Episode 1: Patron Saint of the Underdog
An estimated 4 million people visit the Rocky Statue every year. That’s more than double the amount that go to the Liberty Bell. Surprising for a monument that the city once rejected as merely a movie prop. We speak to people who wait in line to snap a picture or run up the Art Museum steps to find out what motivates this pilgrimage. Their surprising answers take us across the globe and range from quirky to deep.
- Laura Holzman’s book Contested Image: Defining Philadelphia for the Twenty-First Century.
- 6ABC News clips from the Temple University Libraries Digital Collections.
- Website for Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown.
- Learn more about Haseeb Payab’s journey from Afghanistan to Philly in this article from the Philadelphia Inquirer.
- Visiting the Rocky Statue and Art Museum Steps.
- The official Rocky Statue website.
[TRAIN SOUNDS, MUSIC]
SYLVESTER STALLONE: If there was ever a miracle going to happen in America, it would happen in Philadelphia, really.
PAUL FARBER, HOST: I want to tell you about a statue.
MONTAGE OF ROCKY STATUE VISITORS:
This is like our pilgrimage
There’s always a line here of people wanting to take pictures with it.
I think that it’s beautiful.
PF: Not David in Florence. Not Lady Liberty in New York.
The Rocky statue. In Philadelphia.
ROSALIND PICHARDO: I just remember the first day I ran the steps and I was like, you know, like Rocky at the top, heavy breathing, probably about to pass out.
PF: At the base of the Art Museum steps, there’s an 8-and-a-half-foot-tall monument to Rocky Balboa. At first glance, it’s a tourist trap.
ROCKY STATUE VISITOR: Absolutely. This is a good trip for us. I’m wearing my Rocky shirt, my “Yo Adrian” shirt.
PF: But people really love this thing. They come from all over the world, every day, all year, just to wait in a long line and take a picture with a movie prop from almost 50 years ago.
MONTAGE OF ROCKY STATUE VISITORS:
We’re from Boston, Mass.
Philadelphia, very close to here.
PF: All this, for a statue of a fictional character.
MARK KRAM, JR.: If you went around the country and asked them to name a Philadelphia fighter, they would say Rocky, who doesn’t exist.
6ABC NEWSCAST: Back at the Art Museum, a day doesn’t go by that a would-be boxer or overzealous jogger doesn’t make the now famous climb, the Rocky tribute. I’m Susanne LaFrankie, Channel 6 Action News in Center City.
PF: From WHYY, this is The Statue, a new podcast about the monument to Rocky Balboa. The most famous Philadelphian who never lived.
ROCKY: I can’t believe this has happened.
PF: I’m Paul Farber.
Monuments are my life’s work. I co-founded a nonprofit called Monument Lab that researches them and imagines their future.
I grew up as a queer Jewish kid from Philly who loved sports. I was born the same year that the Rocky statue was introduced on screen.
[WHISTLING ROCKY THEME MUSIC]
We used to hear the Rocky theme song in gym class and everywhere we went in the city.
At some level, the Rocky statue has always felt a little silly. We’re talking about a guy who drinks raw eggs and talks to his two pet turtles.
GIANNA YANELLI: Philadelphia is like, we’re known for so many ridiculous things. But it’s so fitting. I mean, come on, you’ve got a Rocky Statue?
PF: I’ll be honest: At first, even I didn’t take the Rocky statue seriously. My mom is the one who pulled me off my high horse.
RUTH FARBER: And you said with a little huffy tone, why would anyone be interested in a monument of a fictitious character such as Rocky?
PF: She was right to call me out. The fact is, an estimated 4 million people visit the Rocky statue every year. That’s more than double the amount that go to the Liberty Bell.
We have more than a thousand statues in Philly. A bunch of Ben Franklins and George Washingtons. People walk by statues all the time, but what do they mean to us? Who do they help us remember, and who do we forget?
And what’s different about the Rocky statue? There are plenty of skeptics. But when you look closer, you’ll see people’s connection to this statue is deep.
AHMAD HASEEB PAYAB: Originally we are from Afghanistan. We came to Philly one year ago after the Taliban took over the country. Having that dream of Rocky, that motivated me. I said, well, let’s go to Philadelphia.
PF: We’ll come back to that later.
