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|A Talk with Ted Giannoulas, a.ka. The Famous San Diego Chicken|
Hes one of the undisputed career leaders in the National Pastime. What Hank Aaron is to home runs, Pete Rose is to base hits, and Nolan Ryan is to strikeouts, Ted Giannoulas is to baseball laughter.
Oh, dont worry if one of the names is a bit less recognizable than the others; Giannoulas surely wouldnt mind. After all, hes spent his career shifting attention away from his own person and on to his persona. Thats because the man is a Chicken- The Famous San Diego Chicken, to be exact.
UNITED STATES OF BASEBALL
BY PETER HANDRINOS
|It all started for Giannoulas when he was recruited to wear a rent-a-costume for a hometown radio stations publicity stunt in 1974. He was so good at the meet-and-greet comedy gig that he soon took his own brand of slapstick (Chicken schtick, he calls the routines) to the nearest Major League ball park, one Jack Murphy Stadium.|
From those humble beginnings, an enduring cultural phenomenon was born. In his late 1970s/early 1980s heyday the Chicken was making appearances on network television specials, the Baseball Bunch kids series, and guest spots on the likes of The Tonight Show and David Letterman. His startled-poultry visage made it on to Rolling Stone, to a box of Corn Flakes, to Donruss playing card sets. Always, though, he was a live performer- Giannoulas estimates hes made upwards of 17,000 official appearances over the last three decades, from events ranging from ball games to weddings to big-name music concerts.
The Chicken has been known to dance, juggle, and tumble through the occasional football or basketball contest, but his primary appeal has always been in the game where he started. At this point, its doubtful that anyone alive has visited more ball parks, from the Major Leagues to the Minors and semipro sandlots, or has run into more baseball players and baseball fans along the way.
|Giannoulas was the very first performer to think of a mascot costume as a license to perform gags with everyone from managers and umpires to ball players and fans, and in many ways hes still unique. At least 20 Major League ball clubs now employ fuzzy mascot reps, but none of them come close to Giannoulas in the quantity or quality of their physical comedy. Not coincidentally, none of the anonymous workers are popular enough to command their own four-figure appearance fees, either.|
The 51-year old Giannoulas is cutting back his schedule nowadays- this year hes taken his first extended summer vacation in over 30 years- but hes still manages to work over 100 ball games per year and preside over a popular web site as well as a small licensing / merchandizing empire.
Ted was nice enough to talk about his beginnings, experiences, and perspective during a long distance phone conversation on August 3rd. What came through the line was a joyous guy, one with an obvious appreciation for the game of baseball and his one-of-a-kind role within it. By the time we were through, my face was aching from all the smiling and out-loud laughter.
Millions of fans have known the feeling.
|PH: Theres a familiar story about how you got started as The Chicken because a local San Diego radio station wanted to do a promotion and you were, more or less, simply chosen because you fit their mascot suit. Did you think about performing in public before that moment?|
TG: It was definitely just a happy accident. When I got started, I didnt know there was such a thing as baseball clowns. As a kid, Id seen real brief glimpses of [baseball comedian] Al Schacht and a guy named Jackie Price. Truth be known, when I started doing this I hadnt even heard of a guy named Max Patkin.
PH: Sure. Hes probably best remembered for his brief role in Bull Durham.
TG: I really didnt even know. After Id been in this several years, I reflected back and said I think I remember as a kid . . . And veteran General Managers would tell me, Yeah, there was this guy named Jackie Price and he could do all sorts of tricks and he was great. He could throw two baseballs at two different batters at the same time.
But that wasnt why I got into this. It was just a rock n roll station promotion, just to go to the [San Diego] Zoo and give away candy Easter eggs. All they were paying me was $2 an hour for a one-week promotional stint. That was it.
|You know, I was interested in showcasing my work ethic more than anything else. I wanted to show them how hard I could work, even if it was a silly chicken suit that theyd rented out from a local shop. You know, if this college kid is going to work this hard in a stupid get-up, just imagine how hard hes going to work if we give him a real job.|
After I did that one-week promotional gimmick at the Zoo, in 1974, I asked station executives to stay on and go to the Padres Opening Night. If, for no other reason, just to see free baseball. In a chicken suit, OK, but you cant have everything.
