What started in 1974 as a $2-an-hour job promoting KGB-FM radio events blossomed into a lifetime career for Giannoulas, otherwise known as the Famous San Diego Chicken.
For more than 35 years, Giannoulas, an SDSU grad, has performed his acrobatic slapstick-delivered anonymously from within a chicken suit. His longstanding gig has taken him to eight countries and 50 states. He has appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman and clucked around with sitting U.S. presidents, professional athletes and actors, and has been onstage with Cheap Trick, Sammy Hagar and the Ramones.
“It’s very hot,” Giannoulas says of his 10-pound costume, which he has donned for up to14 hours straight, working double-header Padres games followed by rock concerts.
“It’s a low-tech chicken suit, be assured,” he says. “There’s no padding, no fan, no air conditioning. It’s like my own organic rain forest in there-that’s how much I sweat.”
Now 57, Giannoulas still takes his chicken shtick to about three dozen cities each year.
“I still enjoy what I do quite a bit,” he says. “Whether it’s a major town or a small town, it doesn’t matter to me-as long as they laugh at the jokes, I’m loving it.”
Giannoulas was sued by former employer KGB-FM and by the creators of Barney the purple dinosaur, a likeness of which he pummeled during performances in the 1990s.
Through it all, he never chickened out or missed a gig, suiting up for an estimated 7,000 major and minor league baseball games, plus various television interviews, trade shows and parades.
“I gave away the bride at a wedding one time, where the father was snowed-in back east,” he says. “I stepped in and pitch-hit.”
After flying the KGB coop, which he celebrated by emerging from a giant egg during a Padres game at Qualcomm Stadium, Giannoulas tweaked his costume and became a free agent, commanding much higher fees.
Media tycoon and Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner (CNN, TBS) once tried to woo the chicken away from San Diego-to the tune of more than $100,000-but guilt-inducing TV editorials and weepy letters from local children convinced the birdman not to leave.
This summer, Giannoulas was inducted into the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals, which honors the sport’s unsung and atypical heroes.
“I don’t know when I’ll quit,” he says. “I’m sure the Rolling Stones have been asked that question since they turned 30.”