Talkin’ Chickenschtick with Ted Giannoulas (a.k.a. The San Diego Chicken)
A few weeks ago we published an article chronicling the “cluckerful” (I couldn’t help it…) history of the San Diego Chicken, which you can read here. Last week, I caught up with the man behind the suit, Ted Giannoulas, who was gracious enough to speak to the Entertainer from the hotel outside Dallas, his latest stop on the 2009 Chicken World Tour. Ted discusses how he got his start while still a student at SDSU, being the highest paid athlete for one day, possible induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame and memories of his early days in San Diego.
He’s the “Godfather of Feathers,” the purveyor of ‘chickenschtick,’ and the ‘hardest working bird in show business.’
The “KGB” turned “San Diego” (a.k.a. “Famous”) Chicken is the most irreverent and iconic mascots in sports history, and is still working as hard and getting as many laughs as he did when he got his start by taking a one-time gig dressed up in a heat-to-toe chicken suit.
Ted Giannoulas, the man behind the madness, is on the last month of his annual summer tour of Minor League ballparks. Performing for more than 30 years now, Giannoulas still sounds as enthusiastic and lively when talking about his job as someone who just got hired.
From his days as a student at San Diego State, Giannoulas has been a model of how hard work can pay off and how one random, seemingly innocuous decision can lead you in strange directions — in this case to become a San Diego and national icon.
“I had no grand plan, and neither did KGB when they hired me,” Giannoulas said. “There was no application, no interview or audition. There was only a handshake.”
He was paid $2 an hour to dress up in a chicken costume and give out Easter eggs to kids at the San Diego Zoo in 1974. The gig worked out and KGB decided to keep him around, giving him odd jobs and other appearances in the outfit.
Even if the task was to empty the trash in the studio, Giannoulas was excited that he was working for the coolest station in town and also excited about the prospects of promotion, even if their ratings at the time were near last in the market. But the chicken suit ended up being the reason he never saw that promotion.
“I was consistently making four to five appearances a day, all over San Diego,” Giannoulas said. “I would show up at schools, discos, movie theatres, do station giveaways in Ocean Beach and other towns all over the county, march in parades … I was somewhere everyday.”
Some days he would even make between 12-14 appearances, not to mention he once attended 520 Padres games in a row during the 1970s — an attendance feat of its own and a practice (of having an “on-field” mascot at games) unheard of at the time, and an early notable in the history of sports entertainment.
With the rise of the Chicken’s popularity, KGB saw their ratings go from near-last to first in the market in an astonishingly short period of time. Much of that had to do with Ted’s hard work and the people’s love of his antics, most of which you can view here.
It quickly became clear to KGB producers that Ted was an indispensable part of the station’s success, as long as he was still wearing the outfit, of course.
“I was the great ambassador, the billboard for KGB,” Giannoulas said. “So when other jobs at the station opened up, they weren’t offered to me.”
But after conflict with KGB regarding the mascot, Giannoulas parted ways with the station in 1977. A replacement was found to don the suit, and was booed loudly by fans in his first appearance at a Padres game. They knew the “real” Chicken wasn’t in attendance.
Giannoulas filed suit in 1979 and won back his right to perform as the same character (although he had a slightly different costume thereafter).
What happened next ended up becoming the single greatest promotion in sports history. After a two-year hiatus from attending Padres games at San Diego Stadium (now Qualcomm), Giannoulas himself (with approval from the Padres) planned a ceremonial return before the game; a “Grand Hatching” if you will.
The Padres were going through a rough year, and were only averaging about 14,000 per game in the summer of 1979. The return of the Chicken brought an amazing 47,000 people to Mission Valley to witness an event that almost didn’t happen:
Twenty-four hours before the game, the massive Styrofoam egg he was set to literally hatch out of was stolen from inside the stadium, where it was being kept (which gives you an idea as to the level of security at sporting events back then). When news of the theft spread, there was a massive response from the media and community to find the missing giant egg.
“But after awhile — probably once [the thieves] sobered up — they realized they’d be charged with a felony when they got caught,” Giannoulas recalled.
So, the egg-nappers set up a go-between to get the prized possession back to Giannoulas. Strangely enough, that go-between was Gene Cubbison, who at the time was a young reporter at KFMB-TV. But there was a ransom attached as well: Four tickets to the “Grand Hatching” and all the beer they could drink.
Giannoulas obliged, considering it a funny request, but he was mostly just happy the egg had been returned and he could get on with the show as planned.
To make light of the great heist, a last-minute arrangement was made to have the egg escorted in by the California Highway Patrol, with the egg sitting on top of an armored truck following the CHP motorcycles. The event was so big, all three local news networks cut into scheduled programming to bring San Diegans the “Grand Hatching” live on-the-air, another first for its time.
After being let down to the infield dirt, he then proceeded to roll around inside the egg, with press and fans anxiously waiting to the sounds of the theme to 2001: A Space Odyssey. He then punched his way out, to ecstatic cheers and was carried off the field on the shoulders of Padre players.
It was perhaps the only time in baseball history where there was a smile on every face in the stands. And it was the only time a mascot had ever been the highest paid athlete on the field — even if it was for one day — as Giannoulas negotiated a deal where he’d get a percentage of the ticket sales revenue, which, after calculations were made, ended up beeing a cool $40,000.
Of the “Grand Hatching,” he said fondly that, “I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Since then, the Chicken has become a national icon, attending events across the country. He’s been a shining example that sports is, at its root, a form of entertainment and that the game experience should still be fun, win or lose. His motto has always been to play to the people, first and foremost — and not let any other distractions get in the way.
In fact, every mascot you see today, in some way or another, was based off the Chicken. He’s got the “original recipe,” to borrow a phrase from KFC (another logo the Chicken can’t bear to set his large, googly eyes on). Respected sports columnist, Gene Wojciechowski suggested he be inducted to the baseball Hall of Fame for his contributions to the game.
“It’s pretty heady praise. I’m touched and honored,” said Giannoulas about the article. “But I’m not holding my breath. There are a lot of people ahead of me before I’m even on the radar.”
(But with the steroid era claiming more victims this weekend, perhaps he’s not as far off as he thinks…)
But the talk of the Hall of Fame isn’t what keeps Giannoulas going, it’s the reaction he gets from people and the places he gets to visit.
“It’s the joy I get each night I perform, it’s the warmth and adulation, laughter and happiness,” he said. “And it’s the big kids too! You wouldn’t believe the e-mails I get. It’s like they’re 6-year-olds all over again.”
With Giannoulas touring every summer, and leaving the rest of the season off to relax and do occasional appearances around San Diego, he is not nearly as visible in the area as he used to be. But he still calls the city home and is adamant his story is only possible in a city like San Diego.
“It’s San Diego fans and their sense of humor that put me on the map, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten. The idea of a chicken would not have worked in any other town at that time.”