First, let’s start at the beginning.
Who’s Rocky again? He’s a down-and-out boxer. He’s white, Italian and working class. We met some fans who broke it down from there.
FAN: Alright, we’re ready? He started off in the streets.
FAN: He had a locker at an old gym with Mick.
ROCKY: Cause you’re training like a damn bum. A bum? A bum!
FAN: He was a money collector for the mob.
ROCKY: You wanna dance, you gotta pay the band, you understand? You wanna borrow, you gotta pay the man.
FAN: They thought he wasn’t serious, so they were going to get rid of his locker.
ROCKY: I wanna know how come I’ve been put out of my locker.
FAN: Eventually he’s like no, no, come on, like, believe in me.
ROCKY: ‘Cause all I wanna do is go the distance.
PF: Along the way, he fell in love with a shy pet shop clerk named Adrian.
ROCKY: Yo Adrian! It’s me, Rocky.
PF: By a stroke of luck, this amateur boxer got a shot at the title.
ROCKY: Apollo Creed meets the Italian Stallion. Sounds like a damn monster movie.
PF: So he started training…
Punching raw meat, and running the streets in Converse sneakers.
At the end of his iconic training regimen, he ran up the Art Museum steps. At the top, he threw his clenched fists toward the sky and marked his transformation from neighborhood bum to world class hero. It was this pose that would later be cast in bronze.
FAN: Eventually he got a fight. Wasn’t thinking he was gonna do anything with it, and fought Apollo Creed.
PF: In the title fight, Rocky lost. But that’s not what mattered. He stayed in the fight with Apollo Creed for all 15 rounds.
When he got knocked down, he got back up again. An inspiration for underdogs everywhere.
ROCKY: Here it’s chaos. Rocky, you went the distance. You went the 15 rounds. How do you feel?
PF: It was a hit movie. It won Best Picture in 1977.
OSCARS: And the winner is… Rocky!
PF: And spawned a ton of sequels, including the Creed spinoff. But lots of movies win awards, and their characters don’t end up as statues.
So why does real-life Philly still have this statue? It’s a movie prop on prime real estate. It’s beloved by tourists, snubbed by the art world. Turns out, the statue got here in the most Philly way ever. Doing what you want, where you want, like parking in the median on Broad Street.
I called up my friend Laura Holzman. She’s an art historian who wrote a book about the Rocky statue. I asked her to unpack the statue’s dramatic journey.
LAURA HOLZMAN: It’s a big responsibility.
PF: Laura drew up a roadmap of the moments that landed Rocky at the Art Museum.
LH: I think it’s actually really important to pinpoint some of those milestones.
PF: Before there was a statue, there was a camera. To get the perfect shot, the crew used a new piece of technology as an experiment.
LH: The steadicam was basically this apparatus that the camera worker would wear that would allow the shot to kind of happen smoothly, so that you could follow somebody who was doing things like running up the steps.
PF: Without that brand new camera, Rocky never could’ve been captured sprinting up the steps.
For that shot, we can thank Garrett Brown, inventor of the game-changing steadicam, as well as the skycam that captures the action of an NFL game while dangling on a wire overhead…
… and the drop cam that follows an Olympic diver into the pool.
GARRETT BROWN: I loved the freedom of handheld, but uniformly hated the way it looked. The shakiness of it just seemed anti-human to me and distracting.
PF: That shot defined the movie. With a much bigger budget for Rocky III, now director and star Stallone made sure we wouldn’t forget it.
LH: In the production process leading up to the third Rocky film, Sylvester Stallone commissioned an artist named A. Thomas Schomberg to create a larger-than-life, bronze sculpture of Stallone as Rocky.
PF: Tom Schomberg, the sculptor who created the Rocky statue. More on him later in the show.
LH: The sculpture was made from a cast of Stallone’s face, so it incorporates his physical likeness into the work of art.
PF: Again, inventor Garrett Brown.
GB: Sly went for an almost graphic, almost cartoon-like representation of his musculature as of Rocky III, which was extremely impressive by Rocky III, no question about that.
LH: And the sculpture was used as a prop in Rocky III, as part of a storyline in which the fictional mayor of Philadelphia unveils a statue of Rocky at the top of the steps.
