Famous Chicken just can't stay cooped up

Even 39 years into a most distinguished mascot career, it's still good to be The Famous Chicken. Wendi Kaminski/Getty Images

As someone who’s performed in five different decades, The Famous Chicken knows he’s no longer a chick.

Arguably the world's most famous mascot, the Chicken has crossed the road more times than he can count and now, in his 39th year, he’s had to make some slight concessions to the mileage on his yellow feet.

“Oh yeah,” says Ted Giannoulas, laughing. “I used to do a Pete Rose imitation around the bases, complete with head-first dive into third base. That’s a little hard for me to do. And I used to do, a la James Brown, splits in some dance routines. I can’t do that anymore.”

Yet Giannoulas, 58 – the man inside the feathers since the 1970s – has otherwise not changed his approach to an act that’s been making fans laugh since The Big Red Machine was winning pennants and Jamie Moyer was 12. He has no plans to retire.

“I’ve got to at least outlast Jamie Moyer, right?” he says of the Rockies’ 49-year-old pitcher. Plus, a 39th year demands at least a 40th -- or more. He doesn’t have to be The Famous Chicken (aka the San Diego Chicken) anymore. He wants to do it.

“It keeps me young,” says Giannoulas, who once did the act 250 days a year but now works mostly in the summer. “Sometimes I’m out there performing in that outfit and I feel I could live forever.”

As Giannoulas gets ready for this year’s schedule of appearances at ballparks across the country, he talked about his career and what it’s like to be what he calls “the Minnie Minoso of mascots.” Some of his observations:

On his longevity: “I’ve been around so long that I’ve used kids in my act that are now playing major league baseball. For example, when Nick Swisher was 4 years old in Norfolk, Va., I dressed him up as one of the Chicken babies. … Tony Gwynn Jr., when he was about 5 years old, was a Chicken baby. And there are a few others who are on the Triple-A level who were involved in my act.”

On keeping fit to do the act: “Well, I don’t work out other than being in the costume. Although I will go for walks to limber up and do some stretching techniques. I just try to make it an animated character and it just comes from within. … I hate to say it comes naturally to me, but it comes naturally.”

On his physical flexibility: “I played hockey growing up in Canada, and I was a goalie. So I was used to wearing a lot of gear, wearing a mask there as well, and dropping to the ice and making saves and getting up again quickly.”

On performing at minor league games: “Quite honestly, I enjoy the minor leagues quite a bit. You still get a sense of the 'Boys of Summer' spirit down there. But the minors have changed. It’s almost a gray area now. You can’t say, when you look at some of the cities that are supposedly minor league -- they’re major league in so many ways and so many other sports. Buffalo, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Nashville are minor league in name only. They just happen to have a minor league baseball team.”

On why his act still works: “If I say so myself, it’s funny. Humor never has a shelf life. I’ve reflected on it over the years. There is no society, no culture, no country that has a greater sense of humor about itself than America. … I mean I’m waddling proof. I’m earning a livelihood in a chicken suit. What does that tell you about our culture?”

On the fact he talks to fans: “I’m in character all the time, but I talk to them as a chicken. I don’t stay muted. Kids come up and they want to talk, and they want an answer, and I talk to them. Adults come up, they want to talk and I converse with them. I’ve done that since day one. … I just thought, as an aside, it would be rude if people came up to talk to me and I didn’t answer.”

On being anonymous when he takes the suit off: “I like it. It’s the best of both worlds. Not that that my ego wouldn’t mind it the other way, but I decided a long time ago, let the Chicken get all the attention; I’ll stay low-profile.”

On how long he can keep going: “I didn’t think I’d be doing it this long, quite honestly. … The way I’m looking at it, I’ve got to at least do 40 years now that I’m this close. And then I don’t know. But I didn’t think I’d be doing it for 10 -- that was unheard of. And then 20, that was preposterous. Then 30, that was outrageous. And now I’m at 39 and that’s Chicksanity.”