Here we go again.
With the Philadelphia Eagles in this year’s Super Bowl, the national press corps has seized the occasion to trot out the usual stories about how unruly and downright boorish local fans are supposed to be. Heading the list of sordid tales being dredged up is an anonymous AP piece in the New York Times the other day purporting once and for all to set the record straight regarding the 1968 incident in which Eagles fans booed Santa Claus.
A close reading of the article begins and ends with the unnamed author insisting, Those famously churlish Philadelphia fans cannot hide behind the urban legends. The truth is out there: they simply booed Santa Claus. Case closed. Quoting no greater authority than Santa himself, nee Frank Olivo, the author goes on to “dispel” the “legends” that Frank, I mean Santa, was drunk and dressed in tattered red rags.
Later in the article the author invokes another high authority to support his version of the story, Eagles’ super fan and current Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, who, as it turns out, was at the game in question and opined that the fans were not venting their frustration at the “sad-sack Santa” (the author’s words, not the governor’s) but at the admittedly sad-sack team.
From that point on in this retelling, things get muddy. As legend purportedly has it, Frank, I mean Santa, was indeed a fill-in for the hired Jolly One, who was stranded by bad weather. The Eagles, already committed to a half-time entertainment show that included some sort of Santa, approached Olivo and asked him to stand in for the missing one. Frank was more than willing. The author picks up the story there: By 1968, Olivo, then a skinny 20-year old, had been wearing a Santa suit and fake white beard to the last Eagles’ home game for several years.
So, this was no urban legend; Frank was indeed a well-known impostor, and a skinny one at that, complete with a fake beard. Whether or not Olivo was inebriated will never be known though one suspects some sort of additive might have steeled his nerve. What is known, however, is that Frank, I mean Santa, did exhibit some distinctly un-Santa-like behavior during his moment in the spotlight. Again, let the AP writer describe the events that followed:
As instructed, Olivo ran downfield past a row of elf-costumed Eaglettes as the team’s 50-person brass band played ‘Here Comes Santa Claus.’
Thunderous boos erupted from a crowd of 54,535.
"When I hit the end zone, and the snowballs started, I was waving my finger at the crowd, saying ‘You’re not getting anything for Christmas,’"Olivo recalled.
So, there you have it. You be the judge. Who was being “churlish” here? Frank, I mean Santa, who didn’t exactly look the part and most definitely didn't act it, by his own account, or the Philadelphia faithful, who knew an impostor when they saw one and, whatever other shortcomings they may have had, were not easily nor willingly duped?
One more issue needs to be addressed before you reach your verdict. The entire affair received little notice anywhere, as the AP author correctly points out, including the City of Brotherly Love, until Howard Cossel, a man not known to let the facts get in the way of a story, picked it up and gave it his usual understated treatment, that is to say, likened it to a public stoning.