|DES MOINES, Iowa In the middle of the sixth inning of an Iowa Cubs minor league game last week, a 55-year-old man in a chicken suit challenged someone dressed as Barney the Dinosaur to a dance-off.
The San Diego Chicken didn’t win it turns out that Barney is a good break dancer but the chicken got the last laugh: While Barney celebrated, the chicken blindsided him to the turf along the first-base line, delighting the crowd on a gorgeous June night.
For 35 years, Ted Giannoulas has jumped and run and flattened Barney at ballparks across America, climbing into a feathered costume to go to work as the San Diego Chicken.
“It’s the one magic elixir that keeps me young,” he says.
Yet the bumps and bruises on Giannoulas don’t heal nearly as quickly as they used to. He is in the twilight of a long and lucrative career playing to audiences large and small, and acknowledged that this could be the San Diego Chicken’s final season.
The gigs aren’t there like they used to be. Nearly every team in the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB have their own licensed mascots a trend inspired in part by the San Diego Chicken’s popularity so many years ago and Giannoulas has cut back his schedule in recent years.
Down from a high of about 250 games each year in his heyday, Giannoulas said he’ll leave his San Diego home for just 50 appearances this summer.
“At the end of this season I’ll make a determination if I think I can go another season. I can’t say for certain. I’ll just see how my body feels, what my energy level might be going forward,” Giannoulas said. “The fun and energy is still at the ballpark. I still get a charge out of it.”
Being the San Diego Chicken or the Famous Chicken, as he’s also called might seem like an easy way to make a buck. In fact, Giannoulas expects to pull in six figures this summer (he won’t say how much).
But it’s a grueling night of high-energy, slapstick comedy for the 5-foot-4 Giannoulas, whose suit gets so hot he jokes his “eggs come out hard-boiled.” And contrary to what many might believe, Giannoulas is the only one who’s ever worn it.
He will perform three to four times a week from June through early September, with nearly every appearance in a different state. He’s helped by a traveling three-man staff to put on what top assistant Dave Barac likens to a “play in a sports venue.”
Giannoulas and his staff arrive at the ballpark three hours before the first pitch. Umpires, coaches and players are prepped on Giannoulas’s plans, and staffers huddle with the front office and the operations crew about music and logistics. There’s also plenty of chicken merchandise to hock.
The 29-year-old Barac, who holds a master’s degree in business finance from Toledo University, said he loves seeing the country, watching baseball and working for the energetic Giannoulas.
“Ted is an amazing individual. I’ve never seen anyone work as hard as him. I just try to catch up,” Barac said.
The famous gags, which are all copyrighted, have evolved to the point where Giannoulas has about 100 to chose from.
The classics, though, rarely change.
The San Diego Chicken still harasses umpires with an eye chart and a sandwich board that reads “Will Ump For Food.” The Barney bit is also a keeper, as are the gyrations of disgust and exhilaration in support of the home team.
But Giannoulas now gets his laughs almost exclusively in the minors. A pioneer in sports marketing who has seen its evolution firsthand, Giannoulas believes that many pro sports teams aren’t willing to have their own mascots upstaged by an old-school chicken.
“I find that the ‘boys of summer’ spirit still exists quite a bit in the minor leagues,” Giannoulas said. “Big league sports have obviously gotten very, very corporate and very button-down in their approach. And while I still enjoy it, let’s face it. The game, in general, at the corporate level, at the major league level, is not as colorful as it used to be.”
After meeting so many people over the years, Giannoulas can’t make an appearance without running into someone with a story to tell. In Iowa it was catcher Chris Robinson, who recalled watching him as a youngster 18 years ago in his hometown in London, Ontario. That’s also where Giannoulas grew up
“You can tell by the crowd how much fun they have, and he’s famous for a reason, right?” said Robinson. “It’s an honor to be from the same hometown as the San Diego Chicken.”
Sitting in a cramped room in the bowels of Principal Park about two hours after the final pitch, Giannoulas took off his stuffy chicken head, took a seat on a folding chair with a cup of water and wrapped some towels around his neck like a middleweight in his corner.
Giannoulas was worn out, but the night was a success. When it all goes according to plan like that, Giannoulas said it’s tough to imagine walking away from a character that’s been his life for 35 years.
“Sometimes, I think when I’m wearing this chicken suit I can live forever. I’m not kidding, man,” Giannoulas said. “I’m the class clown, and I have the whole ballpark as my room.”
15 June 2009
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