Lo and behold, the station got a mention from one of the writers in the game write-up. And [the radio station] executives said this is crazy. We pay him $4 and we get a mention on the front page of the newspapers. For a last-place radio station, this was big stuff.
PH: You were a journalism student at the time. If not for that stint at the Zoo, do you think you would have just continued with that?
|G: Oh, absolutely.|
In fact, at the time I was in my second year in college [at San Diego State University], and I had an interview to be a cub reporter. A veteran editor, he knew my writing, and he told me, hey, this would be a good start if this is what you want to do. He put in a strong recommendation for me, so I think the job was mine for the taking. But the interviewer was away at the vacation, and it was during that one week vacation, when he was out, I fell into the opportunity with KGB radio. And I never went back for that interview.
I did love journalism and I got my journalism degree, though.
PH: The thing about your career is the way that it combines baseball and comedy. Was the game a particular interest for you as a kid?
PH: Were you thinking about comedy as well, growing up? I think about Charlie Chaplin a lot when I think about your routines.
TG: Yes, and Harpo Marx, Peter Sellers. Jackie Gleason may be the most underrated comedian of his time. People like the Three Stooges. They could reflect a mood just by the way their bodies worked, whether their shoulders were slumped or the way they walked.
But you know, Peter, I was also influenced guys like Robert Klein and, later on, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin. They inspired me because they were, on stage, doing creative things, going into topics that had never been broached. Richard Pryor, of course, in the way that he would bring characters to life. Steve Martin, in the way he would do prop comedy in addition to a superb monologue.
|It inspired me to think outside the box. These guys could stand up there, with a microphone, and go to new frontiers. [I thought] I could do the same as a visual comic at large in a baseball stadium environment.|
PH: Its interesting that you were so impressed by monologue comedians as well, because I think youre usually perceived as a slapstick comic or even, I suppose, a mime of sorts.
TG: I just wanted to merge my love of comedy for my genuine love of sports, especially baseball, in order to produce this unique act.
PH: But how did you do it? What I mean is, in looking at your clips over the years, the remarkable thing is that youve built, OK, the name and the costume and some very, very funny physical comedy, but beyond that, a skewed, silly kind viewpoint for all the above.
TG: I like that. I never thought of it in those terms.
Hey, there were plenty of costumes, you could go to what-have-you. Basically, I thought of doing this as, because I was such an admirer of the man, a fuzzy kind of Harpo Marx. The way I looked at it, Peter, Harpo had a costume as well, only his didnt have a beak on it.
PH: In the past, youve said I still dont have a real job, but The Chicken jobs really, really tough, in terms of the hot costume and physical aspect. I mean, youre basically a highly-trained acrobat and improv actor.
|TG: I look at this way- its work! It requires a lot of physicality and stamina.|
You want talk about walking a tightrope? You got two minutes, live, to go out and do something on the field and when you exit of the premises, they better be laughing. No second takes, you gotta do it live, everybodys got to be on the same page and whos on the same page? People who came to the park with no idea they were going to be involved in a comedy bit until they were asked.
But at the same time I definitely dont have to drag myself to it every day. Its one of those things- if you could think of something you would do for free, what would it be? For me, it was being a comic of some kind. Once I figured, OK, I can get paid to do this . . . even better! Its professional trick or treat, in essence.
PH: The Famous San Diego Chickens been a feature attraction in the game now, for over three decades now, with audiences ranging from 5-year olds to 75-year olds. Im not sure that any comic out there has played for more live fans. Have you thought about why youve been so popular for so long?
