It's dark now, the stadium lights are putting out a glow that spills over into the parking lot, and Ted Giannoulas, a.k.a. The Chicken, is outside, adjusting the hidden belt that holds his tail-feathers in place.

A few minutes later, enveloped in a fuzzy yellow-and-blue fowl costume, The Chichen makes his entrance down the left-center aisle in Section F. "Heeeyyyy, Chick-ennnn!" spectators call out familiarly. Giannoulas: "Alll riiight!"

Once on the field, The Chicken is a nonstop act:

He prances, he dances, he clowns with players and umpires, he slides into home head-first, kills the fans with side-splitting skits, gives the opposition team the whammy and kisses cheerleaders unmercifully.

Hearing a blimp humming overhead, he flinches, wipes his eye as if he'd been hit by a bird-dropping and wags an admonishing finger at the dirigible. Later, he pretends the ball is an egg -- that needs hatching.

At football games, The Chicken grabs the ball and runs 88 yards -- for a mock touchdown. Offered a beer by a fan, he quaffs the brew, then abruptly spits it out his beak -- to a burst of laughter. Later, he's playing sousaphone with the band.

It's clear to anyone that, here in his home city, The Chicken is a local folkhero.Grownups and youngsters alike crowd the aisles to shake his white-gloved hand. His antics -- and problems -- often are front-page news.

But beyond that, in a society cluttered with Ronald McDonalds and Pillsbury doughboys, the zany little bird is fast capturing the hearts of sports fans across the nation.

He's also clucking all the way to the bank. In just 6 1/2 years, The Chicken has hatched from a chance-beginning as a radio station's promotional stunt into a nationally known entity that is fast on its way to becoming a quarter-million-dollar business.

Last year, Giannoulas made 302 road trips for appearances at baseball, basketball and football games around the country, cut local and national TV commercials and did guest spots on the Tonight Show and other programs.

And for 1981, he's planning trips to Japan, Europe and the Carribbean, roles in two nationally syndicated TV shows and moves into new royalty-producing ventures, such as merchandising T-shirts with his logo on the front.

"I don't think The Chicken is yet past the beak of his career, so to speak," Giannoulas says, guffawing shamelessly at one of his own endless puns. s"In fact, I haven't been very aggressive in seeking new ventures."

What's more, Giannoulas -- an earnest, effusive 26-year-old who scurries about in dungarees and lives on pizza and hamburgers -- has done it all singlehandedly, without the big-league merchandising used to plug Goofy and other big stars.

For all his success, Giannoulas still avoids a big-time agent, drives himself to local jobs in a van made over into a rolling dressing room and calls on his mother to help sew his costumes.

His only major setback has been an expensive and sometimes bitter court battle with the radio station over legal rights to the chicken costume, and even that proved a blessing in disguise, gaining him both publicity and new duds.

But to Giannoulas, the secret is not in the feathers or daffy antics. The absurdity of the fuzzy costume may hold the audience for 10 to 15 minutes, he says, but after that it's a matter of improvisation and high comedy.

"The Chicken is a universal character," he says, by way of explanation. "He's not just a human being dressed up in a chicken suit -- he's a chicken trying to act like a human being.

"The Chicken is not white; The Chicken is not black -- he isn't even human," Giannoulas goes on. "People see the Little Tramp in him. He's part Marcel Marceau and part the Three Stooges."

The chicken actually came into Giannoulas' life as a college lark -- in 1974, when Ted was only 20 and a would-be sportswriter and journalism major at San Diego State University.

When a man from a local radio station showed up looking for someone to do a promotional stunt, Giannoulas got the job because, at 5-foot-4, he fit into the required costume. The promo turned out to involve dressing up like a chicken.

The pay was a poultry $2 an hour, but Giannoulas recalls that "we all wanted to get our foot in the door at a real radio station, and we would have done anything -- shine records or even empty trash cans."

When the week-long stint was over, the young man persuaded the station to continue the promo act indefinitely. A few weeks later -- as a ruse to get into San Diego Padres games -- he asked the team if he could go on between innings.

New owner Ray Kroc, desperate to try anything that might shore up flagging attendance, agreed. The Chicken now was fully hatched.

The way Giannoulas remembers it, The Chicken back then was still little more than a walking billboard for the raido station. "I sort of ran around and waved my hands a lot -- scared a lot of babies and that sort of thing," he says.

Over the next year and a half -- and with a new, lighter-weight, more-flexible chicken suit the station later bought him -- Giannoulas discovered the chicken feathers were covering an embryo comedian.

"I'd been harboring these desires inside," he says. "The entertainer in me was being tapped for the first time." Gradually, he began edging into slapstick and comedy shtick. The return was immediate: The bleachers loved it.

But what really made The Chicken a career instead of just a sideline for Giannoulas was the reaction of San Diegoans when he got an offer from Atlanta mogul Ted Turner to move his chicken-suit routine to the Braves' stadium.

