Don’t you dare mess with the Rocky steps, people

     Proposed changes to the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art would cut its width in half at certain points. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

    Proposed changes to the steps in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art would cut its width in half at certain points. (Brian Hickey/WHYY)

    Upon hearing a spitballed proposal to tamper with 72 steps leading up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art from the Ben Franklin Parkway — you know, the rising stairs you see when you come through Logan Circle past the 150-year-old Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul and beyond that replica of “The Thinker” statue — one word instantly came to mind: Iconic.

    Eight more words followed in short order: The steps must stay the way they are.

    Mine was a knee-jerk reaction that most Philly lovers likely felt.

    Granted, there’s sound logic behind Frank Gehry’s idea to — as part of a 10-year museum-renovation plan that just got a $5 million boost from the state — provide “a window, carved into the famous steps, so visitors inside the new exhibit space can orient themselves with the city outside.”

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    Having seen the model, it truly does beautify the space (conceptually, at least), and that’s why the idea was worth deeper contemplation.

    So, I headed out to the scene to sit smack in the middle of where that platform would go for a couple hours last week.

    From that vantage point, any benefit of the doubt disappeared … and that was before American Treasure Katy Perry donned a pepperoni pizza-themed jump suit to meet gaggles of her fans there after her Tuesday night concert.

    The Friday scene

    Better known by its tourist-draw “Rocky Steps” moniker, the staircase is 44 of my strides wide.

    Guesstimating from the model, the Gehry platform would more than cut that width in half on two or three of its five levels.

    As bus after bus of tourists pulled up, a few things quickly became evident.

    People love running up the middle of those steps, mimicking the exact route that Sylvester Stallone took while filming that little movie about a boxer. Their beaming smiles could fuel any solar lamppost.
    You could overhear that awe in quotation marks, including: “I love seeing things from movies.” “I feel like Sylvester Stallone right now.” And “Look at that view.”
    People love taking pictures facing both the museum and the Parkway from the middle of those steps, too. One could argue that that defends the honor of the proposed platform, but one would be wrong because …
    … the happiness could wane when visitors had to wade through a walking-path logjam to reach the top, for a better angle at skyline photos.

    Watching the streams of tourists arrive, walk the steps and reboard their buses, I tried to think of another Philadelphia attraction that has this sort of draw.

    Yeah, Independence Mall is nice and historic and all, but you could sense a palpably magnetic pop-culture connection on those steps that, while borderline cheesy, can’t be found elsewhere in town (except, maybe, and on a smaller level, St. Augustine Church thanks to its role in “The Sixth Sense”).

    Why anybody would want to adulterate that, a la putting seats above Fenway Park’s “Green Monster,” defies common courtesy and municipal dignity.

    High-profile visits

    Leaving the steps that day, my mind was already made up. (Full disclosure: My wife and I had our wedding-party photos taken atop those steps, so there’s an inherent defense mechanism at work here.)

    Still, kismet soon arrived in the form of two Rocky Steps-related happenings in the days since.

    The first relates to soccer.

    In advance of their International Champions Cup match against a rival squad from Italy, members of the AS Roma soccer team gathered for a memorable-to-futbol-fans team photo atop those steps.

    @BreatheFutball: Totti mocking Ashley Cole

    — Lewis Perrin (@lewisperrin6) August 1, 2014

    That image, with banners touting a Frank Gehry exhibit inside hanging in the background, drew international niche attention. And, it was taken smack-dab in the center of the rising steps, drawing attention to the museum itself as a result.

    Then came Tuesday night, and the second of two concerts that pop star Katy Perry performed at the Wells Fargo Center.

    I wasn’t there (sigh) but those who were heard Perry announce that she, in fact, was heading to the Rocky Steps after the show. And you’re! all! invited!!!

    Lo and behold, she did just that around midnight, posing for selfies with the droves of adoring fans who took her at her word.

    Translation: Perry made the Art Museum vista relevant to even the teeniest of boppers in America.

    A Rocky impersonator’s incredulity

    Would a transformed layout of the staircase have stopped either event from happening? Who knows.

    But the fact remains that they wouldn’t have been at the iconic Rocky Steps that drew, and draws, adoration from tourists a’plenty. They’d be at something that used to be the Rocky Steps.

    Doing so would represent change for change’s sake at a location that already holds a place in the hearts of Philadelphians and visitors alike.

    That’s what I told Michael Avelino, the “self-proclaimed No. 1 Rocky impersonator in the world,” as he took a break from posing for photos near the boxing statue off to the side of those steps the other day.

    He (they?) agreed with the sentiment.

    “They should leave it alone. Things shouldn’t always be about making more money,” said Avelino who does, in fact, make some money for those pictures. “It’s an old-fashioned tribute, something that people hold sacred. They should leave it alone.”

    Yep. The tourists from all over, the soccer team from Italy, the pop star from Cali — and I — totally agree, Michael.

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