It must have been 10:30 or 11 p.m. in San Diego when the porter with the mustache and the vacuum cleaner approached Ted Giannoulas and asked him to lift his feet so he could clean the floor. Giannoulas smiled weakly and took another slurp of 7 Up. Some of it dribbled down his chin. "There was a time once when I washed dishes and bused tables at a Howard Johnson's," he said. "I was also a boxboy at a supermarket, and I mopped floors, too." Giannoulas stared at the porter and then said, "I actually did those jobs."
His performance at the San Diego Sports Arena earlier that evening hadn't been one of his best, so he was truculent and, besides, he had a cold. Some disc jockeys at the radio station for which he worked had taken his customized van to Los Angeles for a rock concert, and the van had been filled with his props. "I don't know," he said. "Some days I wish I wasn't a Chicken."
At the time, Giannoulas had no way of knowing that within two months this idle wish would come true, that he would be summarily stripped of his feathers as the result of legal action taken by San Diego radio station KGB. His plucking came at a time when Giannoulas—the KGB Chicken—was riding the crest of a wave of popularity. His appearances at San Diego Padres home games, at hundreds of other San Diego sporting events, at concerts and at supermarket openings had helped keep KGB high in the ratings from 1974 to 1978. In one poll of Padre fans, 11% said they came to games just to see the KGB Chicken.
The Chicken is the most visible—and perhaps most risible—member of a subculture of professional mascots and bleacher creatures that has sprung up across the land. "Even Elvis had his imitators," the Chicken says. "Now there are geese, kangaroos, beavers—I guess I've really spawned something." Says Tubby Raymond, whose son Dave dresses up as the Phillie Phanatic at Veterans Stadium, "I used to be known as the Delaware football coach. Now I'm known as the father of a green transvestite."
September 16, 1979
The mascots, or cheerleaders, or whatever it is they are, have become an almost standard adjunct of the American sports scene, and the affection felt for the best of them is deep and abiding. Only a few sour notes have been sounded, including one by Montreal Pitcher Bill Lee, who, until the whatevers came along, had cornered the market on weirdness at the ball park. "It gives youth the wrong impression of baseball," Lee said. "All that irrelevant stuff like those Chickens.... It encourages kids to eat junk food at those fast-food chains and that'll kill 'em."
"Every cheer I do," insists Krazy George, "people yell. I just don't accept people not cheering. I say, if you don't yell, I'm gonna knock your teeth out!' That really works. I also tell people that if they can't cheer, 'Get out of the section!' People want to yell, they want to support their team."
Krazy George is George Henderson, a 35-year-old former schoolteacher. For four years he taught electronics and shop at Buchser High School in Santa Clara, Calif., but cheerleading required his full-time attention. Besides, says George, "I'd have gone crazy if I'd stayed in teaching. I wasn't too effective as a classroom disciplinarian."
Krazy George has been a cheerleader for 11 years, though he has made money at it only for the last four. During that time he has flogged his tonsils for the Kansas City Chiefs, Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints of the NFL; the British Columbia Lions of the Canadian Football League; the San Jose Earthquakes, Oakland Stompers, Dallas Tornado and Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL; and the Oakland Seals and Colorado Rockies of the NHL. He works all the home games of the Chiefs, Earthquakes and Lions, and 20 to 30 of the Rockies' games in Denver. He makes $500 to $1,500 an appearance.
At Rockies games, Krazy George doesn't merely lead cheers, he orchestrates them in the manner of, say, a malevolent Georg Solti. Once during a Rockies game Krazy George became so incensed at the McNichols Arena public-address announcer for interrupting him with messages about upcoming games that he incited his section to chant the ominous mantra "Shut up! Shut up!"—until the P.A. man was silenced.
Henderson was not always this way. He was, he says, painfully shy until he was almost 21. When he finally did find a comfortable place, the campus at San Jose State (he had previously spent three years at Napa College), he stayed for eight years. "I was brilliant," Henderson says. "You have to be brilliant to go to college for 11 years, which I did." He says that most of his years at San Jose State were almost totally devoted to the Spartan judo teams; at the time, the San Jose State squad had embarked upon its streak of consecutive national titles, which now stands at 18.
