Eagles fans, and for that matter, all Philadelphia sports fans, have a long reputation for being exceptionally hostile, with plenty of individual instances to show for it. The most notorious is arguably the time that they booed Santa Claus, an event which occurred at Penn’s own Franklin Field, where the Eagles played from 1958-1970.
Not only did they boo Santa — they threw snowballs at him, too.
The date was Dec. 15, 1968. The Eagles were 2-11 and were slated to play the Minnesota Vikings after an immense amount of snowfall the day before.
“There was snow still in the stands, if I remember correctly,” Chuck Brodsky, a musician who wrote a song titled “The Great Santa Snowball Debacle of 1968” and attended the game with his dad at the age of seven, said. “You couldn’t possibly go through the whole stadium and clean out all that snow.”
Because of the previous day’s snowfall, the man whom the Eagles had tasked with performing the annual ritual of dressing up as Santa and marching onto the field for a halftime Christmas Pageant couldn’t do so, as he was stranded up in North Jersey.
This left Bill “Moon” Mullen, the Eagles’ entertainment director at the time, in a precarious position. He needed someone to step in and play the role of Santa.
Enter 20-year-old Frank Olivo.
Olivo and his older cousin Richard Monastra grew up in a large family with nine uncles and roughly 30 combined grandchildren, and each year, the family would have a Christmas party at their grandmother’s house.
“We’d go to her house, and she’d give out Christmas gifts, and Santa Claus would make an appearance for the younger grandchildren,” Monastra said. “Well, Frank played Santa Claus that year. One of our uncles … usually did it, but Charlie had taken a job as a longshoreman, and he’d lost a ton of weight, and he didn’t feel like it would be appropriate to have a thinner Santa Claus.
“Frank was more suited physically to play Santa Claus, so Charlie gave him the Santa Claus suit, and just for giggles, he wore it to Franklin Field that day.”
Both Olivo and Monastra attended the game, but unbeknownst to them, Bill Mullen was on the prowl for an answer to his Santa dilemma. In Olivo, who was seated at around the 40-yard line, Mullen saw his solution.
“So one of the Eagles PR guys spotted Frankie in the stands, and he was sitting with my uncles,” Monastra said. “I was sitting further down toward the goal line, but we could see Frankie from our seats.”
According to Olivo, Mullen and another Eagles staffer then frantically approached him and begged him to be their halftime Santa.
“Frank jumped at the opportunity,” Monastra said. “He always had a bit of a showman in him.”
“I figured, what the heck, this could be fun,” Olivo said in 2003. “Little did I know what was about to happen.”
Many who repeat the Philadelphia legend of Santa getting booed take it at face value as just Eagles fans being themselves. Although this notion has merit to it, there were several additional factors piled onto it during and prior to the game that caused what took place.
For starters, the 1968 Eagles were an absolute dumpster fire.
“They were probably the worst team that the Eagles had ever put on the field in their history at that point,” Hall of Fame sportswriter Ray Didinger said in an ESPN piece.
Fans were especially frustrated with the job done by head coach Joe Kuharich, with many at the game, and the games prior to it, calling for his firing.
“So the fans who turned out for the final game and 54,530 trudged through the snow to Franklin Field were in a foul mood,” former KYW Channel 3 newsman John Pierron wrote in 2011. “Many wore buttons that read ‘Joe Must Go.’ Some creative types paid for a plane to circle the stadium trailing a ‘Joe Must Go’ banner. The atmosphere could only be described as surreal. I was there sitting in Section EE and I still remember it. The anger in the stands was palpable.”
As if a 2-11 record wasn’t bad enough, in a game the Eagles needed to lose to still potentially draft star collegiate running back O.J. Simpson, they were playing well and took an early 7-0 lead, which caused even greater disdain among the crowd.
“They’re booing,” Monastra said. “They’re angry as hell that the Eagles are winning because they figured the Eagles were going to blow the chance to get Simpson, which they ultimately did.”
On top of this reasonable frustration for a bad, yet not bad enough, team, the Eagles’ notoriously hostile fan base was still a factor.
“But it was in a different era,” former NFL player and executive Matt Millen, who attended the infamous game at age 11, said in 2003. “Very passionate. Franklin Field was a crazy place. People took their football seriously. Hell, they’d run on the field to get at the players and coaches.”
