This marks a very big first for The Hall of Very Good. You are about to embark on a two part interview with our first ever celebrity inductee, Ted Giannoulas. Of course, you probably know him better as his alter ego, The San Diego Chicken.
The San Diego Chicken has been a staple of Major League Baseball mascots for nearly four decades and Giannoulas has been inside that suit every single day of those 40 years. In fact, Giannoulas has NEVER missed a scheduled Padres home game, sporting event, or appearance in that same span.
Consider this…if you added Lou Gehrig and Cal Ripken Jr’s consecutive game streaks together, it would still not equal The Chicken’s. When asked about it, he will just tell you, “The show must go on.” And that is the type of man Giannoulas is, he doesn’t take himself too seriously, but takes what he does very seriously. He took a cartoon creation and turned it into one of the most visible celebrities in one of the biggest sports leagues on earth.
I was fortunate enough to spend over an hour talking with Giannoulas prior to his induction into The Hall of Very Good. In part one of our interview, you will get a look into how The Chicken came to be and his almost immediate rise to fame. Part two will dive into some more stories and history from baseball’s greatest self-made mascot.
We’re honored and privileged to be inducting The San Diego Chicken into The Hall, and it was a real honor for me to talk to him and now present you with our conversation. Truly one of the nicest men on the face of the earth. Hall readers, may I introduce to you Ted Giannoulas…The San Diego Chicken.
HOVG: I guess we’ll just start at the beginning.
HOVG: As the legend goes, you were hired to wear the chicken suit in order to hand out Easter eggs at the San Diego Zoo. Is that right?
CHICKEN: Yes, (it was) a one week promotional gimmick in late March of 1974.
HOVG: And were you an actor? Was there an ad in the paper? Or did you just need the money?
CHICKEN: None of those. I was just a student at San Diego State University majoring in journalism. I was hanging out at a campus radio station as a part-time DJ…a fill-in DJ. It was me and 40 other kids, so as part-time as it gets basically. (Laughs) On this particular day, the campus was empty because it was the day before Spring Break. There were still a few of us radio rats around and so it wasn’t a formal application Lou! In walks a guy from a “real” radio station, KGB, and says “Hey, we’re looking for somebody to wear a chicken suit that we’ve rented. Would be a week. Just some crazy promotion. Who’s interested?” So there are five of us sitting in the lobby and he points to me, because I am the shortest and would fit in the costume the best, and told me I would start tomorrow. That was the whole process.
HOVG: After that, did you continued to do promotional work for the radio station?
CHICKEN: Oh, yes, I stayed with the radio station for five years. After that one week gimmick, I asked if I could stick around. The Padres season was about to start, so I asked if I could go and do promotional work at the Padres game for Opening Day. Truth be told, I was just looking to get into the ballgame for free. They said sure, the pay was two bucks an hour and they figured…why not? The idea was to advertise the radio station in front of a bigger audience. So, I went down there and cavorted in the aisles and grandstands and people had fun with it. The station enjoyed it because of the feedback they were getting, so they kept sending me back there each night.
HOVG: And so, you worked for them for five years and I kind of already know the answer to this, but would like to hear you tell it… tell me what happened when your time with the radio station was up? And then how you became associated with the Padres officially? I think it’s a really cool story.
CHICKEN: Sure. By the fifth year, the chicken was a folk hero in San Diego. That’s because I did a ton of things outside of the Padres…pretty much all sporting events in San Diego, concerts, parades, picnics, company gatherings and special promotions that KGB would have. Outrageous stuff…like spending a weekend giving away tons of watermelon to beachgoers! I mean, we did some outlandish things and I was all over town. But, after five years, I came to loggerheads with the radio station over my career growth. The biggest issue was ownership of the chicken suit, who owned it? Directly, I owned it. I had purchased the copyrights to it.
HOVG: Oh! I didn’t know that.
CHICKEN: When the station declined, I purchased the copyrights. Because…I wanted to save my skin. (Laughs). Literally and figuratively! So, anyway, they fired me. Filed a lawsuit to try and prevent me from branching out on my own. Long story short, the courts ruled in my favor and made me a free agent chicken.
HOVG: Then the Padres were smart enough to know that they had a good thing going and they locked you down?
CHICKEN: Exactly. But you know there were a lot of teams that reached out to me after I was fired. The Mets, Cardinals and Mariners come to mind. Quite a few made me offers to come out and join them but I…I just couldn’t leave. I had to stay and be with Padres fans. I just had to. That’s why I did the “Grand Hatching” in 1979, to come out in a brand new Chicken suit, based on my old design and without the KGB call sign, and start over on my own. Lou, you have no idea…the outpouring of emotion was crazy in San Diego for the Chicken, against the radio station. It really was amazing. Over the top. It was front page news! Led off every news report. Walter Cronkite sent out a reporter to cover my “Grand Hatching”. This was national news. Johnny Carson’s people called and asked if I would do my “Grand Hatching” on his TV show. That is how big the city of San Diego made this story and I couldn’t do it anywhere other than Jack Murphy Stadium. The good people of San Diego earned my loyalty…the outpouring of support was just mind-boggling.
HOVG: The first few years of your Chicken-hood is quite interesting. Would you ever consider writing a book about those first couple of years? Because it really has a legendary feel to it.
CHICKEN: That has been suggested to me before and I’m working towards something like that.
HOVG: To be honest, there are only two mascots that I associate as being at “the next level”. It’s you and the Phillie Phanatic. In that order. You came first though, so obviously you are number one on that Mt. Rushmore. You were one of the first mascots that I really associated with a team. The other day, my Dad said that the first time I saw you was probably in an old Baseball Bloopers video that I got for my birthday when I was five years old. You were doing the moonwalk on the dugout. So I imagine that your story is very rare and that not many people can relate to you and your story.
CHICKEN: It’s an “Only in America” story. That’s for sure.
HOVG: There is something wonderful about it. You didn’t set out for this life. You were just smart enough to recognize a golden opportunity when you found it.
CHICKEN: This is as organic as it gets. The interest in it was genuine and grew from word of mouth. This wasn’t done electronically, or having the internet to draw attention to it.
HOVG: Yeah, there was no Facebook, Twitter, or social media for it to find an audience, so to have a whole city up in arms over a radio station firing a guy in a chicken suit…that is the ultimate American dream story.
CHICKEN: You put it very succinctly, my friend.
HOVG: I wanted to ask you…was it difficult to face a radio station in court?
CHICKEN: Yes, absolutely. But I knew it was the right thing to do. Don’t forget, I was an employee who was making hourly wages. Minimum hourly wages! So taking me to court and knowing they could crush me, just through financial attrition, they assumed they would win. If you can’t afford a defense, you just…don’t. You walk out with your tail between your legs. But, I decided that this was something I had to do. I went into deep debt fighting them. It was the “Grand Hatching” night that saved me. Here is something you don’t know Lou, I made a special deal with the Padres front office that on my first night back for an attendance clause. They granted me $1.50 for everyone that I could draw over their average attendance. I gotta tell you, when they agreed to it they were just humoring me about it. The Padres were a second to last place team. They were playing Houston that night, also a losing team. Low and behold, we drew 47,000 people that night. Because of that, the Padres had to pay me close to $40,000 that night. Fun fact that someone told me years later, the highest paid baseball player that night was Rod Carew at $4,500. I was the highest paid sports personality in the world for that one night.
The Hall of Very Good™ Class of 2014 is presented by Out of the Park Developments, the creators of the wildly popular baseball simulation game Out of the Park Baseball. Out of the Park Developments has made a generous donation to The Hall.