Time For Rocky To Step Aside?


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The Rocky Statue at its original location, July 29, 1982. Five years ago, the statue was
installed at its current location near the base of the Art Museum’s steps.

Rocky’s been in place for five years now, and it’s been 35 years since the film character gave Philadelphia a boost and Sylvester Stallone a brand worth $1.2 billion. But eventually, possibly sooner than later, Rocky will have to step aside as a Philadelphia story that has outlived its time.

Born during a recession in a place with an evaporating manufacturing economy, Rocky’s day job as bill collector speaks to the lack of opportunity in a city of homes and a paucity of jobs. In the 1970s, Philadelphians still believed they still had a shot at bringing the factories back. It took several decades more for the leadership (by then Ed Rendell in the 1990s) to openly admit industry as Philadelphia knew it was gone and a constellation of emerging economies (Eds, Meds, Tourism & Tech) would have to replace it.

Philadelphians have come to their senses and moved on, except, it seems, when it comes to Rocky.

Like Archie Bunker’s Queens, Rocky’s Philadelphia is now mostly gone, though not entirely. The spirit of the ’70s occasionally finds traction. In 2006, the same year as Rocky returned to the Parkway, Joey Vento posted a sign at his steak joint on 9th Street: “This is America, when ordering ‘Speak English?’” Vento spoke his mind, as Tom Ferrick put it in a recent Metropolis column: “And what was in that mind? A heavy dose of macho. One primal scream. Several tablespoons of jingoism. A half-cup of xenophobia. A dash of hate.”

When Joey Vento died last month, so did a little bit more of that Philadelphia, Rocky’s Philadelphia. Vento clumsily said what Stallone’s Rocky artfully implied. “Outsiders” were changing the hue and cry of the workplace, schools and streets. Vento, Ferrick points out, targeted Philadelphia’s Mexican immigrants. Rocky’s enemies were African Americans: first Apollo Creed, played by Carl Weathers, then James “Clubber” Lang, played by Mr. T. Of course, Rocky’s racism was neatly tempered by Hollywood, but it was significant in Rocky’s persona as well as the brand’s success.

The Rocky story is one of personal victory, rather than any kind of civic victory. In the 1970s, Rocky couldn’t begin to turn around a city still steeped in mid-century noir, but he could, bouncing at the top of the Art Museum’s steps at dawn in grey sweats, realize personal success.

Today, Philadelphia offers more. Yet, thousands of folks visit the Rocky statue every year, admire themselves with arms raised in souvenir images again, again and again. There’s a connection here with a 20th-century Philadelphia story that has survived into the 21st, but how meaningful is it now? Isn’t this statue, whether it’s considered a movie prop, a franchise logo, or even art, just an artifact of 20th-century American popular culture, along the lines of Archie Bunker’s chair? Visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History see that artifact behind glass.

Someday, the Rocky statue will be framed by a similar narrative. When that day comes, Philadelphia will have something to offer about what the city is, not what it was. But first, we’ll have to get past the idea that Stallone has done more for Philadelphia’s image than anyone since Ben Franklin, as Commerce Director Dick Doran put it in the 1980s. We’ll still be moved a little (or a lot) by the Rocky story, and the artifact will always be with us. Only, in the future, we’ll think of it as on the shelf, rather than on the pedestal, along with many other compelling stories out of Philadelphia’s past.

The question is, when Rocky steps aside, or is forced aside – and this should happen sooner than later – what will take his place? That we have yet to figure out. But the time is coming for Rocky to become history – and in Philadelphia there’s nothing wrong with that.

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6 Comments

  1. Arnie
    Posted September 5, 2011 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    “A dash of hate”? Anyone and everyone who knew Joey Vento knew—beyond a shadow of a doubt—that he didn’t have an ounce of hate in him. Xenophobia either, but I’ll concentrate on the “hate” part because it’s so scurrilous. Vento had no “enemies” and harbored no “racism,” both of which you imply, and he did not target “Philadelphia’s Mexican immigrants.” He criticized anyone who didn’t want to assimilate into a greater American culture.