With all that tension boiling up, Frank Olivo made his way into the underbelly of Franklin Field. Once the song “Here Comes Santa Claus” started to play, he was set to walk out onto the field along with a 50-piece band and Eagles cheerleaders dressed in elf attire.
Olivo was instructed to walk through the cheerleaders and the band from one end zone to the other, and then go back along the track while waving and holding an Eagles equipment bag that would act as a stand-in for Santa’s toy sack.
What happened next was pure chaos.
“Frankie comes out, the PA announcer goes through this big thing, ‘Here comes Santa Claus. Let’s give Santa Claus a rousing welcome, Philadelphia welcome,’” Monastra said. “Well, all hell broke loose. People started not only booing, they started throwing. Now remember, the place is covered in snow because it had snowed the day before, and there was snow all over the stands. Most of the stands are still covered in snow, we’re freezing our noogies off, it was cold as hell.
“People started throwing snowballs. First it was snow. Then comes beer cans, then bottles. People were throwing their hoagie sandwiches at him, for God’s sake. They were throwing anything they could get their hands on.”
Matt Millen echoed this image, but with a much different sentiment.
“That was the only fun part of the game, and everybody joined in – fathers, sons, even the old ladies,” Millen said in 2003. “That guy had it coming. I still remember the song, ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ - BOOM! Got ‘im! Hey, it was just the thing to do at the time. No big deal.”
In a 2011 ESPN profile, Olivo asserted that he got hit by at least 100 snowballs in total.
“As I was starting to walk back, I saw the snowballs starting to come, and then I started getting hit with them, and believe me, the first 15 yards that I walked back around the horseshoe I got hit a lot,” Olivo said in another ESPN piece.
Olivo was a good sport about it though, telling one fan who threw a close-range snowball at him that he’s not getting anything for Christmas. For his troubles, the Eagles only sent him a pair of football-shaped cufflinks and a tie tack.
Despite various offers to sell his famous cufflinks over the years, Olivo opted to hold on to his historic pair of accessories.
"It's a sentimental thing to me," Olivo said in 2011. "It's like, if a player had a Super Bowl ring, would he sell it?"
After the halftime festivities, Olivo and Monastra didn’t think much of them, as people cheered when Olivo returned to the stands. Based on the local papers, it appeared to be a blip on the larger radar of the game, as former Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Frank Dolson made reference to halftime in only the eighth paragraph of his story and former Philadelphia Bulletin sportswriter Ray Kelly only doing so in the 11th paragraph of his.
Late Sunday night, however, the local news was followed by “ABC Weekend Report.” Instead of showing footage of the game itself, Howard Cosell showed Olivo, as Santa Claus, getting pelted by boos and snowballs alike.
From there, the story spread like wildfire across the national media, with references made to it in all kinds of newspaper and TV settings. Not only that, the history has lived on and grown over the course of almost 52 years.
“Every time someone needs to say something negative about Philadelphia, they pull out the Santa episode,” Bill Mullen said in 2003.
Whether or not the negative image of Philadelphia is accurate based on Santa being booed is left up to debate, with many natives arguing against this violent portrayal.
“I don’t think that game really characterizes Philadelphia fans,” Brodsky said. “I’ve been to lots of Philadelphia sporting events where the fans were well-behaved, normal fans, but in those days, because the team was so awful, and I suppose because of the availability of having something to throw right then and there, all that snow. I think it just happened.”
Frank Olivo passed away in 2015 at the age of 66 after dealing with heart problems for his entire life. Monastro refers to his cousin “Frankie” in affectionate terms as being a great, fun-loving guy throughout the course of his life.
He told one anecdote about Olivo that seemed to sum him up perfectly.
“I had a job as a paperboy delivering the papers for the old Philadelphia Bulletin,” Monastro said. “Well, Frankie used to help me with the paper route, and I’d give him a couple of bucks at the end of the week. It got so that people thought he was the paperboy, and I was the helper. He was so friendly to the customers they were giving him the Christmas gifts that should’ve come to me!”
After his cousin passed away, Monastro received phone calls from news outlets all over not just the country, but the world.
The impact of Frank Olivo dressing up as Santa Claus and marching around the Eagles’ then stadium on Dec. 15, 1968 will most likely live on for centuries to come, with Penn’s own Franklin Field also further cementing its place in Philadelphia sports lore.
“It’s characterized Philadelphia fans ever since,” Brodsky said.