TG: I thought to myself- what would make me laugh if I were sitting in those seats? I wanted to create a persona. If youre just walking around to an audience and waving . . .
|n fairness to a lot of these other guys [Major League mascots], I dont think the teams want them to do a lot of bits. They feel a lot safer just being a benign character for children, just pat them on the head, pose for pictures, and youre done. But Im my own Chicken, so to speak.|
PH: Do you still develop new material? What are your sources for ideas?
TG: I still develop new material. I get ideas from a new song, or a comedy sketch, or someone might utter a line, or a suggestion might come from a ball player or an umpire or a manager or a coach, even a fan.
Ill give you an example. One time, years ago, Darrell Evans was the third baseman for the Giants when they were opening up here in San Diego. He made four errors in the first two games, which was a record to start off the season. And the third day the paper had an article about Evans, how he was pretty level-headed about things, had a sense of humor about himself, and took things in perspective.
Anyway, on the third night, he made his fifth error! And while Im in the grandstands, there, one of the fans said to me, Chicken, if I were you, Id go out there and check that mans glove. Great idea!
|So, when Darrell Evans took the field in the next inning, I trotted out there and asked him if he could hand me his glove, which he did, and I started holding it up to the light to see if there were any holes in it, punching at it, in and out, and theres Darrell Evans there, hands on hips, allowing himself a laugh.|
PH: Youd figure, with so much frustration in the game, theres a real need to let off some steam. Have you had favorite ball player accomplices for your bits?
TG: Oh, there were so, so, so many. So many.
The bigger names included guys like Johnny Bench, who I did The Baseball Bunch show with, guys like Burt Blyleven, Don Sutton. Pete Rose, believe it or not, was a big fan of The Chicken before it was cool to be a fan. The whole Big Red Machine team of the 70s was fantastic. Every team that came [to San Diego] was great. The We Are Family Pirate team was sensational.
In the American League, guys like Rick Dempsey. His parents were in vaudeville, and he was fabulous. Earl Weaver introduced me to him when I was doing Spring Training down in Puerto Rico one year. [Weaver] said (laughs) I have to introduce you to Rick. Youre going to love Rick. And he was great, weve done a lot of schtick over the years.
I have to say, many Hall of Famers were great, great guys. The list is as long as my arm.
|PH: Id figure a sense of humor would be a great asset for a ball player, considering how stressful the job can be on the field.|
TG: Peter, even General Managers in the Major Leagues would tell me, privately, how do you get our guys to goof along with you in front of 40,000 people and we cant even get them out for a 45-minute session at a shopping mall?
Basically, I just try to appeal to their sense of humor. Id say to them- its a laugh for kids, first and foremost. So guys who normally wouldnt play along would play along. For example, Carlton Fisk was supurb.
PH: Carlton Fisk?
TG: Ill put Carlton Fisk against anybody. Youd figure hed be a game face kind of guy, the last to play along, but, man, he was great with me. A guy like Willie Wilson never really goofed off at all, but with me, he was sensational. And, of course, guys like [the late Dan] Quisenberry.
PH: What were some of your favorite routines?
|TG: Back when, it wasnt uncommon for me to do 15 separate appearances in one day for the station around ratings season, or for me to do three sporting events in one day. If you count all kinds of appearances . . . Im going to guess, its got to be, 15,000-20,000. If you count all these appearances, and that means television as well, all sports, conventions, parades, even birthday parties, bar mitvahs, weddings, everything.|
Im going to guess, conservatively, a total live attendance of over 65 million over the last 31 years. And thats on the conservative side.
PH: Im not sure theres anybody in baseball whos been to more ball parks, either.
TG: Wow, Id estimate, honestly, close to 500 ball parks. Ive been to all 50 states, eight countries, four continents. I got to know quit a bit about ball park architecture because, for me, every ball park was a different stage- Id have to learn it inside and out.
PH: Not to mention stuff like the dozens of commercials, the White House appearance for President George W. Bushs T-ball tournaments, you name it. Is there anything youre still aiming for?
