The Morning Report
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Ted Giannoulas, the man who would become the Famous San Diego Chicken, was plucked by chance.
A radio rep came by San Diego State University in 1974, looking for someone to don a promotional chicken suit and hand out candy at the zoo. Giannoulas, a student there, was told he’d fit the costume best.
After working the gig, Giannoulas got the Padres to let him into the stadium for free, if he plugged it on the radio.
He cavorted in the stands, up and down the aisle, and the newspaper made mention of it the next day.
He was a hit. The chicken became a comedic fixture at games, heckling umpires after bad calls and casting spells on the opposing team’s dugout. An icon was hatching.
Almost 40 years later, the Famous San Diego Chicken’s collected a slew of accolades: Honored at the Baseball Hall of Fame. Named by Sporting News as one of the 20th century’s top 100 sports figures. Appeared in the movie, Attack of the Killer Tomatoes. Performed his comedic act around the world, from Chargers games to weddings to parades.
But in recent years, Giannoulas, now 57, has scaled down the number of appearances after what became a full-time career as the San Diego Chicken. He now averages 40 to 50 a year, with just a few at Padres games this past season.
We sat down with him to talk about his biggest regret from life on the road, what it was about San Diego that allowed it to give birth to the Chicken and what he thinks about today’s mascots.
Giannoulas has never photographed out of costume but the San Diego Chicken did hang out with photojournalist Sam Hodgson for some photos at Qualcomm Stadium.
Have you always been a big comedy guy?
Yes. Always loved comedy, always loved sports, took the two, merged them together to produce this. It’s kind of like a fuzzy Harpo Marx is the way I’ve always referred to it. I was a fan of Peter Sellers, Jackie Gleason, the Three Stooges and the stand up comics back then. Then Saturday Night Live broke open so comedy was getting to be something different outside the box, and what I was doing was creating a lot of laughs.
You normally don’t go to a ballgame and expect to hear laughter, you hear cheering and booing, but for people to laugh out loud. It was pretty off the wall, a lot of people are still wearing shirts and ties back then in the early ’70s, mid ’70s, to the game. And then here comes a guy in a chicken suit and he’s cavorting around, having a drink, cheering the team.
What do you think about how tightly sports teams kind of control their branding and marketing now?
It makes it more difficult for me to work with the major league teams because I’m not a part of their brand. I’m not even licensed by their league, you see? I’m one of those free agents out there whose success was such that they co-pirated the idea of it for themselves and now are afraid that if I come in and make an appearance for their team, I might upstage their local character.
What do you think of today’s mascots?
Most of them are, by design, benign and petting zoo characters for kids. I come from a different perspective. A lot of them in the NBA, they’re not funny, they’re more acrobats, circus acts, trampoline jumping. I’m more of a comedian sort of thing.
So were there ever any perks? Did the chicken ever get any chicks?
It was fun back in the ’70s. Interesting. Man I would get so many dates, so many girls would give me their phone numbers through my beak. They didn’t even know what I looked like because I never photographed out of character. Girls just figured that the character’s so funny, I bet he was a fun date.
You’ve been doing this for almost 37 years, how do you have the energy?
I have cut back my schedule quite a bit. I’m entitled to finally put up my feet.
Is that just getting older?
For other life experiences, you know? Maybe 10 years ago I would’ve been in a different town tonight, doing some hockey game or some basketball game. I was literally consumed working in a chicken suit.
What other sort of life experiences are you talking about?
Even going to a sit down dinner. Taking in a film. What might seem pretty fundamental to someone, for decades I never experienced. I’d be on the road somewhere. I never had a Fourth of July barbecue. Christmas night, I’d be working somewhere. New Year’s Day, I’d be at some bowl game. I accepted the invitation of teams and it was my choice, don’t get me wrong. I loved it. But now it’s just a different perspective.
So it’s spending more time with your family? You have a wife and how many children?
No kids. I love kids but being on the road, as I was for so long, I couldn’t raise a family in absentia, it wouldn’t have been right, OK? It’d be the absentee dad. So, as much as I love kids and I still think I’m one at heart, I just didn’t feel that I could have kids raised while I was out and not seen.
Were you married?
No, I got married in ‘95. So I didn’t bother getting married for many, many years.
Uh yeah. Probably not having kids but I love so much of what I did and was doing but when you ask me if I have any kids, I say I’ve got 5,000 every night, you know? (Laughs.)
So how much longer do you think you’ll keep doing it?
Still trying to decide. They say, “When are you going to quit?” and I don’t know. When it stops being funny I suppose to me. I always mention the Rolling Stones and you know they have so much money and yet they go out in their mid-60s and perform so well. Hundreds of thousands of people come to see them every year. I don’t know if I’ve got the energy to do that but I look at those guys and draw inspiration from that.
So do you have an apprentice?
No apprentice. Probably when I hang it up, that might be the end of it unless I end up selling it to a sports team or a media company and somebody else wants to do something with it. I’ve even turned down reality show offers from people saying we want to find the next great chicken.
Was it also something about San Diego that let it happen here?
Very much so. The fact I was able to succeed in these weather conditions, being out here every day, as opposed to being back east, you’d be limited by the snow. San Diego back in the ’70s had very much a Jimmy Buffett attitude among its fan base here. It couldn’t have happened in L.A. It wouldn’t have been chic enough. In San Diego I was able to be a work in progress and find my footing in a way.
Interview conducted and edited by Dagny Salas. Want to chat? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or call me at 619.550.5669. I’m on Twitter too: twitter.com/dagnysalas.