SAN DIEGO -- Ted Giannoulas savored a mouthful of linguine with clams at his favorite restaurant, Tiramisu Trattoria, as he reflected on over 40 years of working as one of the world's most famous mascots.
A budding journalism major at San Diego State University in 1974, Giannoulas wanted to be an on-air radio talent. Wearing a chicken costume for a local radio station promotion was supposed to be his entry point into the industry, but it turned into a life-changing career.
Embroiled in a legal battle with local rock station KGB over the rights to his creation, Giannoulas put together one of the most publicized media stunts of the late 1970s. He called it the "Grand Hatching," set for June 29, 1979, at a sold-out Jack Murphy Stadium to end his chicken persona's brief absence from San Diego Padres games.
Giannoulas brokered a deal with the Major League Baseball team. The Padres paid him $1.50 a ticket above their average attendance, and by the end of the night he earned nearly $44,000 -- making him the highest-paid sports figure for a single game that year, according to Giannoulas.
Inside a giant Styrofoam egg, Giannoulas entered the stadium on top of an armored car escorted in by two California Highway Patrol motorcycles. The starting time between the Padres and the visiting Houston Astros was pushed back 30 minutes for the event.
A handful of Padres players took the egg off the roof of the car and plopped it onto the infield. One of the players pounded on the egg, a signal for Giannoulas that it was time to do his thing. The egg wobbled around the infield for a few seconds, then the San Diego Chicken broke out, arms wide open while 47,000 fans gave him a 10-minute standing ovation.
"Even Walter Cronkite sent a crew to cover it that night," Giannoulas said. "To get a 10-minute standing ovation like that from 47,000 people who turned out that night was a remarkable outpouring, all done organically -- I didn't have a PR firm or anything like that. To see that outpouring of people out there, it was extraordinary."
The money helped pay for legal costs in the court battle Giannoulas eventually won against the radio station, and jump-started his career as one of the most recognizable mascots on the globe.
A year earlier, Atlanta Braves owner Ted Turner offered the Chicken a contract to work for him, but Giannoulas declined, choosing instead to remain true to his San Diego roots.
"Ted said, 'You come with me, and I'll make you bigger than Mickey Mouse,'" Giannoulas said. "And I just couldn't pull away."
Giannoulas is one of the pioneers for the modern mascots we see entertaining fans at major sports venues today. Quiet and reserved in person, Giannoulas said the chicken suit brought to life his ability to entertain and make people smile.
"It was always in me; it just had an opportunity to come out in the second skin of the Chicken," Giannoulas said. "I never was the class clown, but I always sat next to him in school."
Along with attending sporting events, Giannoulas performed at concerts, parades, trade shows and conventions, along with more intimate settings such as birthday parties, weddings and bar mitzvahs.
Giannoulas used to be on the road 250 days of the year in the 1980s and 1990s. Now 64 years old, Giannoulas is semi-retired but still works a limited number of events a year, including at minor league baseball parks around the country.
"Yes, it is addicting," Giannoulas said about his life as the San Diego Chicken. "But when I put on that outfit, my No. 1 basis was just to work hard, make an impression and make a difference."