    Tom Ferrick should know better. Shame on him. And shame on you for repeating such a verifiably untrue smear on Mr. Vento’s good character.

  2. Nathan
    Posted September 6, 2011 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    I find it ironic that phillyhistory.org would promote forgetting about part of Philly’s past. Also, have you ever seen the movies? Just because 2 of the boxers in the movie were African Americans it’s racist? Rocky’s character was anything but racist and he didn’t even have a macho attituse. He became best friends with Apollo Creed and couldn’t even bring himself to hate the Russians that killed him.

    • PhillyHistory
      Posted September 13, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for your comments on this topic. We just wanted to note that Ken Finkel’s thoughts are his own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of PhillyHistory.org or the Philadelphia Department of Records. Thank you for visiting PhillyHistory.org.

  3. Posted September 8, 2011 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

    In November, 1976, during a time of much trendy anti-American sentiment in the national press, the original “Rocky” movie was released & cheered by American and worldwide audiences. It was a time in our nation’s life that the average American needed a traditional “Hero”, perfect or not. Almost immediately after the films debut, there emerged in the media a cadre of seemingly effete, thin-lipped, priggish, “anti-Rocky” writers. Then & now, these “anti-Rocky” writers, typically, are young (relative to their generational group), “adult” white males. These writers express a visceral resentment, an unfounded prejudice & personal compulsion to “trash” the “Rocky” character & his triumphal story. Characteristically, they fervently but falsely impute racial prejudice to the Rocky movies where there is none. Also, these writers emote an implicit disdain for Rocky’s “low brow” status & his red-blooded American male “never say die” spirit & determination, which is superciliously dismissed as passé.

    A stereotypic example of the above observations is the present story (9/1/11) by Mr. Ken Finkel. To wit, in the above article, Mr. Finkel speciously states that “Rocky’s enemies were African Americans…Rocky’s racism was neatly tempered by Hollywood, but it was significant in Rocky’s persona as well as the brand’s success.… Stallone’s Rocky artfully implied… (that) “Outsiders” were changing the hue and cry of the workplace, schools and streets… Isn’t this (Rocky) statue… just an artifact of 20th-century American popular culture, along the lines of Archie Bunker’s chair…(&) Like Archie Bunker’s Queens, Rocky’s Philadelphia is now mostly gone, though not entirely.” As most of us know, Archie Bunker’s T.V. character was an ignorant bigot, whose trademark was frequent, explicit, intentional & mean-spirited insults of people of all persuasions, including his own family and friends. Ostensibly, Mr. Finkel, thru his own idiosyncratic distortions of the movie, ascribes these same disgraceful “Archie Bunker” characteristics to the “Rocky” character and seemingly, Sylvester Stallone, himself.

    Further, it appears that Mr. Finkel’s inexplicable distortions feed his literary “trashing” process. This is evidenced when, in addition to his own scurrilous statements to racially “trash” Stallone’s “Rocky” character, Mr. Finkel baselessly transposes statements from another writer from a totally different story. This second writer/article was about a Philadelphian who recently passed away, & had demonstrably nothing to do with the Rocky story. In this second unrelated article, disparaging statements were used, such as, “A heavy dose of macho. One primal scream. Several tablespoons of jingoism. A half-cup of xenophobia. A dash of hate.” Without establishing any demonstrable connection between the 2 different stories, Mr. Finkel blatantly misused and misconstrued the above disparaging statements to further depredate and impugn both the Rocky character and the Rocky story. This type of “journalism” challenges the professional boundaries of “literary license”, & lacks critical thinking, objectivity, veracity and intellectual & emotional honesty. Overtly, it suggests the presence of ulterior personal motives.

