Frank Olivo, 66, substitute Santa hit with snowballs at Eagles game

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Frank Olivo playing Santa at an Eagles game in 1967, top. He was pelted with snowballs the next year. Right, during a 2008 anniversary event at Lincoln Financial Field.

Frank Olivo, the Santa Claus who got pelted with snowballs at the Eagles game that winter day in 1968, died Thursday, April 30, at Kindred Hospital Philadelphia-Havertown.

Mr. Olivo, 66, of Glenolden, had battled heart disease, diabetes, and other ailments for 25 years, and had been seriously ill since mid-January.

A South Philadelphia native, Mr. Olivo, known as "Frankie," was a barber, worked for years in the casino industry in Atlantic City, sold cars, and was in the mortgage business.

But the infamous - and unexpected - role the 19-year-old Bishop Neumann High School graduate played one snowy day at Franklin Field in December 1968, when the Eagles lost to the Minnesota Vikings, tagged him for life and made him a Philadelphia icon.

"It made the national network, for crying out loud," said Richard Monastra, a cousin who was in the stands. He watched as angry Eagles fans let loose what he called a "tsunami of snowballs" when Mr. Olivo walked the length of the field with the cheerleaders at halftime as loudspeakers played "Here Comes Santa Claus."

Former Gov. Ed Rendell, who was at the game, said Friday night, "He is indelibly etched in Philadelphia sports history. For as long as there is professional football, the story of the Eagles fans pelting Santa Claus will always be told."

Rendell said he was sorry to learn of Mr. Olivo's death, and called him "a good sport and a great Eagles fan."

In the late 1960s, the Eagles would end each regular season with a halftime holiday show that featured Santa. But on Dec. 15, 1968, the regular Santa was snowbound in New Jersey.

An Eagles staffer spotted Mr. Olivo, wearing a Santa suit and a fake beard, with relatives at the 40-yard line, and asked him to fill in. He was told to wave to the fans as walked the field.

The Eagles were ending a dismal 2-12 season. It was cold, and the 54,535 fans who had showed up in a snowstorm were not happy.

"You hear the booing," Mr. Olivo said in an ESPN video a few years ago. "You hear it. I said, 'Well, you know, I understand what's going on here. They're not booing me. They're not just booing Santa Claus; they're booing everything.' "

He saw snowballs being hurled.

"Then I started getting hit with them," he said in the video. "I remember watching a fellow make a snowball and throw it at me. I just walked up to him at the bottom of the wall, and I said, 'You're not getting anything for Christmas!' "

Rendell said Mr. Olivo had denied being a scruffy Santa, but added: "I was there. He was a scruffy Santa."

Monastra said that Mr. Olivo had the suit because their grandmother had asked him to take on the role for the annual holiday gathering she hosted for their large family. Uncles had played Santa before young Frankie landed the role and then started a tradition of wearing his $100 red suit to the Eagles' final game every year.

Monastra recalled that after his cousin was pelted with snowballs, as a thank-you for his trouble the Eagles' general manager sent Mr. Olivo a "very nice letter" and "a pair of lousy cuff links."

His wife of 43 years, Rosalie, said the Eagles had approached her husband the next year to see if he was interested in appearing as Santa again.

Her husband declined, explaining, " 'They might throw beer bottles this time.' "

In 2008, when Mr. Olivo marked the anniversary of the game at Lincoln Financial Field, he told an Inquirer reporter: "I've gotten my 15 minutes of fame for the last 40 years."

He added: "Every year, something comes up where the media mentions it. It's snowballed every year since it happened."

Monastra pointed out: "The reputation of Philadelphia preceded Frankie about the hostile - or passionate - fan base. But to this day, when people make references to Philadelphia, they say: 'That's the city that snowballed Santa, so what do you expect?' "

Former Inquirer sportswriter and WIP radio host Glen Macnow included Mr. Olivo and the 1968 game in a book about Philadelphia fans he cowrote with Anthony L. Gargano. In the ESPN video, Macnow predicted how Mr. Olivo would be remembered.

"When he dies, you already know what the first line of his obituary is going to say: 'Frank Olivo, the Santa Claus who got pelted with snowballs that winter day in 1968. . . .' "

In addition to his wife, Mr. Olivo is survived by a son, Frank; a daughter, Victoria McClain; a grandson; and two grandchildren.

A viewing will be held at 9:30 a.m. Friday, May 8, at St. Joseph Roman Catholic Church, 500 Woodlawn Ave., Collingdale, followed by a Funeral Mass at 10:30.


martha.woodall@phillynews.com

215-854-2789 @marwooda

Inquirer staff writer Matt Gelb contributed to this article.