ROCKY III: It is with tremendous honor that we present this memorial, which will stand always as a celebration to the indomitable spirit of man. Philadelphia salutes its favorite son, Rocky Balboa!
LH: The production crew was supposed to remove the statue of Rocky after the end of a designated display time. And they didn’t. They left it up there.
PF: The Art Museum at the time, well, they were not so into this gift. It was like a party favor nobody asked for.
GB: Sly hoped that the popularity of the film would cause them to embrace the statue and keep it there forever. But the somewhat stuffy and very correct sensibilities of museum boards and directors cut in and they realized that it’s not really art, and that it would be a terrible precedent. What’s next, the Oscar Meyer Wiener?
[OSCAR MEYER WEINER MUSIC]
PF: The statue created a pretty big problem for the Art Museum.
LH: I mean, you could say it was kind of abandoned by the people who were responsible for it. It’s a bronze sculpture. It’s fragile, it’s large, and moving it is complicated and expensive. And when it was moved, it was moved to South Philadelphia, where it was installed at the Spectrum.
PF: Museum officials wanted the thing off their property.
6ABC NEWSCAST: Word of Rocky’s probable parting from atop the Art Museum drew a spectrum of Stallone stalkers. Museum officials say the seven-and-a-half-foot statue is not art, but simply a movie prop.
6ABC NEWSCAST, ART MUSEUM OFFICIAL: It was a curatorial decision. It was believed that it was more appropriate for the statue to be down with the other athletic statues than here at the museum.
PF: In other words, put the sports guy with the other sports statues, as far away from our art collection as possible. But then in 2006…
6ABC NEWSCAST: The controversy over the Rocky statue sparked a response today.
PF: Another Rocky sequel came out…
ROCKY BALBOA TRAILER: Rocky Balboa.
PF: And people started to care about the statue all over again.
6ABC NEWSCAST: Petitions are being collected around Philadelphia asking for the return of Rocky.
6ABC REPORTER: Who do you think has done more for the city, Walter Annenberg or Rocky?
PERSON ON THE STREET: Uh, Walter who?
LH: The filming of Rocky Balboa, that was a moment that once again reignited the public debate about where the statue belongs, and it also revived Sylvester Stallone’s offer for the statue to be installed on the grounds of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I think offer is a really generous way of putting it.
PF: Not unlike Rocky himself, the statue refused to stay down for the count.
LH: This ignited months of city hearings that ultimately resulted in the statue being installed near the base of the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which is where it appears today.
SS: This leaves me absolutely even more speechless. I can’t believe you’ve allowed me to come into your lives in such a way. This is actually mind-bending to me that this can happen.
PF: Now, Garrett Brown considers himself one of the many loyal fans.
GB: The Rocky statue becomes part of the devotions that people pay to that whole idea. They line up to be photographed in front of the statue, which is conspicuously larger than life. And then they run up and down the steps, and the combination is, it’s just fabulous.
PF: That’s how the Rocky statue found its way back to the museum grounds. But how did it become a monument? What even is a monument?
Monument Lab defines it as a statement of power and presence in public. That includes not just bronze and marble, but projection, poetry, protest — any way that people leave their mark.
Monuments, at their best, offer a sense of belonging.
AHP: My name is Ahmad Haseeb Payab. I live with my family here. Four kids, my wife, my mother, and brother. At that time, I mean, the one thing that was inspiring me, I want to become like this Rocky guy.
PF: Haseeb — he goes by his middle name — and his family live in West Philadelphia now. We visited their house on a rainy October afternoon…
MICHAELA WINBERG, PRODUCER: Hello, how are you?
PF: And were welcomed by hot tea and an overflowing plate of dried fruits and nuts. He had just gotten back home after picking up his son from school.
But before they settled in their West Philly rowhome…
AHP: Originally we are from Afghanistan. We came to Philly one year ago, after the Taliban took over the country.
PF: Haseeb had been through it before.
AHP: I grew up in Kabul city. During the 1990s, Civil War broke out.
[SOUNDS OF WAR]
AHP: I was like 10 years old or so. So I was seeing, I mean, bullets coming from one side to another side, and we were hiding ourselves in the basement.
PF: He couldn’t imagine his children seeing what he saw.
