Down on the field the San Diego Padres are mounting a one-out rally in the second inning. The hometown fans, however, are staring toward the seats where somebody in a Day-Glo chicken suit has jumped to his feet. The bird-man struts, leads a cheer, then falls to his knees and clucks Mammy. While the crowd is still smiling, he vaults a railing and webfoots up the aisle toward a young woman 10 rows back. She knows what’s coming and shrieks. In an instant her head disappears inside the giant yellow beak. The stadium erupts. The Padres lose, incidentally, but no matter. The KGB Chicken is again the clear winner of the evening.
San Diego’s fine-feathered friend is really Ted Giannoulas, 24, a journalism graduate from the local state university. Back in 1974, “A bunch of us from radio communications class were sitting around trying to figure out how we could get a job for the spring holidays,” he recalls. When radio station KGB offered two weeks inside a chicken costume as a publicity stunt, he and his pals volunteered. Ted got the job because, at 5’4″, he was the only one the suit fit. His pay was $2 an hour, and his assignment was to give out candy eggs at the city zoo. After two weeks Ted suggested he start showing up at Padre home games.
This year the Chicken will pocket more than $50,000, and station executives say they would like to keep him working for another 20 years. The station has risen from No. 5 to No. 1. Ted has won an Emmy for a KGB Chicken commercial and a commendation from the state legislature for his “comedy contributions to the State of California.” When a regional magazine polled fans of the beleaguered Padres, 11 percent said they came to the games just to see the Chicken.
Although Giannoulas vows to quit “when it ceases to be fun,” that might take a while. Last year he threw out the first pitch at the Padres’ season opener, and in July he turned up on national TV belly-flopping around the bases at the All-Star Game. Teams in both leagues now bid for his services (he’s performed in 13 major league parks so far), Chicken dolls are on the market and his likeness appears on calendars, T-shirts and 7-Eleven Slurpee cups. In San Diego his tongue-in-beak memoirs (From Scratch) are outselling Richard Nixon’s.
For all his success, Giannoulas still lives with his father, John, a carpenter, his mother, Helen, and two younger sisters in a middle-class section of San Diego. His 70-hour workweek leaves “little time to form meaningful relationships,” he reports solemnly. Perhaps, but a recent KGB-sponsored “Dream Date” contest with the Chicken as first prize attracted 4,000 applicants. The lucky winner earned dinner and the ballet with Ted in costume.
“I’m an entertainer at heart,” he explains. Not everyone understands, however. During one of the Chicken’s appearances at a rock concert, a dumbfounded security guard placed him under citizen’s arrest and had him jailed for battery. The next night, with Padre fans carrying “Free Our Chicken” placards, Ted returned to the stadium in triumph.
“It’s quite a sound to hear a whole stadium laughing,” he says. “If I can make 30,000 people laugh at one time, well, that’s the bottom line. It’s music to my ears.”