jane have been married 20 years.
“She fell in love with me before she even knew what I looked like,” he said. “She fell in love with the Chicken.”
Lots of people do, which is why Giannoulas – who signs autographs as long as anyone asks after a game – has probably scrawled his name millions of times.
But for how much longer? The Chicken is a rarer bird now, with nothing close to the 250 appearances he used to make in a year. Giannoulas understands he will one day need to schedule a farewell tour – no chicken clucks forever – but isn’t sure when.
There are still places the Chicken wants to land. He never got to play the Montreal Forum or old Yankee Stadium like he wanted. And the one major US city that has never invited him is Boston. “I might have been banned in Boston and not even know it,” he said. He figures something about the more buttoned-down Boston sense of humor being a factor in that, though “there’s never been an audience I couldn’t make laugh, not anywhere in the world.”
And he was highly amused when the question was asked what things the Chicken might do in Boston with an under-inflated football.
An ardent Rolling Stones fan, Giannoulas recently went to see Mick Jagger cavort around the stage at 71, and it made him wonder. Will we see the Chicken in his 70s?
“My honest guess is no,” he said. “But I didn’t think we’d see the Chicken in his 60s or 50s, either.
“I just want to be sure that when I’m ready for the last laugh, I will give them the last laugh.”
The last of a billion, from a Chicken who was fortunate enough — and genius enough — to be there first.
Mike Lopresti is a Ball State University graduate and Richmond, Ind. native and resident. He was a sports columnist for Gannett newspapers and USA Today for 31 years, and covered 30 World Series and 33 Major League Baseball All-Star Games. He is a voter for Baseball Hall of Fame. When he retired he was 16th in nation in seniority on Baseball Writers Association of America.