    Contrary to Mr. Finkel’s explicit inflammatory distortions, unfounded accusations & disingenuous statements of racial animosity & hatred, in the 6 Rocky movies there is no tangible expression of prejudice & hate, racial or otherwise, nor indulgent X-rated scenes, inappropriate personal or domestic violence, drug/alcohol abuse, exaggerated human tragedies or disasters, terrible crimes, general bad behavior, or even off-color language. Rather, the “Rocky” movies subtly but clearly reaffirm the redemptive powers of traditional virtues and American values. Further, a little known fact about these movies is that Mr. Stallone offered to unknown or lesser-known actors the opportunity to further enhance their own acting careers by being in a “Rocky” movie. This, Mr. Stallone did quietly, without the typical “Hollywood showboating”, publicity or fanfare, & more importantly, without prejudice or regard as to race, gender, background history, creed, education, economic status, social class, etc., of those fortunate actors. Moreover, the wide-spread & sustained appeal to vastly “diverse” audiences, clearly denote that the “Rocky” movies are not at any rational level about racial hatred as Mr. Finkel fallaciously contends in this article. Rather, “Rocky’s” story is about one common man’s life struggle to overcome powerful intrinsic and extrinsic forces through self-determination, sacrifice, hard work, friendship, forgiveness, self-effacement, humor, love, hope & “guts”. This, Rocky must do to validate & redeem a life of personal/social/economic & emotional deprivation, turmoil & hardship. Through his indomitable mettle, Rocky gains this spiritual validation by overcoming all the life-long forces arrayed against him to become the “Heavyweight Champion of the World”. To multi-cultural & multi-generational audiences that have viewed it, Rocky’s struggle and triumph represents their own personal struggles, hardships and hopeful triumphs. The Rocky movies emotionally speak to the individual viewer with a message of empathy, understanding, optimism, “Can-Do”ism & personal redemption. These are the human “existential” and timeless reasons that the “Rocky Statue” is still the biggest draw to the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the reasons that people of all persuasions from our nation and the world come to the Philadelphia Art Museum to run up the steps, just like “Rocky”.
    Essentially, “Rocky’s” tale is the timeless, existential struggle of “Everyman” & Woman, told by a common guy who needed to prove to himself that he wasn’t “just another bum from the neighborhood”. Since its’ release over 3 decades ago, Rocky’s human pathos & personal triumph, as portrayed by a then unknown & struggling actor, has not only changed the American culture for the better, it has been validated as a movie “classic” thru continuous popular acclamation by audiences through-out the world. Culturally, “Rocky” is no longer a just a “story”, but has been socially & linguistically embedded in our national psyche as a symbolic ideal for those of us facing “demons”, personal or otherwise. For our American mythological folklore, “Rocky” has achieved the status of a modern day Greek “Hero”. Lastly, although he is certainly imperfect as most heroes are, “Rocky” is our American “Hero”, who appeals to men, women & children from all walks of life. And, like it or not, this “Hero” is here to stay.

  4. Posted September 23, 2011 at 4:19 pm | Permalink

    Wow, anyone who could write that just doesn’t get it. People love and admire Rocky for the exact opposite reasons you give. Hopefully, Rocky will never go away. Hopefully there will always be people dashing to the top of the Art Museum steps, exalting in life and the power of redemption, dedication, hard work and love. Honey, that’s what it’s about.

  5. GREG CLINTON
    Posted November 21, 2011 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    On September 1, 2011, Mr. Ken Finkel wrote an article entitled “Time for Rocky to Step Aside?” This article scurrilously & baselessly derides both the “Rocky” ethos and Mr. Stallone. On September 8, 2011, I wrote a lengthy reply to this rather sophomoric article. Now, I would like to visually substantiate my written article by directing the reader to the following website:
    http://www.myfoxphilly.com/dpp/news/local_news/032909_Rocky_Statue_Holds_Meaning_For_Many
    This visual production by “My Fox Philly” proves again that a picture is worth a thousand words, but more importantly, it proves that Mr. Finkel’s article is quite inaccurate in its’ assertions and conclusions. After 30+ years, Rocky is still our hero and the biggest draw to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Don’t ya just love it?