The Rocky statue has become a symbol that transcends the Stallone movies for which it was created

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In the simmering summer in 1996, I helped trigger a heated debate about where the Rocky statute should be located.

As the new WHYY podcast “The Statue” recounts in its first episode, out this week, the lifesize bronze prop led a peripatetic existence for its first couple of decades, bouncing from place to place amid controversy over what it represented and where it really belonged.

Commissioned by Sylvester Stallone for “Rocky III” and sculpted by Denver metalworker Thomas Schomberg, the statue was first placed on top of the famed steps for the 1982 movie’s filming.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art was less than thrilled about its placement at the top of the steps outside the building’s main entrance — where it was garnering more and more visitors — and eventually it was moved to the Spectrum.

At the South Philly arena, it was a hit. Before any game or a concert, a common refrain could be heard: “Meet you at the Rocky statue!”

But like it or not, Stallone’s movies had slowly become entwined with the city’s imprint — and visitors really wanted to see that monument.

I discovered that first-hand in July 1996. The Ben Franklin Parkway was buzzing with tourists for the fourth annual Welcome America celebration, as well as the Art Museum’s blockbuster Cezanne show. I lived nearby at 21st and Arch, and within one week, three separate groups of tourists stopped me point blank to ask where the statue was.

And I came to realize something, which I put into words in a Philadelphia Daily News opinion essay. Published a week after the Fourth of July, its headline was “Why Hide Our Knockout Attraction?”

My essay had one point: The Rocky statue should not only be more accessible and be put to better use than a meeting spot before games — it should be nothing less, I wrote, than “a destination for the world.”

These days we would say my piece went viral; back then we said it “hit a nerve.” In an editorial, The Daily News prompted readers to respond with their own ideas: Where should Rocky stand?

Editorial from the July 1996 Philadelphia Daily News Credit: Courtesy Thomas Devaney

Letters poured in.

It should be in the Italian Market, some wrote. Leave it where it is! others cried. Return it to the steps, several pressed. Why no statue for Smokin’ Joe? some asked, referencing Philly’s real-life boxing hero. It belongs in Kensington; It was only a movie; Of course it’s art; Dump it in the river!

For three months — mid-July through mid-September — the paper ran weekly full-page layouts of letters and opinion pieces debating where the statue should live.

Favorites include an amazing letter from Jacqueline Stallone, Sly’s mother, under the headline: “Mom has a few ideas.” And a sweet one from my own grandmother: “A Word from Tom’s Granny,” which begins: “I’ve read all the nice letters responding to my grandson.”

After several more years at the Spectrum, and one in storage, and months of city hearings on the topic, the statue would eventually end up in its current location after its original creator paid to have it restored.

My father went to Lincoln High School with Sylvester Stallone. They were not friends, but the proximity is real. They grew up in the same working-class Philly world.

People say Rocky is the underdog, but it’s not true. He’s beneath that. The truth is he never had a chance against Apollo Creed. When we meet him, he’s in horrible shape. He’s just been kicked out of his own locker in a run-down gym. He never expected to win — and in that first movie, he doesn’t. His goal was more personal, to prove to himself that he could go the distance. To prove, as he says, that he’s “not just some bum from the neighborhood.”

The fact that the statue is at the Art Museum is symbolically significant. It’s not just that the steps are now called the Rocky steps, but they have been transformed.

Our museum is based on a classic Greek temple. The spatial iconography of such architecture is clear: we ascend on high. By their nature, these sacred spaces were not built to be accessible. But the Rocky story refashions the way many people relate to that space.

When people take a run up the steps, they become part of the story.

Rocky gave it everything he had, but it nearly destroyed him. Yes, he overcomes insurmountable obstacles, but it’s far from a fairy-tale ending. The deeper theme is about dignity and gaining respect — including from one’s own self.

The Rocky statue during the 2020 racial justice protests Credit: Mark Henninger / Imagic Digital

So there are the steps and there is the statue. Every day, scores of people wait in line to take their picture with it, to the tune of 4 million a year. But you also see Rocky in a COVID mask. Rocky with protest signs. Rocky with the Ukrainian flag. Rocky as Santa. And yarn-bombed Rocky sporting a crocheted pink vest!

This under-the-underdog figure has become a folk legend. The people have claimed it. The culture remixes it. Nobody owns the Rocky statue anymore.

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Thomas Devaney

Thomas Devaney is the author of Getting to Philadelphia. He teaches creative writing at Haverford College and is in Drexel’s Urban Strategy program.