When I was much younger, one of the more enjoyable moments of watching “This Week In Baseball” during the late 1970′s and early 1980′s was seeing highlights that featured “The Famous Chicken,” also known more commonly as “The San Diego Chicken.” Related, it was also fun to see “The Chicken” do his thing, during the early 1980′s on “The Baseball Bunch” show (with Johnny Bench).
However, my “Chicken” viewing was limited to what I saw on T.V. – until 2008.
While attending Lakewood BlueClaws games last year and this season, I was very fortunate to be there while “The Chicken” was making an appearance. It would be an understatement to say he stole the show – both times. It was incredibly great fun.
If you’ve never seen “The Chicken” appear in person, you owe it to yourself to check him out the next time you get a chance.
Recently, I had an opportunity to conduct a “Q&A” with Ted Giannoulas – who has been the man inside “The Chicken” suit all these years. Indeed, he is the one and only “Famous Chicken.” Our exchanges follow herein.
WW: The Chicken has been performing at ballparks and other venues now for 35 years. How have you managed to maintain your zest and energy after all these years and performances?
Giannoulas: I can honestly say that, at the risk of sounding cliche, it’s the audience’s energy I tap into and feed off with real zeal. The laughter, adulation and applause are all currency to any comic and is quite motivational. Hearing the roar cascade from thousands of people in the grandstand each night on my visual jokes is virtually spiritual because you know you’ve touched the hot button on hearts.
It’s like the old adage goes — “Don’t laugh, it only encourages him.” Well, as irreverent of a career as I’ve had, that’s certainly proven true. Man, I love this country!
WW: After what must seem like countless performances, is there one appearance, above all others, that you will always remember because of the energy the audience provided (or because of some other positive reason)? Which appearance was that? On the flip side, has there been one appearance or venue in your career that, in retrospect, you’d like to do differently, or not have done at all – and why?
Giannoulas: Yes, there have been many performances that each had an significant impetus on my career, but there is one defining moment that stands out. It’s my Grand Hatching ceremony at Jack Murphy Stadium (San Diego) on June 29, 1979 when I debuted my new outfit of feathers after being fired by my radio station employers seven weeks previously. This was my first game back, even under the threat of a court order not to appear.
In a story that was actual front page news in San Diego and attracted national attention (even Walter Cronkite dispatched a reporter), the station had filed a lawsuit to prevent me from working in any chicken suit — which I was contesting (and obviously eventually won). Meanwhile, I designed a new costume and presented it in an elaborate ceremony before the Padre game on this night. Baseball historians have called the event, arguably, the greatest promotion in the history of the game.
A sellout crowd of 47,000 (rare back then) turned out for the Hatching, complete with a 10 foot sculptured egg (where I was enclosed), entry onto the stadium field atop an armored truck with California Highway Patrol escort and the assistance of the entire Padre team to lower the egg from the truck rooftop onto the diamond. It was there I hatched to an enormous standing ovation that lasted 10 minutes, even the game time was moved back 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, as for the flip side, there isn’t a game I wish I had done differently or not at all. However, there was a single night at the Continental Arena in New Jersey in the 1980′s that stands out for it’s unique non-reaction from the audience.
I was invited to perform at a MAAC Conference playoff basketball game between Fordham and St. Peter’s where the crowd simply did not care for any of my comedic antics during the game and time outs. Instead, the respective student bodies in attendance were bent on screaming trash talk at each other across the floor throughout the whole game, non-stop. Only when it was time for me to take to the court for my bits, did both sides go quiet, watch the act quietly (without any laughs) and then, upon completion, resumed their loud tirades at one another. It was the only time at a sports event where I felt like a fish out of water.
WW: I would assume that most of your appearances have been at baseball parks with the majority of them being Padres games as that’s where you got started. During your time at the ballparks, were you able to establish any relationships with the players? If yes, are there any players, retired or active, that you consider to be a good friend today? Who is it? Is there someone who you wished you could have had forged a relationship with, in baseball, via your appearances, that you were not able to connect with?
Giannoulas: Actually, I haven’t done as many Padre games after the ’70′s because of the volume of requests I began receiving from other teams across the country, MLB and their farm clubs, to perform for their fans. As a result, for more than 25 years, my career has been a schedule of one night stand engagements, making the premise of developing friendships in the industry a little fleeting.
Still, I can count on many good acquaintances from every era of all sports with all kinds of athletes, broadcasters, executives and officials. The more notable ones in baseball are Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Dave Winfield, Ozzie Guillen, Terry Francona, Ozzie Smith, Bert Blyleven, Rod Carew, the late Ray Kroc, Ted Turner, David Wells, Buck Showalter, Mickey Lolich, Rick Dempsey, Jose Canseco, Bill (Spaceman) Lee, Jim Bouton, Felipe Alou, Don Sutton, umpires Rich Garcia, Don Denkinger, Harry Wendlestandt, Joe West, Frank Pulli, the late Durwood Merrill, all three generations of the broadcasting Careys and hundreds more. They’ve all bestowed immense kindnesses toward me over the years.