Henderson didn't go to many football games during his first six years in college, but with a drum, a quart of tequila and friend Don Bogden for company, he showed up at one of San Jose State's games in his seventh year. "Bogden had wanted to be a cheerleader all his life," George says, "so he would stand up and yell, 'Kill!' Then I'd stand up and yell, 'Kill!' and pretty soon we'd have a whole crowd of people gathered around us. Every once in a while I'd threaten somebody if they didn't yell 'Kill!' My eighth and ninth years in school I was an elected cheerleader, which meant nothing because I never worked with the squad. I just roamed around the stands beating my drum. I figure you can either do the routines they do, or you can get more people yelling. Cheerleaders—boy! They tell you to always look at the crowd and smile. I never smile. They tell you never to go into the stands, but I never work anywhere else. I want my people to see me sweat. And they teach cheerleaders to do all these incredibly complicated routines, which nobody can possibly remember. So none of my cheers is more than two words long."
An example of this is Krazy George's GO cheer, in which the sections in the arena successively yell the word GO. Two years ago he was leading the GO cheer during a game between the Rockies and the Montreal Canadiens, and as he recalls, "Each time that the cheer came around to the section where Montreal's bench was, the players stood up and shouted GO with the fans." The Canadiens won easily, and as they were skating off the ice, Defenseman Serge Savard beckoned to George and said, "You have more noise here than we have in Montreal during the playoffs." Then he handed George his stick and skated away. "The Canadiens are a classy team," says George, "but they are so ugly. Boy, have they got a lot of ugly players on that team."
The summer following their first season (1977), the Rockies conducted an informal survey in Denver's downtown shopping area, asking people if they could identify any of the team's players. "About 80% of them said they couldn't name any," says team P.R. Director Kevin O'Brien, "but they thought we had some wild-looking guy with curly blond hair who beat a drum. We didn't really have any players to promote, so we built George up to such an extent that he became our advertising vehicle."
George's trademark is his entrance. At various times he has arrived at sporting events by ambulance, by helicopter, by chariot and by hang glider. "One time the guy who was towing the hang glider got going too fast, and he didn't stop when he was supposed to," recalls Krazy George. "So there I was, 40 feet in the air, and I came straight down and landed on the team that was waiting to be introduced. Fortunately, it was the visiting team. Turkeys."
Andy Warhol once said, "In the future everybody will be world-famous for at least 15 minutes." By Warhol's clock, Rollen F. Stewart still has about 10 minutes of fame left in him. For 2½ years, Rock 'n' Rollen, as he bills himself, has been making unscheduled appearances—more than 60 by last count—on network sports telecasts. You've seen him. He's the guy with the rainbow-colored head and the boogie-woogie shoes.
When he isn't crashing sports events, Stewart, 34, can be found on an 80-acre, erstwhile rock ranch in Cle Elum, Wash. That's rock as in stone. Rollen used to sell his crop to local sand and gravel companies for crushing, and thus had the ideal no-work, all-pay business. This spring, the rocks ran out, so Stewart has been living off an inheritance and a few fees he has gotten for making appearances at stores and for promoting a beer.
Rock 'n' Rollen was born on New Year's Day 1977. "I was always Rock 'n' Rollen in my heart, I just didn't realize it," he says. "The colored-hair thing came to me in a Technicolor dream. It was like a vision. I think of myself as a prophet, and part of my mission is to tell the world to shape up."
Another part of his mission is a quest for the perfect close-up. "For the first six months my wife and I did this together," Stewart says, "then she moved to Hawaii, very suddenly." The breakup of this marriage, his second, followed, but Rock 'n' Rollen went on. "When I started doing this I decided I didn't want to be just a background shot—I wanted closeups. I wanted to become well known in the shortest period of time possible, so I was looking for shows with audiences of 50 or 60 million people. Most of those are sports shows.
"My record for getting on TV at national events is about 65-9. I always try to get to the arena early so I can check the camera locations and position myself properly. At the World Series I try to sit behind home plate, because that's where most of the shots are."
