Rocky still packs a punch in Philly

Seventh instalment of the film saga reminds residents how it helped the city shrug off its reputation as a struggling blue-collar town

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 December, 2015, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 December, 2015, 6:00pm

It is a classic slice of pop culture: Sylvester Stallone – aka Rocky – jogging up the steps of the art museum in Philadelphia. For four decades, the boxing saga helped put Philly on the map.

The 72 “Rocky Steps” – as they are known – are an irresistible draw to tourists who come to mimic the iconic scene from the Oscar-winning 1976 movie about an aspirational boxer named Rocky Balboa.

“The Rocky movie series has been an incredible part of the history and the legacy of the city of Philadelphia,” Mayor Michael Nutter says. “I mean, this has been going on for 30 years now. It’s a part of us and we are a part of it.”

At the foot of the famed steps towers a three-metre bronze statue of Rocky, commissioned by the saga’s star and creator Stallone for Rocky III and donated to the city after the shoot.

On a crisp autumn day, Agga Dharma, a Buddhist monk newly arrived from Myanmar, waits in turn with a dozen tourists to snap a selfie beside it. Yes, he says, Rocky is a phenomenon in his country, too.

The statue is Philly’s most popular landmark behind the Liberty Bell, a symbol of the birth of the United States, says Anne McGuigan, a volunteer at the tourist office.

Visitors can pick up Rocky-themed maps guiding them to the steps and statue, but also to a dozen locations: from the Italian market, home to Esposito’s Butcher shop, to Pat’s King of Steaks – the Philly cheesesteak sandwich spot – or the Penn’s landing waterfront.

“The Rocky movie series,” says Nutter, “put Philadelphia on the international map.”

“For that, we’re very proud and very grateful.”

Nutter expects the latest chapter, Creed, which hit American screens just in time for last month’s Thanksgiving holiday, to be a knockout.

The saga’s seventh instalment sees Stallone return as the veteran Balboa, called out of retirement to mentor the son of a late friend and boxing rival.

“I loved Rocky I, because that was the first. The second has a tremendous message and is very uplifting. But now of all the Rocky movies, Creed is the best,” Nutter says.

However, Rocky’s popularity is not universal in Philly. Some see the franchise, already spun out across five sequels and a Broadway musical, as having run its course long ago.

“Some people like it, some people don’t,” says Jordan Morinich, an employee at Esposito’s, of the phenomenon. “All the shops used to have a picture of him inside. We never had one. I don’t think it changes anything for business.”

The Rocky statue was originally located at the top of the famous steps, but had to be moved after locals complained it was inappropriate outside a museum.

But in Pennsylvania’s largest city, Rocky still gets a lot of love.

“When it first came out, it restored pride to the city,” says Vince Giacobbi, who grew up in Philadelphia. “In the ’70s and ’80s, the city wasn’t where it needed to be,” he says, referring to its reputation as a blue-collar, struggling town.

These days, it is a city on the move, something of a boom town.

Largely neglected for decades, its downtown has been revitalised, and bristles with new restaurants, bars and construction projects.

Poverty remains a concern, with a citywide level among the 10 highest in the country. But economic growth is solid.

“It’s changed a lot. Now it’s more culturally oriented. I think it’s for the better,” Giacobbi says.

Craig Schelter, executive director at the city’s Development Workshop, which acts as a bridge between government and the private sector, says tax benefits in 1997 were critical to the downtown rebirth.

Developers began investing massively and by 2008, cable giant Comcast was moving into its shiny, towering new headquarters there.

Big growth at the city’s big three universities – Penn, Drexel and Temple – also has been a driving factor, according to Schelter.

Did Rocky help better the city’s fortunes? “It is a factor. I don’t know if it’s a huge factor,” Schelter says.

Don’t tell that to Frank Kubach, whose Front Street Gym was used to shoot Creed.

His gym has trained, among others, Olympic gold medallist and former world champion Meldrick Taylor – and he gives ample credit to the film saga.

“Every time Rocky comes out, I get 50 kids in the gym,” he says. “This one brought Rocky back again. With this opening up, it’s going to be packed again.”

Agence France-Presse