Rocky + Art Museum Steps = A Real Cultural Phenomenon


Rapper-turned-reality-TV-star Flavor Flav, atop the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, celebrates a victory of sorts. Flav was involved with Brigitte Nielsen, who was once married to Sylvester Stallone, the man who played the Rocky character.

In nearly every hour of every day, people from near and far come run up Philadelphia Art Museum steps and jubilantly raise their fists high over their heads in emulation of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa character.

While this fictional movie character was first introduced to pop culture in “Rocky” over 30 years ago, his real story of triumph over tragedy continues to resonate with people worldwide.

And scores of those people have made the Art Museum’s entrance to the U.S.’s most favorite steps.

Reporter Michael Vitez wondered what stories these “Rocky” pilgrims had, so he and photographer Tom Gralish staked out the steps for a year. Their inspirational findings are shared in “Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps (Paul Dry Books, $22.95).”

“I live here,” said Vitez. “I’m a storyteller – that’s what I love to do. I’m not a Rocky fan, really, but I’ve seen people run those steps every time I go by there. And I’ve seen them running and they’re always so happy when they celebrate at the top and they’re from all over the world. I knew I would find great stories there. It was a gut feeling I had: who are these people and why do they do it.”

Vitez and Gralish uncovered a real cultural phenomenon, one that centers on Philadelphia and draws people to Center City, and yet, as Vitez writes in his introduction, is a true American, and even international, rite of passage.

“The stories are as diverse and different as the people who run,” said Vitez.

The book, which features 52 profiles and 100 photographs, starts on New Year’s Day 2004 with the ascent of LeShay Tomlinson.

Tomlinson, an actress and Los Angeles native, had stopped in town to visit her boyfriend and had insisted on going to the “Rocky” steps.

With her luggage still in the back of her boyfriend’s illegally parked car, Tomlinson dashed up the steps, jubilantly smiling and waving her arms when she reached the top.

“Her story was wonderful and she was wonderful,” said Vitez. “She’d come to those steps for motivation to have a break-out year as an actress and she wanted to come here to put herself in the right frame of mind.”

While many of the runners are fans of the Rocky movies, Tomlinson, like many of the others profiled, simply viewed a run up the “Rocky” steps as a means of personal accomplishment and renewal.

Vitez never knew what would happen on the steps or when. Similarly, he never knew whom he’d met there.

In a page taken straight out of the six degrees of separation handbook, rapper-turn-reality-TV-star Flavor Flav showed up at the steps because of his involvement with Stallone’s former wife, actress Brigitte Nielsen.

“I think what I figured out was it’s the movie and the story that brings them, but these people are celebrating their own lives and their own journey through life.”

Although Vitez kept in touch with most of people he met, there is one story that still haunts him.

When Spencer Rogers (dubbed the Snowman) was interviewed he was shoveling snow from the Art Museum steps as part of the Ready, Willing and Able recovering addicts programs.

At the time of the interview, Rogers was homeless but had been clean for five months, but since then he has seemingly vanished into the urban jungle.

“I have not heard from him,” said Vitez. “A lot of people loved that story which is such an inspiring story about a guy who’s been way down and is on his way back and is really trying to make it. You root for him.”

Although art critics have long protested, there is no doubt that for millions around the world, Rocky is Philly and the Philadelphia Art Museum steps he triumphantly ascended are magical.

“You don’t have to particularly like the movie and a lot of people who run aren’t necessarily Rocky fans,” said Vitez. “A lot of the people who run know that even if they have not seen the movie, they sort of know what the steps represent, that’s why they run. I do think that Rocky and Philadelphia are like Ben Franklin (and the city): they’re just connected and inseparable.”

=Originally Published in The Philadelphia Tribune=


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