A man who’s always played chicken

Perhaps my most bizarre “sportswriting” story came when I interviewed and wrote about a chicken. Or THE Chicken.

Ted Giannoulas, a Canadian, created The San Diego Chicken. Next year he’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day he was, well, hatched. Giannoulas turned 70 this month, so his appearances have been diminished by age and aches, including a hip replacement.

The interview was for a baseball magazine story. Giannoulas had been The Chicken for 10 years, yet was studying longevity.

“Maybe another five years,” he said, “before my energy level starts to dissipate…and I have to hang up the wings.”

His “pun vocabulary” was extensive and, even today, his story is a fascinating tale.

He was the first sports mascot. So without The Chicken, there might be no costumed characters dressed as pirates, parrots and penguins to entertain fans at every game, in every sport. Depending on your sense of humour, this is either a good thing or a bad thing.

He also introduced pre-game and in-game music to replace sleepy tunes from traditional organists. He set the bar so high that few mascots, if any, have cleared it. An unlikely character, this son of Greek immigrants was born in London three years after his parents emigrated from Athens with $17 in their pockets. When Giannoulas was 16, they moved to southern California, where his gig started as a gag. He was studying journalism at university, hoping to be a sportswriter (whew…glad I missed that boat!). A visitor from a local radio station approached five students who were hanging around, waiting for somebody to offer them $2 an hour to wear a chicken suit and hand out Easter eggs at the San Diego Zoo. All five said yes. Giannoulas, the smallest, got the job because the suit fit.

Anxious to get into the San Diego Padres’ opening night free, he sold the radio station on having “a chicken” do PR by roaming the stands giving away eggs. He did that for 520 consecutive games at a time when nobody went to that many consecutive Padres games unless they were forced to, under contract.

At age 10 — in “Chicken” years — Giannoulas designed an act from which all others grew.

“I try to make The Chicken into a virtual comedian,” he said. “It’s an entertainer. It’s not a human being dressed up in a chicken suit, but rather a chicken trying to act as a human being.”

He admitted four decades ago to making “six figures” but his favourite one-night stand came after the radio station fired him, then sued him for stealing their “intellectual [?] property.” The Chicken was cooped until after the court ruled in favour of Giannoulas. In his first game back the fans gave him a 10-minute standing ovation after he emerged from a 10-foot styrofoam egg.

“I could feel the chills running up and down my spine,” he recalled…“47,000 people giving a standing ovation to a born-again chicken.”

Giannoulas had convinced the Padres to pay him by attendance. They offered him $1.50 per fan over their seasonal average of 18,000. His take-home pay was more than any player in that game — $43,500.

As he would say, that’s not chicken feed.