Meanwhile, there isn’t anyone in baseball I can think of being curious to meet other than perhaps, the late Bill Veeck. When he ran the White Sox in the ’70′s though, surprisingly, it was the Cubs who reached out and brought me to Wrigley Field as a marquee promotion for several years. What made the situation unprecedented was that, during the ’70′s, the Cubs were the most buttoned down, traditional organization in the game! (Not only did they refuse to play night games at home, they never even sold programs or allowed advertising anywhere, including the beer cups).
After my debut in Wrigley (summer of ’78), the Chicago Tribune ran the headline: Cubs Out-Veeck Bill Veeck. Yet, it would’ve been nice to meet someone who was so fan friendly. The Padres’ Ray Kroc was also immensely favorable to fans and his good faith was a blessed catalyst in my career.
WW: Agreed, it seems like Bill Veeck would have been drawn to The Chicken like a moth to a flame. It’s interesting how things do and don’t work out sometimes. Speaking of legends from baseball’s past, did you ever have a chance to meet Al Schacht and/or Max Patkin? If so, what was the like? And, which current mascot or ballpark performer do you enjoy working with and/or watching – and why?
Giannoulas: I never was presented with the opportunity to meet Al Schacht and only met Max Patkin on three occasions, briefly. Interestingly, I never knew any of them for several years when I began as a mascot for a San Diego radio station and learned of them in the early ’80′s.
Whenever I did meet Max, sad to say, it was a letdown of someone who called himself the Clown Prince of Baseball. He seemed cynical and truly bitter about many things in the game, to put it in the politest terms. Eventually, I also came to learn that he wasn’t very positive about me, either. By the same token, players and umpires privately cringed in discussing him.
As for a favorite current mascot, I enjoy the KC Royals’ Slugger. He’s creative in his bits, original, energized and has the ability to improvise with fans. He’s the best of the MLB characters, but doesn’t get the attention he deserves being in the Midwest (although there’s a cameo shot of him in a current soft drink commercial).
In the college ranks, the University of Florida’s Gator, Albert, always makes me laugh. The turtleneck letterman’s outfit is great, that snout can lip-sync the national anthem and the tail just adds to the humorous ridiculousness of it all as he acts out his sideline bits.
WW: What would be your best advice for someone who expressed an interest in getting into the mascot/entertainer business? Does the old adage of “If you enjoy sausage, don’t ever go work in a sausage factory” apply? Or, do the positives outweigh any negatives? What are the best and worst elements of the job?
Giannoulas: Surely, there are easier ways to work in sports or earn a living than in what I do as a performance comic. Yet personally, I have always enjoyed merging two of my favorite passions, sports and comedy.
But in giving newbies advice, I suggest that they be very knowledgeable of the game, in fact follow it, have a high degree of energy, obviously enjoy people and know who their audience is. In addition, they should obtain an outfit that works well on their body type.
The positives always outweigh the negatives. If you have a creative side, it’s a great outlet to improvise theatrics to a ready audience. If one wishes to further the image of the team or the sport itself, it’s a unique venue to represent because, in a general sense, a mascot does serve as a quasi-ambassador at large.
The negatives are the inherently heated conditions of the work, the painstaking upkeep of the outfit and, for some, the mostly evening hours for the job. If you don’t have a true desire to be at the ballpark, this is not the employment for you.
WW: Speaking of costumes, yours has been on exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum at Cooperstown, New York. How did that come about, and how do you feel about it being there?
Giannoulas: Having me stuffed and mounted (which umpires would wholeheartedly love to see at any time!) in Cooperstown, is truly the highest honor of recognition possible. It’s profoundly touching and it always takes me aback whenever I pause to reflect on it.
In 1999, the Hall made an unprecedented decision and approached me, out of the blue, about making a donation of the chicken suit for their archives. It was unique and historic because, for the first and only time, they reached out to honor an actual fan in the San Diego Chicken. (It should be noted that, despite all the Padre games, I’ve never been their employee. For years, I went to the games without charge and then later they would hire me as an independent contractor, much like a fireworks tech).
A few years later, the Hall also began to collect the MLB teams’ mascot costumes as well. But to my knowledge, they haven’t displayed them for any long period of time as they have mine, which was featured in their seven year national museum exhibit tour, Baseball As America.
