"When I first started this gig I wanted to do something that would reach the adults," Giannoulas says. "It would have been easy just to go for the kids, but in a furry costume, anybody could do that. I saw the Chicken as a visual comedian."
Rather than confining him to a narrow range of comedy, Giannoulas found that the Chicken costume liberated him. The Chicken, in fact, became his alter ego. He never took the suit off in public or allowed himself to be photographed without it on. "It would be great for my ego to be recognized out of the suit," he says, "but when I was growing up, I was fascinated with the Batman mystique and I wanted to create a character of my own. I didn't want people to think of the Chicken as a man in a costume. I don't want the person underneath to supersede the Chicken. I don't want them to say, 'Hi, Ted, how are you?' I want them to talk to the Chicken. There's no fear of rejection as the Chicken."
After four years of building what Giannoulas calls his "power base" in San Diego, the Chicken went on a road trip last season that took him to eight major league cities. "The Chicken's signature bit is the lifting of his leg on some authority figure," says Giannoulas, "so everywhere I went these dignified general managers would ask me to be sure to lift my leg on the umps."
When his odyssey took him to Philadelphia, he and the Phillie Phanatic staged an all-out battle for supremacy. The show staged by the Chicken his first night in Veterans Stadium so overwhelmed the game itself that the next day's local papers buried reports of the action between the Phillies and Padres beneath an orgy of Chicken commentary.
One of the first things the Chicken did that night in Philadelphia was pull up a chair alongside Mary Sue Styles, the blonde ball girl who for the past six years has been the queen of the Phils' foul lines. Dave Raymond, the Phillie Phanatic, recalls what happened next with a certain awe and incredulity. "He got out there where Mary Sue was sitting in the outfield," Raymond says, "and while he was talking to her, he kept moving closer and closer to where she was sitting. Then all of a sudden he did some things that weren't too family-oriented." Says Styles huffily, "Anyone but a Chicken would have gotten arrested."
The Chicken's best—and cleanest—bit came after the sixth inning, when he went out to run the bases. As Phillie Shortstop Larry Bowa fielded a practice grounder, the Chicken took off from second base, heading for third. Bowa played along by tossing the ball to Third Baseman Mike Schmidt, who tagged the Chicken as he dived headfirst into the bag à la Pete Rose. On the spur of the moment, Giannoulas decided to mimic TV's instant replays by walking slowly backward to where he had started his slide and then, in slow motion, diving once again into third. They are still talking about that bit in Philadelphia.
It was while Giannoulas was on tour with the Padres that Braves owner Ted Turner made his now-famous offer of $100,000 a year to get the Chicken to leave San Diego and come to Atlanta. "He told me that I'd never be nothing if I stayed in San Diego," Giannoulas says, "but that if I came to Atlanta, he would make me a big star. He also kept asking me if my name was really Ted, like he couldn't believe that we both had the same name. Then he pulled out one of his business cards and wrote 'To my pal, Ted' and he put a figure on it and told me to think it over."
During a three-day span, Turner's offer and the possibility of the Chicken's departure was front-page news in the San Diego papers and the subject of both print and TV editorials. When Giannoulas finally called Turner to tell him he had decided to stay put, Turner was stunned. He told Giannoulas he had planned to give him an office "right next to Hank Aaron's." But Giannoulas wouldn't budge, and when the announcement was made that night at the Padres game, the players rushed onto the field and hoisted him on their shoulders.
KGB raised Giannoulas' salary from $25,000 to $50,000 a year, and Padre owner Ray Kroc chipped in a $10,000 bonus. With more than a hundred out-of-town appearances lined up for this summer, Giannoulas found himself in position to make close to $100,000. But this prosperity was also the beginning of the end for the original Chicken.
Giannoulas had enjoyed the attention he had received out of town, and he was eager for more. Secretly, he began to plot a way to free the Chicken from what he felt was a petty requirement by the station: that he wear his KGB vest even when he appeared outside the station's broadcast area. Even before he was fired in May for appearing at an NBA playoff game in Seattle without the call letters on the vest, Giannoulas had boasted to friends that he had bought the copyright for the Chicken costume from Alinco Products of Salt Lake City—and that soon he would be a free bird.