Although Turner's proposal was a tempting, near-six-figure bid, the notion that The Chicken might fly the coop seemed to stir Chicken fans everywhere: The flap was front-page news for days. School children deluged him with letters.

When Giannoulas, after a difficult 10 days of decision-making, announced at a between-innings break during a Padres game that The Chicken would stay in San Diego, the game ground to a halt, and the city went wild.

Players carried him off the field on their shoulders. Fans toasted The Chicken in home and nightspots. And Padres owner Kroc gave him a $10,000 thank-you present (Giannoulas' wages were being paid by the station, not the Padres).

It was then that The Chicken saw the sky was falling.

As Giannoulas tells it, the publicity over the Atlanta offer was bringing in more and more bookings for out-of-town appearances, while the radio station was pushing him to do more local promotions. A clash seemed all but inevitable.

In May 1979, the dispute finally reached the boiling point, and Giannoulas was summarily fired as the radio station's official chicken.

Worse yet, from his own point of view, the station also filed suit to bar him from wearing the chicken costume again. It seemed as though The Chicken was headed for the soup.

Later that month, the court sided with the management: The costume was declared the property of the station, and Giannoulas was prohibited from wearing any kind of chicken costume unless it were visibly different from the station's.

Giannoulas immediately cried foul and set out to design a new costume -- "from scratch." The old Chicken had been a lackluster red yard-bird with a dull gold head, yellow vinyl beak and droopy tail-feathers. Not much character, he recalls.

In its place, Giannoulas ordered up an elaborate, nine-piece flaming orange suit with bulging plastic eyes, a wry padded beak, lemon-yellow head, royal blue comb and huge, floppy feet. The tail was upright and sassy.

Next, he planned a mind-blowing comeback. On June 29, the bird returned triumphantly to San Diego stadium, in a spectacle attended by 47,022 onlookers. It could have been right out of the Pink Panther -- had the feline been a chicken.

First, a Loomis armored truck bearing a 10-foot-wide styrofoam egg (ordered from a local TV set-designer) rolled grandly onto the Padres' infield, escorted by a team of highway patrolmen. The ovoidal was lowered slowly onto the field.

To the theme music from the movie "2001," the egg rolled from third base to second ("along the fowl-line," Giannoulas points out), then stopped abruptly. A small explosion, for effect, and The Chicken was born again!

In October 1979 -- to The Chicken's delight -- the lower-court decision was reversed, and the zany bird was Giannoulas' again. But the hassle wasn't entirely over. Six months later, the station filed a second suit, charging the Giannoulas' new chicken-suit was too similar to its own. It also sought $250,000 in damages.

This time, however, Giannoulas got the upper wing. With permission of the local judge, he delivered his testimony -- in costume -- in the first use of live TV in a California court. The result: Chicken 5, Opposition 0.

"We argued that the costume was part of the evidence," he recalls, with a twinkle.

In every middle-class neighborhood, there's always one kid who seems to have been born a veteran showman -- the one who stages vaudeville performances in his backyard or buys a ventriloquist's dummy and hams it up at school.

In many ways, Ted Giannoulas still is living that role: A compulsive worker and performer, he's almost constantly immersed in the business and ethos of comedy -- and almost never turns off the joke machine. His hero is Harpo Marx -- not Emmett Kelly.

To Giannoulas, The Chicken isn't just another drawing card -- it's a vehicle to high comedy. "Give me 45 seconds on any baseball diamond, and I'll guarantee I'll have 50,000 people laughing," he gushes.

What's surprising is that effusiveness comes without fawning or traces of vanity. It's plain in an instant that Giannoulas genuinely gets a high from making people laugh and wants his audience to enjoy it, too.

"The Chicken is wearing a lampshade on his head and getting paid to do it," Giannoulas says, summing up his philosophy and outlook all at once. "Even I don't know what I'm going to do when I put on that second skin."

Unmarried, Giannoulas lives sparingly in his one apparent luxury -- a sprawling $170,000 three-bedroom home in suburban San Carlos, which he bought last May from (it's the honest truth, folks) a family named Fryer.

His workload is mind-boggling by any measure. In 6 1/2 years, he's performed before an estimate 30 million persons.

His schedule last year included 55 Padres games, 80 major- and minor-league baseball events, 10 football games, more than 35 basketball games and 25 to 30 hockey games.

He also strutted at a dozen parades, 40 to 50 shopping-center promotions and a motivation seminar for Reader's Digest. And he's appeared on the Tonight Show (where he led the band in costume), Tomorrow and Real People. t

For such chickennigans, Giannoulas charges clients anywhere from "nothing to unlimited" -- depending on their ability to pay. His highest was just under $10,000 a performance. Hospital visits and school performances are free.

