And 25 years later, the city of Philadelphia remains tied
to the character and the film.
Chicago, New York and San Francisco have songs written about
them. Washington has monuments. Denver has mountains, Los Angeles
We have a fable called Rocky.
"Rocky is Philadelphia's signature movie,"
said Elliott Curson, president of an advertising agency bearing
his name. "People understood New York, Washington, but they
didn't understand Philadelphia."
"It clearly gave a film reference to the world about
Philadelphia, and Philadelphia . . . will forever be associated
with Rocky Balboa," said Sharon Pinkenson, head of the city
"The film gives the city a visual identity and a cultural
identity and a spiritual identity," she said. "People
remember the doo-wop on the corner, running up the steps, the
skyline, running through the Italian Market. This is the classic
American story of someone with nothing who achieves his dreams.
This is the character everyone cheers for."
Rocky the movie and Rocky the character are both distinctly
Philadelphia, said physician Kenneth Ciongoli, who grew up in
South Philadelphia. "I live in Burlington, Vermont, and
if people there say Rocky, they're saying Philadelphia, too,"
"It made Philadelphia hot," said cultural critic
Camille Paglia, who teaches humanities and media studies at the
University of the Arts.
"The picture of Philadelphia was so indelible. The ethnic
richness of South Philadelphia, the meat-packing plant, the river.
And it's not just when when he ran up the steps, but he turned
and you see the panorama. It still resonates."
Other films have not had the same sense of place or emotional
connection to the city. Trading Places and 12 Monkeys
were set here, but none embody the city in the same way.
And there are no bronze statues here of Bruce Willis's
character from The Sixth Sense or Denzel Washington's
in Philadelphia. But the 9-foot-high statue of Rocky seen in
Rocky III has stood since 1982 in front of the First Union
Spectrum, after a brief stay outside the Art Museum.
"Philadelphia with Tom Hanks was a good
movie, but it could have been set anywhere," said comedian
Big Daddy Graham, who works for WIP-AM sports radio.
"I was on the road performing for years. When I was trying
to describe to people that I grew up in a row home, I always
used the movie Rocky as a frame of reference."
He's tired of other places "stealing" the Rocky
theme. "It's our song. It's associated with the city. Let
them get their own."
Former Mayor Edward G. Rendell said of the film: "It
became the symbol for the city, and, to a degree, a metaphor
for the city.
"We still are - more so than, say, San Francisco or New
York - a working-class city, a little bit of an underdog of a
city. The film gave people that feeling.
"When we won the Republican Convention, we were the underdogs.
When I took the site selections committee around for the Democrats
and the Republicans, they both wanted to see the Rocky
steps. They called them 'the Rocky steps.' At the Republican
Convention, I can't tell you how many walked up the steps and
pumped their arms in the air."
That's not all that tourists do.
"Used to be these Rocky tours and limos would stop in
front," said Joseph Marks, co-owner of J & M Tropical
Fish, the Kensington store at Front and Susquehanna where Rocky's
girlfriend, Adrian, worked.
The movie's exterior shots were filmed locally, including
the outside of a vacant building across the street that in the
film was Mick's gym, where Rocky trained. But J&M is one
of the few interior scenes shot here. It looks just as it did
25 years ago.
"People still come here," Marks said, standing in
front of a small photo of Stallone and himself. "From
France, the Netherlands, California, Utah, they still want to
see the pet shop where Rocky was filmed."
Bruce Kuklick, a professor of history at the University of
Pennsylvania, said the film does represent the city, but just
"It is," he said, "a romanticized version of
what certain white parts of the city are like . . . I think people
do identify the movie with Philadelphia because there is a sense
that this is a down-and-dirty, blue-collar city. Rocky and his
friends, a lot of them are out of work."
The lack of legitimate employment (Rocky is an enforcer for
a loan shark) is important, said Chris Klemek, a doctoral student
in history at Penn.
"The movie is not about boxing, it's about this character
rambling around the streets looking for fulfillment," Klemek
said. "The character of Rocky symbolizes so many people
making their way through an impoverished postindustrial landscape."
There's pride in the film because of its Best Picture Academy
Award, because it made the city more famous. In 1977, a city
official said Rocky was the "best thing to happen
to Philadelphia's image since Ben Franklin."
"Rocky gave people hope," said Robert Pinhak,
51, standing near a fish store on Ninth Street, not far from
where he stood in 1975 watching Stallone run through the Italian
Stallone, who lived his own underdog life, never lived
in South Philadelphia, though people associate the neighborhood
with his fictional character.
Born in New York in 1946, he came here in the early 1960s,
living in Frankford and Rittenhouse Square. He went to Lincoln
High School, but never completed 10th grade. In 1963, he enrolled
in the Devereux Manor High School in Berwyn, Chester County,
a school for emotionally troubled youths.
He was 21 when he acted in his first film, The Party at Kitty
and Stud's, a pornographic movie that, to his chagrin, had its
title changed to The Italian Stallion after the success of Rocky.
After the first two Rocky films, Stallone said,
"Philly is what makes the films work. It's what makes me
work. I couldn't have done either film without Philly. I needed
it for the inspiration and for my own sanity."
Stallone once was asked where you'd find a guy from
the neighborhood - a guy like him - after success like that?
He said: "Ordering a lobster hoagie."