Needless to say, being under the same roof with outfits worn by Ruth, Aaron, Robinson and other titans of the game, is as heady as it gets. As a result, I like to think that the Hall not only honors statistics, but lore as well.
Moreover, it’s not lost on me that the only reason – the only one – that my feathers are presented in Cooperstown is because of the fans themselves. It’s of their laughter, their applause and their engaging, good faith embrace of my work that’s brought the attention that it has and for that, I am deeply and forever grateful.
WW: Speaking of the fans, what’s the most common request made to The Chicken by his fans? On the other end of the spectrum, is there one fan request, above all others, that stands out the most to you? What was it and why was it so unique?
Giannoulas: Easily the most common requests are for autographs and personal photos. But while that answer may seem cliche, what’s novel about it is that in 35 years, I accommodate every request of fans, starting late in the game and refusing to turn away anyone on any night. Because of that, I estimate that I’ve signed more than 1 million signatures and posed for hundreds of thousands of snapshots. Those have to be some kind of world records.
Meanwhile, while performing, the most requested inning routine is the Baby Chicks bit where a series of toddlers dress as me and follow onto the diamond to copy my antics. It has become a staple of every performance because of its endearing nature.
One request that stands out happened a few years back in Columbus, Ohio when I was appearing for the Yankees’ top farm club there at the time. A teacher approached me in the grandstand and asked if the class she was accompanying could say hello. I agreed and she then explained that they were all young blind students. As they were escorted to me, they started touching and feeling the whole outfit en masse, like bees on a honeycomb, squealing with laughter in utter delight and awe. I doubt that even lotto winners have been as happy.
What’s significant was that they came to see a visual comic perform and could only watch with their ears as the audience would laugh around them throughout the evening. Yet, they seemed just as entertained and it was one of many moments that will always stay with me.
WW: Well, I’ve seen you perform twice in person. Both times I had my wife and children with me. One time we had both sets of grandparents with us as well. And, I can share that the Baby Chicks routine went over big – with all us, each time. That moment at the Columbus Clippers game is quite outstanding. It’s interesting that the (one-time) Yankees farm club had you appear once, since the Yankees, at the big league level, seem to have a policy about not allowing mascots and the like on the field. Have you ever appeared at Yankee Stadium? Would you like to, if you haven’t? And, assuming the Yankees do have a no mascot on the field policy, what are you thoughts about a big league team having an approach like this towards not allowing entertainers on the field?
Giannoulas: Actually, the Clippers have invited me to perform in 28 out of the last 29 years and I’ve seen many of the current and past Yankee stars play through, from Dave Righetti and Bernie Williams to Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera.
Meanwhile, the farm clubs and MLB teams have always allowed me the free reign to perform with a few, insignificant exceptions in 35 years. That may stem from the trust that I’ve been lucky to accrue of players, umpires and executives in that I never try to impede the dignity of the game with the antics. (In fact, all of them have even suggested sketches for me to improvise during the game, some of which have since become regular Chicken routines).
While I’ve never had the distinction of appearing at Yankee Stadium, I have tried to reach out for an invitation, but received no response in the past. Obviously, the front office culture is buttoned down and that’s to be respected because it succeeds for them. (By the way, the players’ attitude is superb when I’ve encountered them on the road).
Still, it may come as a surprise that I favor the policy of denying mascots field access – for others. Frankly, with all due respect and no offense, many of the characters are unfunny and out of place for the diamond and nothing is an audience buzz-kill than jokes gone flat. The times I take to the field during inning breaks are with a confidence that I’ll exit a minute later with a jackpot gag for the crowd.
WW: Three months ago, you were quoted in an AP feature on The Chicken saying that you would make a determination at year end as to whether or not you would “go another season.” What does the future hold for The Chicken?
Giannoulas: Yes, I’ll be scheduling another summer of games nationwide for 2010. Like anyone else, I make decisions for the future on a relative basis these days, seeing how things like my energy level shake out. Pretty good, so far. No one can play forever though and eventually there may be a consideration to move onto other personal life experiences.
To think that I’ve performed for audiences over 35 years when there are TV sitcoms that don’t even last 35 days says something for its staying power. In a future after I hang it up, the San Diego Chicken can always have life in computer animation, films, merchandising and a variety of other venues. I often wonder what Walt Disney first thought when he drew a caricature mouse on a napkin.
That being said, when the day comes I stop performances at games, I’ll probably still continue with personal appearances for TV commercials, card shows and such, much like retired ballplayers. But as long as I own the character, it’s unlikely I’d send out a protege to take my place.
It’s merely a thought that, just as no one else ever wore Yankee uniform number 3, no one else will don my coat of feathers.
That’s it – and, of course, my thanks to Ted Giannoulas for granting WasWatching.com this interview!