Although he has become a nuisance to cameramen and announcers, Rollen is popular with the crowds. "The people enjoy seeing me," Stewart says. "I have no fear walking down a street in New York or in Chavez Ravine at night because, hey, nobody knocks a rainbow. In Finland I'm known as the 'many-colored lid.' I'm Now, I'm Today. You can let me off on any street corner in the world, and somebody will come up to me and say, 'I've seen you somewhere.'
"I used to just get out the TV Guide and schedule my trips from that. Over a two-year period I've spent less than $15,000 in expenses and gotten about $5 million worth of prime-time exposure. The day after last year's World Series I watched all the news programs I could in Los Angeles and Seattle, and I saw myself 26 times. All right! I was trippin'.
"I'm never invited anywhere, I never have a ticket, and nobody ever knows I'm coming. The All-Star baseball game was the last national shot I got. And I did the solar eclipse in Seattle. I stood on a hill, and when people couldn't look at the sun anymore, they looked at my hair so they wouldn't hurt their eyes." The hair, by the way, is an Afro wig that Stewart has dyed with food coloring in skunklike stripes of purple, blue, green, yellow, orange, pink and red. Underneath, Rock 'n' Rollen is bald.
Stewart seldom is paid for his game appearances. In fact, there are many teams that would pay him to stay away. "He's not really welcome at our games," said Rick Welts while he was the Seattle SuperSonics' director of public relations. "We've had a lot of complaints from fans because he just goes wherever he can find a TV camera, and he doesn't care whose view of the game he blocks."
Rock 'n' Rollen considers such criticism part of the mountain he has to climb to become a legend. "You have to pay your dues," he says. "Nobody makes it overnight. I want to go real fast, and I set high goals for myself. Superman is the number one hype right now, but my time will come. During one month I'll be on the cover of the seven major magazines, I'll be at the very height, the talk of the town. Then I'll come down very slowly. I'll be free to make five or six personal appearances a year, get into the 22% tax bracket. John Travolta and some of these people aren't able to handle it when they're hoisted up so fast. I'll handle it."
With the possible exception of Cracker Jack, no single item among all the goodies that Americans consume at sporting events is more closely identifiable with the ball park than peanuts. Not only do they taste good, but it's also nice to sit in the shade of the old ball yard shelling a bag of goobers—and knowing that some poor slob other than you is going to have to sweep up the mess.
At Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, peanut eaters used to be able to buy a five-ounce bag of All American nuts for a quarter. Then inflation sent peanut vending into turmoil. Single bags replaced double bags. Double bags—containing considerably fewer peanuts than the old doubles—came back. Bags became progressively lighter, then suddenly heavier, and inside were Chipper's nuts instead of All American. The tab rose to 50¬¨¬®¬¨¢.
If Bowie Kuhn kept changing the size and shape and weight of the baseball, where do you suppose most of the pitchers in the big leagues would be today? Selling insurance, that's where. But have the changes in the bags and nuts affected Roger Owens, Dodger Stadium's Peanut Man? Not one little bit. The Peanut Man just goes right on letting the bags fly—behind the back, under the leg, curvenut, knucklebag, changenut, fastnut, all the pitches that have kept him on top for 21 years.
You may have seen the Peanut Man. He taught Johnny Carson his between-the-legs shot on the Tonight Show. He has been on with Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, thrown peanuts at a Jimmy Carter inauguration party in Washington and appeared as a celebrity judge on The Gong Show and The $1.98 Beauty Show, which are produced by Chuck Barris, who sits in the Peanut Man's section on the third-base side of the loge level. Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley also used to sit there when he was a city councilman; now Bradley sits at field level. When Owens was married in 1974, the mayor was at the wedding and, along with everybody else, threw peanuts instead of rice at the bride and groom.
"I can't get over all that's happened to me in the past few years, the way people treat me, like I was a celebrity," says Owens. "You keep asking yourself, as a peanut vendor how far can you go? Sometimes I have to look at a bag of peanuts to help me remember where I came from."
