South Philly Phantom Of The Opera? A Story Of Peace And Healing In Veterans Stadium

Posted By Kevin Shelly on March 11, 2021

Imagine living in the Philadelphia stadium where your teams, the Phillies and the Eagles, played their home games – the now-gone Veterans Stadium. Your own real-life sports refuge.

The stadium’s god-awful artificial turf served as something of a living room for your improvised secret apartment. The space is literally and figuratively hidden in plain sight in the left-field stands.

Sometimes the secret living space, a converted unused concession stand, was not always hidden.

Apartment perks like catching the end of a game in a robe

Consider a few highlights made possible by living in the apartment:

  • Catching the end of a rain-delayed doubleheader along with 200 die-hard fans while wearing a robe and flip-flops while sipping coffee brewed in the tricked-out apartment outfitted with a bed, sink, fridge, coffee maker, and hot plate in the 60-by-30 foot space.
  • Throwing half-time parties until their popularity grew too big to continue.
  • Hosting Eagles’ wives waiting for their husbands to drive home.
  • Meeting Tug McGraw, Dick Vermeil, and Julius Erving.
  • Becoming close friends with Eagles Hall of Famer Bill Bradley.

The secret apartment was where author Tom Garvey made his home from 1979 to 1981, including when the Phils won the World Series in 1980 behind McGraw’s pitching.

The 78-year-old Garvey is a native of Ridley Park in Delaware County (go Delco! – my own home county), the suburban area Southwest of Philly known for off-the-wall gritty characters.

Sports refuge grist for a book

Now a resident of tonier Ambler in Montgomery County, Garvey has detailed his living escapade in The Secret Apartment: Vet Stadium, A Surreal Memoir available on Amazon.

The Philadelphia Inquirer did an extensive feature after first independently confirming the existence of the apartment with sources. No pictures apparently exist of Garvey’s living space. The Vet came down in 2004. The demolition made way for Citizens Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field.

Garvey referred to his mystery digs as an “off-the-wall South Philly version of The Phantom of the Opera,” whose character lived in a hidden lair.

Life at the Vet also made him feel “like a kid with a Willy Wonka golden ticket.” He told the Inq:

“I always knew this was bizarre, but when I put it together and assembled the stories I thought ‘Holy God!’”

Refuge from service in Nam

His hidden sports refuge was especially significant because he used the space and his job overseeing parking and concessions as a means of coping. He had returned to civilian life from Vietnam, where he’d served in the Special Forces encamped near Cambodia.

Ironic, he found solace in a place named Veterans Stadium.

Garvey got the job via uncles, who held the contracts for parking lots and concession stands. The position came with keys to an obscure entrance and a key for his own office.

While working at the Vet in the fall of 1979, when it hosted Pope John Paul, he got the idea of setting up a living space. Soon he made it happen.

There was a shuttered doorway, but Garvey obscured the apartment behind it by arranging a wall of cardboard boxes. A corridor hid at one end, which opened up into the secret space, with a floor covered with the much-despised Astro-Turf left over from the field.

Garvey’s apartment was better than his own in Center City Philadelphia, Bill Bradley told the Inquirer.

The parking contract ended in 1981, which meant leaving the apartment.

Finding peace and healing in Veterans Stadium

But by then, Garvey was ready.

The place “gave me the opportunity to put things in perspective,” after Vietnam, Garvey recounted.

“I found it to be healing. It was a place where I went inside myself and found some peace.”

Lead image credit: AP Photo/Bill Ingraham (Karl Wallenda, 71, walks a 640-foot tightrope, across Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia, Pa., June 1, 1976.)

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Kevin Shelly

Kevin C. Shelly is an award-winning career journalist who has spent most of his career in South Jersey. He's the former assistant city editor of The Press of Atlantic City, where he covered the casino industry and Atlantic City government as a reporter. He was also an investigative, narrative enterprise, and features reporter for Gannett’s Courier-Post.

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