TG: Oh yeah, Id like to do, perhaps, a comedy special. Ive been involved in a few, but only as a guest. I think something could be done along those lines. I still havent done a Chicken Book of Memoirs.
|As for performances or appearances, back in the day, I would have enjoying going back to Montreal and doing a game for the Canadiens at the old Forum. That was a boyhood team for me growing up as a boy in London, Ontario.|
Ive never done Yankee Stadium and, by the same token, Fenway Park. Boston! Bostons the only Major League city Ive never performed in for any professional sport whatsoever, in all of North America.
PH: Thats strange.
TG: The fans look pretty good, like theyre energized, like theyd appreciate a good sense of humor. But the management in both locales look like theyre pretty close to the vest about things, and always have been.
PH: Do you have any favorite destinations for your Minors appearances?
TG: Its hard to beat Indianapolis, maybe the most underrated sports city in America.
TG: Oh, man. Those fans dont get their due. Theyve got fabulous facilities there- their Minor League ball park for the Indians is easily the finest in North America for sight lines, for amenities, the wide aisles, the viewing angles, for everything. For my money, you cant beat the Indianapolis fans.
|PH: How about the Majors?|
TG: First and foremost, Id put San Diego with anybody. If youd ask me to rate overall, Id have to be very subjective and say San Diego. They put me on the map, buddy, and that kind of good faith lives forever. Dont get me started about San Diego fans . . . Ill talk a book about them.
PH: One of the things about your act was the fact that, otherwise, the ball field is very much a sacred space for some deadly serious business. You know, this is where Ted Williams once played so we should treat it in some quasi-mystical Field of Dreams kind of way.
TG: You know, Peter, the way I look at it, honesty- Ive traveled around the world and Im here to tell you that Americans have the greatest sense of humor of any people on this planet. And all Im doing is trying to embody that spirit and bring it to a baseball event. Were still hanging on to this notion- sometimes by a thread- that to the notion that this is just entertainment for us.
PH: As opposed to a business or mythology-
TG: The Chicken is just a different form of the entertainment, in the game.
|PH: Over the more than 30 years youve been performing in ball parks and with baseball fans, how has the game changed? What do you see in 2005 that you wouldnt see in, say, 1975?|
TG: Oh, Ive got to say money changes everything. I mean, back in the 70s, entire teams were purchased for amusement. As a hobby. Ray Kroc was an obvious example- he purchased the [Padres] team to keep it in San Diego and have a team to call his own. Back then, it sold for $8 million.
I think ball players- athletes in general!- take themselves far more seriously because of the money. Not only do the athletes take themselves far more seriously, but some of the fans attaching themselves to teams. In a way, I suppose its hard to deny the attitude when they see how much is at stake.
Let me just say this, though, Peter- I saw a lot of these ball players in the Minor Leagues and they struck me as having a lot more fun when they were making a lot less!
PH: Where do you see yourself in the future? Do you think youll ever retire as The Chicken?
TG: Physically, I dont know if I can go all that many more years. But The Chicken will probably get bigger after I leave it, in animation, in film, in television, for years and years to come.
|PH: After all the money, all the moments, all the experiences- what motivates you still?|
To me, its the laughter that counts. If these people didnt laugh, I doubt you would have called me. Buddy, you have not lived until you have heard 40,000 people laughing out loud, from their hearts! Its an amazing avalanche of sound thats impossible to measure, other than to experience it. I mean laughing, laughing. You know the comics go on these talk shows and talk about playing the big rooms in Vegas. Ha! Thats a thousand people, at most. Take that to 40,000 people. Its an incredible sight to see and sound to hear.
Its so beautiful to see. Its so wonderful to see. To hear the audience to respond the way they do, to laugh, and enjoy themselves . . . you know, its a great feeling and its the single greatest motivator I have to this day.
More columns available through The United States of Baseball.