Last week, Zach Woods—Silicon Valley's lanky, Julia Roberts-adoring goofball—went on Marc Maron's WTF podcast and disparaged his hometown of Philadelphia. Which is no big deal on its own: plenty of people have little affinity for where they grew up, and way more people have no love for Philly. However, things went off the SEPTA rails when Maron pressed Woods, a suburban Bucks County guy, on why he finds Philadelphia depressing.
"Philadelphia is kind of a racist city," Woods answered. "And their sports... I'm not like a big sports guy, but I remember when I was growing up, Santa Claus would skate onto the ice around Christmastime at Flyers games, and people would throw batteries at Santa Claus." And somewhere out on Broad Street, a Flyer got its wings...
What Woods is referring to is national shorthand for the conventional wisdom that Philadelphia sports fans—and perhaps the city itself, full stop—are the absolute worst. William Penn may have named the town from the Greek for philos "love" and adelphos "brother," but even a peace-loving Quaker like Penn would recognize the vile inhumanity of those who would pelt a defenseless St. Nick with Duracells.
The thing is, it didn't happen that way. Woods butchered the Santa Claus story, which has long been misconstrued in its own right. He recalled a childhood event that actually took place 16 years before he was born, actually occurred at an (outdoor) Eagles game, and had nothing to do with the (truly terrible) 1999 J.D. Drew Phillies-game battery incident. We'll just assume that Woods' memory of Papa Noel in a hockey sweater is the result of a Tastykake-before-bedtime nightmare.
While it's disheartening that an innocuous incident became a lazy go-to narrative for Philadelphia's alleged awfulness, it also misses the point—the booing of Santa Claus isn't the important part. The real story is of how Frank Olivo, who passed away last Thursday at the age of 66, heeded his hometown team's call for a jolly man and made history. On a cold and snowy Dec. 15, 1968, Olivo stepped up and ensured that Santa Claus came to town, or at least Franklin Field. There, Father Christmas faced down the 54,000 Eagles fans who had braved the conditions to voice their displeasure at their team's feckless decision to win the final two games and finish at 2-11, thus ensuring they would not get the opportunity to pick O.J. Simpson in that year's draft.
Olivo had shown up at the game in costume, an annual last game of the year ritual, so when the official team Santa went AWOL, this 19-year-old kid was ready. Plucked right out of the stands so that the annual Christmas pageant could on as scheduled, Olivo warmed the hearts of children in the stands, while also becoming the focal point for a handful of their parents' frustration.
Did Santa Claus get jeered and pelted with snowballs? Yes, that definitely happened. But as Olivo himself said, "They're not booing me. They're not just booing Santa Claus; they're booing everything." Some seasons—football, holiday, or otherwise—everything deserves to be booed, even a fill-in Father Christmas. Frank Olivo stood there and took it, bringing unity to a fanbase in need of a rallying cry. Joy to the world.
It was a small little story that somehow blew up to become woven into the national That's So Philly conversation alongside Betsy Ross, Rocky Balboa, and cheesesteaks. Woods may have been way off, but I'm the one killing the guy and up until this afternoon, I thought the last-minute makeshift Santa was drunk, Willie T. Stokes-style. Nope. On that fateful afternoon, Santa/Olivo was sober, healthy, wearing a crisp $100 Kris Kringle suit; the only thing reddening his face was the exertion of dodging frozen projectiles.
I will not argue that Philly fans can't be horrific. I spent the 1996 football season working yellow-windbreakered security in the infamous 700 Level at Veterans Stadium, and I saw things that no human should see. The incident forever seared on my brain involved spilled beer, thrown bottles, a female Redskins fan's tremendous naked ass, and the mother of racial epithets. It was ugly, but I heard similar ugliness from a warm Wisconsin grandmother at an Eagles/Packers game when Randall Cunningham was at the helm. The N-Word doesn't sound any sweeter coming from Aunt Bee than from Frank Reynolds's forgotten spawn.
The point being that fans suck everywhere. Except when they don't. I've also had great times at games that never devolved into displays of man's inhumanity to man and were, in point of fact, fun, rousing, and even occasionally uplifting. Even in Philadelphia.
Olivo's experience as Santa was blown out of proportion long ago and shouldn't be anything other than a fun story. That is more or less how Olivo treated it his whole life. Sure, he turned down the gig in 1969, concerned that snowballs could become beer bottles in a mild winter, but in 2011 he also bragged to ESPN's Elizabeth Merrill that "my 15 minutes of fame lasted 43 years, you know?"
Frank told his wife Rosalie that when his time comes, he wants a Kris Kringle send-off. This was probably tongue-in-cheek, but Frank's funeral is on Friday and in my mind, he's all decked out in the red suit, heading off to the toy workshop in the great beyond. I imagine him being buried with full Clausian honors, alongside the whole Philly Is Terrible Because They Booed Santa thing. Rest in peace, Frank Olivo. Open the gates, here comes Santa Claus.