No one will ever know which came first, the chicken or the egg. But one thing we do know: Before the Phillie Phanatic and the Suns Gorilla and Bernie Brewer, there was the San Diego Chicken. In 1974, when Ted Giannoulas first crawled into that fowl costume of his, no one ever imagined that a 5'4" kid from Ontario, Canada, would change the way we like to be amused between plays forever. “I’ve been telling people for years to stop laughing — it just encourages me,” says Giannoulas. Forty years after he hatched, we asked the Chicken to come out of his shell, so to speak.
So were feathers and a beak a lifelong dream?
In 1974, radio station KGB in San Diego sent a rep over to my college station at San Diego State. I was hanging out with friends and this guy walked in and said, “We need somebody to hand out Easter eggs this Sunday at the zoo. Any volunteers?” We all raised our hands. Then he said, “Oh, and you need to wear a chicken costume.” We all still kept our hands in the air. He looked around the room, saw me and said, “You, short guy, you’ll fit the costume best. I’ll see you at the zoo tomorrow.” The whole thing took less than 60 seconds.
Why a chicken? Why not a monkey or a turkey or a goat?
I asked my boss at the station the exact same question. He just said, “I don’t know, there’s something inherently funny about a chicken.” The irony is, this was supposed to be a one-time thing at the zoo. Then right after Easter, I knew Opening Day for the Padres was coming up and I figured it might be a way to get in for free. So I asked the station management about me going to the game as the Chicken. I literally went to the stadium in the costume and bought a ticket. I sat there as a fan, did a couple of silly things — a soft shoe dance, a little voodoo on the other team. It created some great chaos, and I was on the front page of the newspaper the next day. The station loved it, obviously, because ostensibly, I was a walking billboard. The Padres loved it, too. Ray Kroc, the team owner, had a great sense of humor, and he was delighted because the fans loved it.
How many times have you put the costume on?
At least 10,000 times. At least. It wasn’t uncommon for me to make six to eight appearances a day, especially during ratings cycles for the station.
So are you inherently a comedian?
I always wanted to be a comedy writer. I wrote and produced plays in school — it was always a part of me. I was never the class clown, but I always sat next to them.
What’s your favorite baseball play?
As a fan, I love watching a long throw from right field to third. There’s nothing more majestic than that. As a chicken, my favorite play is the balk, obviously. Balk. Balk. Balk.
When did you know you truly made it?
The 1978 All Star game in San Diego really put me on the map nationally. But the moment I really knew it was bigger than I ever imagined happened in 1979. I was sitting at home watching the seventh game of the World Series and a commercial promoting Major League baseball came on. Instead of showing some great plays, the entire commercial was me being hatched out of a giant Styrofoam egg. I sat there and thought, “Holy cow, I’ve arrived.”
How did you tell your parents donning a chicken costume was going to be your career path?
Honestly, my dad was really upset. He wanted me to be a doctor, engineer. Something. He was a hard-working Greek immigrant. Old school. He didn’t want me to wear a chicken suit — he was embarrassed. My mom loved it and even made my costumes. He never even saw me do my thing until about three months before he passed away; he finally came to see me at a Clippers game. He was taken aback at how much people were entertained. It was really a moving moment.
What are your thoughts on today’s mascots?
I think they’re all designed by corporate committees. They obviously don’t have the leeway I did. I tried to fashion it as a comic, and to me, today’s mascots are more benign corporate symbols.
Your favorite mascots of all time, present company excluded?
I love the Florida Gator — those kids do good stuff and have a lot of fun. And the Kansas City Royals used to have a mascot called Slugger. He was a mountain lion. Very fun and creative.
What’s your favorite kind of chicken?
Chicken wings. Hot and zesty. Buffalo style. Eating chicken wings also helps me eliminate the competition. If you can’t beat 'em, eat 'em.
What's your all time favorite non-sports experience?
I was at an Elvis concert for the station in 1976. It was the year before he died, so y’know, it was Fat Elvis. Anyway, I wanted to do something fun but I was a little nervous, the audience was a little older and well, it was Elvis. All of a sudden he broke into Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On”, and there’s a lyric in the song about “a chicken in the barn.” I knew this was my chance. I walked down the concourse, right in front of the stage and started dancing like a nut. He saw me, he dropped to one knee, and then he stopped singing because he was laughing so hard. The next thing I know, the band started playing softly and his doctor ran out on stage--they thought he was having a stroke. He finally regained his composure, finished the song and said, “I want to apologize for that, folks. There was a chicken dancing in front of me.” Everybody laughed and then he delivered a great line. He said, “I hope that chicken realizes my manager is the Colonel.” I turned around and starting sprinting out of the arena. It was great fun.
Did you ever lose your costume?
One time I lost it going to a minor league hockey game in Wichita. My head and tail were with me, though. So I went out on the ice with my head and my tail and promised I’d be back the next week. And I was.
Your three favorite players ever?
Oh jeez, I could name a ton. Bert Blyleven had a great sense of humor. Pete Rose was always great with me, too — he was fan of the Chicken before it was cool to be a fan of the Chicken. Johnny Bench was terrific, too. I did a TV show with him for a few years. David Wells. Don Sutton. There are literally hundreds of players throughout the years who have been fabulous, including umpires and NBA refs.
What's your funniest interaction with a player?
One time Ron Guidry of the Yankees asked me to do something with him because his wife loved me, so we set this whole shtick up. Right before we were ready to do our thing, Lou Piniella struck out to end the inning—and he wasn’t very happy. As we all know, Lou had a bit of a temper. Of course I’m not paying attention, so I jumped off the dugout and started goofing around with Guidry for a few seconds on the mound. Next thing I know, a glove comes whistling by my ear. It’s Piniella. He’s screaming at me. “Get away from my guy!” Then he started chasing me. The fans were cracking up thinking it’s an act and it’s totally real.
Do you lose weight during a game?
I lose a little and it definitely keeps me in shape. I did a game in Texas once and Bobby Valentine did a team pool to see how much I’d lose. It was about 105 degrees, and I lost seven pounds. Not a whole lot of chicken meat that night.
So when will the Chicken rest?
I’m 60 years old. I didn’t think I’d be doing this for 40 days, let alone 40 years. To quote Satchel Paige: “If you didn’t know how old you are, how old would you be?” I’m just going to keep going until it’s not fun anymore.
Do you belong in the Hall of Fame?
One of my costumes is in the Hall, and I’m thrilled about that. But to me, the Hall of Fame is about stats, not lore. My Hall of Fame is when I’m out there performing and people are laughing — I’m in the Hall of Fame of their memory. For me, crowd response is what makes this matter. Having said that, Cooperstown has a players’ wing and a broadcasters’ wing. Maybe one day they’ll have a chicken wing.