Where he came from was East Los Angeles. Owens, who is now 36, attended Manual Arts High School and played on the baseball team with Paul Blair, the outfielder now with the Cincinnati Reds. Owens was the oldest of nine children, all of whom grew up in a two-bedroom apartment. Owens' father is an ordained Baptist minister. Once, as four of his children looked on, the Rev. Owens was shot at point-blank range by two men whom he was trying to stop from harassing his daughter. After the police had arrived and apprehended the men, Owens discovered that some wadded-up religious tracts in his coat pocket had stopped the bullet, which lay spent at the bottom of the pocket.
The Peanut Man began vending for the Dodgers in 1958, their first year in California. It wasn't until about 1964 that he started throwing bags of peanuts behind his back. At first he would toss them only as far as eight or 10 seats away, but these days he hums 'em as many as 40. Now he is so popular that the loge level is populated with long-time customers who won't sit anywhere else. "I've thought many times of moving down to the field-box level," says Jack Helber, a season-ticket holder, "but I don't do it because Roger's not there." When the Dodgers announced his engagement to Cindy Brazil—he had met her at the ball park four years before, when she was only 12 years old—the Peanut Man's fans bought the couple $1,000 worth of wedding gifts.
The great crisis in the Peanut Man's life occurred in 1975 when an ice-cream vendor, trying to imitate Owens, threw an ice-cream sandwich-that skulled a woman. She filed a lawsuit against the Dodger concessionaire, and the team's front office ordered that all throwing of food in the stands cease. "Roger's whole world collapsed around him," says Cindy. Finally, the angry letters to the Dodgers' front office became so insistent that Peter O'Malley, the club president, told Owens he could do his stuff again.
For the Peanut Man, there was nuttin' to it.
Marvin Cooper didn't give it so much as a thought that night in 1970 when he first did what became his shtick before a Baltimore Bullets crowd at the Civic Center. The game had been going along routinely when suddenly Cooper felt the music—not to mention a few beers—in him, and he stood up in the aisle and began to dance. The crowd was turned on. Rather than tossing him out on his ear, someone from the Bullets' front office approached Cooper and asked him if he would consider coming back another night and doing the same thing all over again. Cooper said yes.
As he became better known to Bullets fans, Cooper began to use the name Marvin Gaye—never mind that it was already being used by the real Marvin Gaye—to help promote a singing career he had going on the side. "I thought of using Dancing Marvin," Cooper says, "but that just didn't sound right." It wasn't until 1971 that Marvin Cooper became Dancin' Harry. "I was walking down the street with Gus Johnson of the Bullets," Harry says, "when a kid shouted, 'There goes Dancin' Harry.' I turned to look for this Dancin' Harry and Gus says, 'Hey, that's you.' "
Harry was such an avid Earl Monroe fan that when the Pearl was traded to the New York Knicks in 1971, Harry began commuting to New York to dance at Knick games. When the Knicks won the NBA championship in 1973, Harry became something of a sensation as their good-luck charm. But the dancing, even when embellished with huge hats, flashing lights and gold lame capes, soon began to wear thin on the demanding New York fans. "There was this old guy who was my choreographer," Harry remembers. "We called him Old Timer, and he told me, 'You've got to do something besides dance—it's wearing off. Throw the voodoo on 'em.' I told him I couldn't do that, but eventually I did." Thus the whammy with which he hexed Knick opponents at critical moments.
For a while Harry was a minor celebrity. He endorsed a line of $4.99 basketball shoes. "I used to walk through the playgrounds and hear kids making fun of guys who were wearing Dancin' Harry shoes," he says. "You could hardly run in them without having them fall apart on your feet."
In truth, Harry didn't dance very well and his act became repetitious. With interest waning in New York, he went on the road, working assorted NBA playoffs and World Team Tennis matches. About three years ago the free tickets stopped, the invitations to perform stopped, and the sweet music that made Harry dance finally stopped. "One day the door kinda shut on me," he says. Nowadays he lives just outside Indianapolis, does an occasional bar mitzvah, hustles a little pool and works odd jobs when money is really tight.
