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Joseph Marks co-owns J&M Tropical Fish
in Kensington, where Rocky’s girlfriend, Adrian,
worked. Some scenes were shot in the store.
(Vicki Valerio / Inquirer)

By Murray Dubin

Raul Jacob Castillo ran the Art Museum steps, skipped up two and three strides, charged hard to the top. Earphoned to music, he came down, skipping, dancing, and then climbed again. And again. Eight times.

"I've always run steps because it's good cardio, but I associate these steps with the movie," said Castillo, 41, who came from Chicago in 1999 and lives in the city's Fairmount section.

"The first time I ran them, I called up my brothers and sisters and told them I ran the same steps as Rocky."

Rocky Balboa ran the steps for the first time on Nov. 21, 1976, as Philadelphians watched the premiere of a modest film starring Sylvester Stallone.

Twenty-five years and five Rocky movies later, that first film is a classic, and the cinematic Rocky is known the world over, film fantasy morphed into reality. Rocky's arm-waving semaphore - a tribute to himself - at the top of the steps is now part of the culture. The Rocky theme music is the anthem of the underdog at sports venues nationwide.

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 smog.

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."

Until Rocky.

"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 film office.

"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," he said.

"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 one part.

"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 Market.

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."