In a typical transaction, the Washington Bullets forked over $5,000 plus air fare for The Chicken's recent one-night stand at the Capital Centre. (The Chicken demanded two first-class tickets -- a separate seat for his costume.)

With his schedule so heavy, Giannoulas expects to gross $150,000 or so this year and is counting on $200,000 or more for 1981. Out of this come his expenses and $1,000 a month for himself. The rest goes into a nest egg.

But as Giannoulas never tires of pointing out, The Chicken is a proven drawing card. At a Denver Bears baseball game last year, for example, he lured 21,000 fans -- triple the usual attendance. In Columbus, he outdrew the Yankees.

Giannoulas' financial scratchings are contained in a single corporate shell known formally as The Chicken's Company, a closed corporation with Giannoulas ruling the roost as president and the firm's only officer.

Company headquarters is in a suite of three sparsely equipped offices in a low-rise downtown office building just seven minutes from the San Diego stadium. The feathery suit and a formal Chicken logo Giannoulas designed were copyrighted in 1979.

The staff is unexpectedly small -- with no apparent pecking-order beyond Giannoulas. Janet Williams, a longtime friend, serves as his administrative assistant. Mike Spendley recently signed on as a sort of stage manager. Williams answeres the phone with no bones about it: "Hello, The Chicken's office," she chirps.

Giannoulas tried employing a booking agent once but dropped him after a few months when the man insisted on stiffer terms for would-be clients than Giannoulas thought proper. His accountant and lawyer are in private practice on their own.

For a chicken, Giannoulas puts in some pretty long hours, usually starting at 8:30 or 9 in the morning and routinely working into the night, arranging his schedule, answering fan mail, planning new skits -- and appearing in costume.

Around San Diego, he travels inconito in a blue-and-gray van littered with used white gloves, extra feet and other spare parts. It's both a dressing room and a car -- "my version of a telephone booth," Giannoulas says. d

As a matter of principle, Giannoulas refuses to be photographed out of costume -- "It adds to the mystique," he insists. At the same time, he never drives in feathers: "Suppose I got stopped by the Highway Patrol?"

Occasionally, however, mischiviousness will take over, and The Chicken will emerge from the dull unmarked van, invade a discotheque -- in full regalia -- and "dance with the women and leave 'em crying for more."

But out of costume, Giannoulas -- a boyish-looking, mustachioed young man with sideburns and a shaggy haircut -- has little time for dates or other sidelines. "I'm literally eating drinking and sleeping The Chicken," he admits.

On the field, Giannoulas' strategy is to try to exploit unexpected opportunities, while trying not to interfere with the game -- a skill he says takes "good timing, a knowledge of sports and a sixth sense."

"I always try to shoot for the adults," he says. "The kids aren't the challenge. You keep it simple: Less is more. And believe me, no one's laughing harder than I am. Underneath that fur, I'm having the time of my life."

Giannoulas' repertoire includes a half-dozen rib-tickling skits: A doctor routine, in which The Chicken, dressed in a white coat, takes an eye chart to the ump; Inspector Clouseau; The Fonz; and a chick-seeking flirt.

But many of his most successful stunts are the ones he improvises on the field: warming up with the players, roller skating from a rope attached to the infield sweeper, sliding head-first into third to imitate Pete Rose.

He even did a brief stint as a goalie in a Buffalo Sabres exhibition game earlier this year. "It was Walter Mitty in chicken feathers," sighs Ted, who played hockey as a youngster in his native Canada before moving south.

Beneath all the feathers and stuffing, Giannoulas wears only a T-shirt and yellow leotards. In the summer, the nine-pound "second skin" gets hotter than a Colonel Sanders kettle. He's thinking of having the chest area ventilated.

Battered regularly by his own slapstick and rolling on infield grass, The Chicken goes through 10 replacement costumes a year. The parts are manufactured by different specialty shops and sewn together by Giannoulas' mother, Helen.

His appearances at stadiums around the country have given Giannoulas some pretty decided views about sports fans: Those in the East and Midwest are easiest to play to "because they're so energetic. People here are all laid back."

Baseball offers the best potential platform because "it has the best sense of humor of all the sports." Basketball is next, but football is difficult "because it's so violent and brutal and doesn't have a sense of humor."

Will The Chicken ever shed his feathers for good? As late as two years ago, Giannoulas would have scoffed at any suggestions that he'll be The Chicken for good, but nowadays he seems to have changed his mind.

"I'd like to get away from sports somewhat and into more depth," he muses, "but that's only incidental. I'm pretty sure The Chicken is going to be my career. I'm not going to be seeking out new ventures."

Meanwhile, Ted Giannoulas appears to be taking his success -- and his successful business -- with a minimum of personal strutting.

"I'm still myself," he assures visitors, shrugging off his new financial gain. "I just eat better food now," he says, only half in jest. "Better pizza and better hamburgers." Aaaawk! Aaaawk! Puk-Puk-Puk.