Would Rocky Run Up These Steps?

Fairmount Park Plaza – Municipal Art Center, William E. Groben, Architect, Department of Public Works [1911], detail. (PhillyHistory.org)

When architects first designed the far end of the parkway at Fairmount, the biggest challenge was to make an extravagant project palatable to taxpaying Philadelphians.

In the Spring of 1907, street car magnate and would-be philanthropist Peter A.B. Widener proposed an art museum, acropolis-style, atop Fairmount. As architect Paul P. Cret first designed it, the steps would zigzag upward, emphasizing the verticality of Fairmount and ignoring the sweeping power of the parkway axis. In the Spring of 1911, William E. Groben’s drawings, accompanied by a 30-foot model, would be centerpieces in a month-long exhibition at City Hall. These sold the public on the grand vision for the parkway, but the zigzag steps remained as proposed. It took several more years before architects extended the broad axis of the parkway up to the top of Fairmount. And it would take another six decades for the site to come alive with a narrative powerful enough to have mythical proportions.

Who’d have guessed the parkway’s original references to ancient classicism would, so many decades later, become electrified in the public imagination by an emerging Hollywood action hero? That the parkway’s magic sauce would be in the museum’s steps?

To facilitate this kind of animation, however, the scene would require wide granite steps sweeping upward to a plateau overlooking the city’s skyline. The original design wouldn’t have inspired Sylvester Stallone to write and produce his famous scene. The original steps defied Rocky’s exuberant spirit and the scene’s visual openness. Those steps would have clashed with the sight and sound of Rocky bounding up at dawn, forging, in a cinematic crescendo, a spiritual connection with the film’s protagonist and Philadelphia’s imagination.

As redesigned and built, the steps merge axis and access, providing Stallone and Rocky director John G. Avildsen a place to craft a scene for posterity. In de-industrializing Philadelphia, Rocky brought the city’s faux acropolis to life with a story worthy of ancient legend.

To help pull that off, Avildsen brought in inventor Garrett Brown, who had “developed a harness to wear on his shoulders from which he could suspend a camera” allowing it remain “balanced and stable (and) cushioned…” Brown’s Steadycam enabled him “to move with, and around, his subject while filming with a fluid intimacy.”

For the musical score, Avildsen reached out to Bill Conti, a young graduate of the Juilliard School. Avildsen sat Conti down with a glass of red wine, showed him “a few of the rough cuts of Rocky boxing Apollo Creed” while playing Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony.

“That’s the kind of sound I want, rather than a rock and roll,” Avildsen told Conti. “This music makes boxing more important, almost more ethereal.”

According to Michael Vitez, in Rocky Stories, “Conti began his fanfare with “a blast of trumpets… That brassy sound is what the Greeks and Romans want you to hear going into battle,” he said. “That is the part that makes guys want to die.”

“’The genius of Rocky,’ film historian Jeanine Basinger once told Philadelphia Inquirer movie critic Carrie Rickey, ’is how it used the Steadicam not merely to create movement, but to get us into Rocky’s shoes and his skin.’”

“It’s a fairy tale,” claimed Avildsen, albeit one tailored to a modern-day attention span. “This is the peak, a pinnacle that is accessible to people,” said Brown, “it’s not like climbing the damn Alps … It can be done in thirty seconds.”

“You can’t borrow Superman’s cape,” agreed Stallone. “You can’t use the Jedi laser sword. But the steps are there. The steps are accessible. And standing up there, you kind of have a piece of the Rocky pie. You are part of what the whole myth is.”

The as-built steps make the scene, they enable the myth. Together, claims Buzz Bissinger, the site and the myth make the steps “one of the great architectural icons of the modern world.”

The architects weren’t the only ones who needed to tweak their original thinking for this to come together. Stallone’s first idea for the scene had Rocky carrying his dog, Butkus, a 120-pound bull mastiff, up the museum’s 72 steps. Just as the architects moved beyond their original zigzag design, Stallone, too, “abandoned” his original idea.

And the Philadelphia story is better off for both changes.

[Fairmount Park Plaza – Municipal Art Center, William E. Groben, Architect, Department of Public Works, 1911] (PhillyHistory.org)

[Sources:  David Brownlee, Building the City Beautiful: The Benjamin Franklin Parkway and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1989); Laura Holzman, “A Question of Stature: Restoring and Ignoring Rocky,” Public Art Dialogue, October, 2014; Michael Vitez and Tom Gralish, Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope, and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps (Paul Dry Books, 2006) .]

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 7, 2017 at 10:20 am | Permalink

    Ken, thanks for this exploration of what might not have been.
    During this week’s July 4 tv coverage I heard one broadcaster refer to it as the “Rocky art museum.” I’m sure the museum staff cringed, but no one would be confused by which art museum tv anchor was talking about. Thanks to those steps.

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