Ted Giannoulas was attending a radio communications class at San Diego State in 1974 when a man who said he represented radio station KGB walked in and asked if anyone would like to work for the station as a Chicken as part of a promotional venture. Giannoulas was one of about six people who raised their hands, and he was surprised when he was the one selected for the job. KGB thought it would be a good idea to dress someone up in a Chicken suit and have him stand outside the zoo to give away Easter eggs. Giannoulas was chosen because, at 5'4", he fit the suit. The station offered to pay him $2 an hour, and Giannoulas climbed into the costume.
"By my fourth day on the job," says Giannoulas, "I was sitting in the locker room they gave me at the Wild Animal Park, hanging my head, just looking at that heap of costume and those eggs. Finally, I said, 'I need money, but not this bad.' I made up my mind I was going to quit, but I decided to fulfill my obligation. At the end of two weeks the station massaged my ego, and I stayed." And then, at his own request, the Chicken went to a Padres game.
"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.
It wasn't going to be that easy. KGB fired Giannoulas soon after his Seattle appearance, sued him for $250,000 and got an injunction prohibiting him from performing in the Chicken suit in four Southern California counties and at any game involving a San Diego team until the case comes to trial. The station then enlisted a young employee named Paul Sansone to replace Giannoulas in the suit. "The public responds to the KGB Chicken," said station program director Rick Leibert, "not the man who wears the costume." But the people of San Diego didn't buy it. Many of the 43,142 fans at the May 11 Mets-Padres game booed the new Chicken's debut during a 15-second skit. And the station was apparently not as cocksure as it had proclaimed: it gave Sansone a bulletproof vest to wear for the evening.
KGB soon was under attack from all sides. One employee wrote to The San Diego Union, "KGB employees have been threatened with violence and death. Cars in the parking lot have had their tires slashed and security at the station has been beefed up. Bomb threats are a daily occurrence...history will prove that KGB radio is not the real culprit in this Chicken affair. Ted Giannoulas suffers from a Christ complex. As the Chicken, no one will ever be able to replace him. As a human being, KGB radio is better off without him...."
Giannoulas, meanwhile, had hatched a scheme to cash in on his new notoriety and to test the limits of the court order against him. On June 29 at a Padres-Astros game, Giannoulas "reincarnated" the Chicken in what may have been the most talked-about birth since Lucille Ball had little Ricky while an anxious nation of TV watchers paced their living-room floors. The Padres agreed to give Giannoulas a piece of the gate and then giddily watched 47,022 fans pour into San Diego Stadium. The start of the night's game was delayed 41 minutes to accommodate the spectacle.
Legally enjoined from calling himself a "chicken," Giannoulas cleverly decided not to give his new creation a name. If his audience chose to call him the Chicken, there was nothing he could do about it. Whatever this new creature was, it entered the playing field encased in a large Styrofoam egg atop an armored truck and escorted by two motorcycle officers from the California Highway Patrol. The egg was lifted carefully from the truck by some Padre players and placed near third base, where it began to roll about spasmodically. Then Giannoulas burst through the shell in his new costume to Richard Strauss' Thus Spake Zarathustra.
Giannoulas had tried to diminish the importance of his old costume before the unveiling of the new one, repeatedly asserting that it was his personality that made the act funny. "There's nothing magical about the Chicken suit," he said. "You don't buy a bottle of wine for the container, but for the liquid inside." Still, there was something decidedly less plucky-looking about the new bird, less engaging. KGB, however, thought the new outfit looked too much like the old one, and it subpoenaed Giannoulas on a contempt-of-court charge. The station later dropped that action, after it and the other legal moves against Giannoulas had all but destroyed KGB's standing in San Diego. "We've really taken a beating over this," says KGB General Manager Jim Price. "But now the threats have died down. We knew it would take time for the furor to cease."
Giannoulas continued the act, though there is a latent sadness about him now, an air of cynicism that wasn't there before. His father died at the height of the furor in May, and his friend Ralph Haberman, who had been his assistant almost from the beginning, stayed on at the radio station when Giannoulas was fired. "He sold me out," Giannoulas says. "At the time when I needed a John Wayne figure beside me, I turned around and found Eddie Haskell."