The Santa gig was purely a fluke. But the fact that reporters from publications as prestigious as the New York Times and as far away as the San Francisco Chronicle called relatives to ask about Frank Olivo’s life when he died earlier this year seemed preordained.
Olivo’s family always thought he had the personality to become famous. He was funny and expert at playing piano and charismatic enough to charm anyone, from wannabe mobsters to Hollywood stars. They just didn’t expect his fame to come from an Eagles game, snowballs and a story that will never stop being told.
“The whole Eagles thing has taken on a life of its own,” says Olivo’s cousin Rich Monastra.
This Christmas will be Philadelphia’s first without the Santa who has been an integral part of its sports history for five decades. Olivo, the Santa Claus who got booed by fans and pelted by snowballs when he was 20 years old in 1968, died this April. He was 66 and had been suffering from diabetes and heart disease the last several years.
His death prompted obituaries locally and nationally. It was one last burst of recognition, at least for Olivo. Who knows how long the story of Eagles fans booing and throwing snowballs at Santa will last?
Before Philadelphia carved out a reputation for having the rowdiest sports fans in the country when it misdirected its anger toward Olivo on a fateful December 1968 day, he lived the typical life of any working class Philadelphian with Italian roots.
He grew up near 25th and Dickinson Streets and attended parochial grade schools and St. John Neumann High School. Monastra’s family’s house became a second home for Olivo, and he considers Olivo to be more of a brother than a cousin. They played baseball and football and often hung out near Nick’s Roast Beef — which is where the mobster detail comes into play.
One day, they were playing baseball when a local barber asked Olivo to carry a bag over to Nick’s Roast Beef for a man named Pucci. They went to the restaurant and asked for Pucci. Some henchman at the door told them nobody came for Pucci, but Pucci saw the two little kids waiting outside and waved them in. The bag contained betting information. Olivo and Monastra later realized they were dealing with mob types on the lowest rungs of the power ladder, but at the time were two little kids among huge, intimidating men.
“We’re sitting in this bar and all these guys are drinking and eating mixed roast beef,” says Monastra, “and (Pucci) looks at Frank and says, ‘You got balls. You got balls, kid.’”
Olivo’s extended family — he had 10 aunts and uncles and dozens of cousins — worshipped the Eagles. His uncles had had season tickets the family thinks dated back to the ’30s. When they got old enough, Olivo, Monastra and other siblings and cousins inherited the tickets. It was family tradition.
Another family tradition entailed an annual Christmas party thrown by Olivo’s grandmother. In 1968, the party fell on December 15, the same day as an Eagles-Vikings game. Olivo was due to play Santa. He was the perfect choice for it.
He would watch “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson every night and imitate the stars who made appearances. Olivo did mean impressions of Carson himself, as well as the Marx Brothers and Burgess Meredith, the guy who acted as Mickey in “Rocky.” He played the piano, too, specializing in Beethoven and Chopin.
“Any family function we had,” says Monastra, “Frankie would always be there doing something.”
Olivo, Monastra and other family members attending the game decided they would go to the party straight from the game at Franklin Field. So Olivo wore his Santa suit.
The Eagles were 2-11, in the midst of their worst season since 1940. Everyone in Philadelphia hated the coach, Joe Kuharich, and hated the team for being terrible… but not terrible enough to lock up the No. 1 pick in the next year’s draft. The weather added to the misery. Temperatures had plummeted from around 60 the Friday before the game to the 20s. Snow covered the stands in Franklin Field, as well as the streets outside.
That inclement weather is what pushed Olivo into action. The Eagles had scheduled a New Jersey man to perform as Santa Claus during the halftime show, but he didn’t make it to the stadium. A marketing employee for the Eagles spotted Olivo in the stands. He asked Olivo if he’d walk around the field at halftime to the tune of “Here Comes Santa Claus” in place of the other guy. Of course he’d do it!
Everyone knows what happened next: Snowballs. Beer bottles. Boos. At Santa Claus. In an ESPN story from 2011, Olivo said he was pelted with snowballs 100 times and heard every one of those boos.
“You feel like they’re all against you individually,” he said to ESPN. “And that’s why, when I heard it, I said to myself, ‘My God, what do these players think or feel when they’re getting booed?’ It’s like you’re being told you’re not good enough to be here.”
Olivo, who later said he would’ve booed like everyone else if he were in the crowd, could take comfort in not being alone. According to the Inquirer’s game story from 1968, fans threw snowballs at the benches of the Vikings and the Eagles throughout the game. The Daily News, which mentioned the Santa incident in the lead of its game article, reported that fans directed plenty of snowballs at Kuharich, too.
“I don’t know what you call the fans here,” Eagles defensive back Alvin Haymond told the Evening Bulletin after the game. “Animals, I guess.” (Haymond, unsurprisingly, didn’t come back to play for Philly the next year)
Local TV stations broadcasted the Santa incident. Howard Cosell brought it up on national TV. Newspapers across the country ran with it.
Philadelphia’s actions toward Santa became national news, but Olivo didn’t. Not at first. Monastra remembers that especially because he was a substitute Santa, his identity remained secret for a long time, perhaps years. For his role as Santa, the Eagles gave Olivo a card and a pair of football-shaped cufflinks (his wife, Rosalie, still has them).
Olivo was just beginning his barber career at this time. For about a decade, he gave haircuts in a barber shop at Suburban Station, often cutting the hair of Inquirer, Daily News and Evening Bulletin employees and even the hair of Philadelphia’s archbishop at the time, John Joseph Cardinal Krol.
When gambling was legalized in the 70s in New Jersey, Olivo moved east. Finally, he could get close to the career in showbiz his family thought he was meant to have. Olivo followed short stints as a dealer and pit boss with a job of booking and hosting talent. He drove Barbra Streisand in from the airport. Met Sammy Davis Jr. Brought Don Rickles to Pat’s to get a cheesesteak. Monastra says Rickles and Olivo stayed close, with Rickles often sending him Christmas cards.
The last eight to 10 years saw a major increase in coverage of Olivo and the snowball game. Several local publications featured stories about him for the 40-year anniversary of the incident in 2008. ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap interviewed him that year, and Elizabeth Merrill wrote a lengthy profile on him for ESPN in 2011. WIP has featured him on the radio.
The uptick in his fame coincided with the downfall of his health. Olivo always had heart problems — they kept him out of Vietnam — and they got worse the last 10 years. He had several heart attacks and several bypass surgeries. As Santa Claus in 1968, he was a skinny, brown-haired kid who could barely withstand the force of the snowballs. The last year of his life, he was overweight, bald and nearly housebound. Olivo got out when Rosalie or other family members took him to the movies.
“The last five, six, seven years when his health was in the toilet, this kind of buoyed him a little bit,” Monastra says. “We’d see a piece in the paper and tell him about it in the hospital.”
Rosalie asked Monastra to give the eulogy at Olivo’s funeral. He brought up how cool it was to get those phone calls from New York and San Francisco and beyond, how people from all over the country remembered his cousin.
Eagles fans may get tired of being known as the people who threw snowballs at Santa Claus, but Monastra won’t. He wants the incident to be remembered forever and knows Olivo wouldn’t want people to forget either.
“Maybe from time to time the Eagles will mention him,” Monastra says. “Every once in a while it would be nice to think about him. That was one hell of a day.”