Haseeb and his wife started to think about leaving their home country. When he went to the airport to try to get a flight out of Afghanistan, it was chaos. It seemed impossible to get his entire family out of the country at once.
Then one night, Haseeb got a phone call.
AHP: So it was like 12:30 or 1 a.m. when I received the call and it said, “OK, you guys have this one chance. If you all leave your house, be at that designated spot, by 4 a.m., and then the convoy will be taken inside the airport.”
Everybody was sleeping. My wife was also and, and I was like, OK, what should I do?
And then I received another call. They said that this is the last chance, you will not be able to make it after this. So at that time, at 3:30, we decided that, OK, we will leave.
PF: Next, Haseeb and his family had to decide where to go.
They needed to be somewhere close to a good children’s hospital. Their daughter, Rahwa, has a serious heart condition that requires monitoring and treatment.
The options felt overwhelming. They’d never been to the U.S. before. Picking a place to live felt like throwing a dart at a big map.
Then a thought came to Haseeb.
AHP: So I had, like, watched all the Sylvester Stallone, Rocky movies. Philadelphia was depicted in that movie, so I thought about that one. And then when I saw that, and hear there’s a good hospital by the name of CHOP, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
PF: Haseeb and his family fled the Taliban in Afghanistan and headed to Philly because of the Rocky story.
AHP: Having that dream of Rocky, that motivated me. I said, well, let’s go to Philadelphia.
PF: The family landed in Philadelphia late one October night, and stayed in a temporary home provided by the children’s hospital. It happened to be about a five-minute walk from the Rocky statue.
AHP: Usually, when I visit a new place, I try to get accustomed to that place. So I just walk.
And in the morning, then I went out to explore the surroundings. So I came to museum, and then the steps, and the Rocky.
That was something incredible and shocking, because suddenly everything is surprising. Everything. I mean, has come in front. You have heard about it. You have seen in different movies and suddenly everything is just in front. It was like a dream come true.
PF: Standing in front of the statue, Haseeb did what countless people have done before him. He started comparing himself to the bronze figure just above his head.
AHP: It took me back to the movie as well, how it started, how he was climbing, he was all doing all those exercises to prepare himself for the biggest fight of his life. Rocky started from scratch. His exercise, his mission of becoming the champion. Now I am making everything from scratch, from zero.
PF: In a brand new country, missing almost everything and everyone he knows, Haseeb saw himself as Rocky.
He also sees Rocky in his daughter, Rahwa.
AHP: She has Rocky energy, of course. Even in Afghanistan, the first time, when I visited the doctor, the doctor said that she will not survive. OK, maybe if she will survive, it will be like three months or something. And I was like, “well, if God has created her in this way, then I am sure that she will make it.”
PF: Rahwa just had surgery, a year after they arrived. It was a success.
AHP: Yeah, it’s a miracle. I always tell my wife and everybody else that she’s a miracle baby. She has make it. She has made it so far. And we are hopeful that she will make it.
PF: The Rocky statue reminds Haseeb just how far he and his family have come.
AHP: Life has so much ups and downs, so much struggle, but at the end, you can become a champion as well, if you persist and make your way forward.
PF: People connect to this monument in ways they rarely do with other statues. We set out to find out why.
This season on The Statue…
We’ll get to know Sylvester Stallone, the actor and the artist. Yes, the artist.
SS: Well Oprah, when I first got started in art I was about 13 years old.
PF: We’ll take you to the Philly neighborhood where Rocky lived and trained. A place where the stakes are life and death.
ADRIANA ABIZADEH: Kensington does not have the option to give up because we will be failing an entire neighborhood.
PF: We’re going to investigate an essential question: when we give this much attention to the Rocky statue, who do we leave out?
MALEEK JACKSON: Smokin’ Joe was a favorite in the gym. He loved entertaining.
AMARI JOHNSON: The fact is that this is someone who really never received the recognition that he deserved for his talents.
PF: And what does this mean for the future of our monuments?
CRYSTAL CUSTUS: It’s not him that I got a problem with. I just got a, I have an issue with the culture being taken.
SALAMISHAH TILLET: American history or world history is rarely made up of individual players who determine the fate of the world.
PF: This is The Statue. I’m your host, Paul Farber. Our producers are Michael Olcott and Michaela Winberg. Our executive producers are Tom Grahsler and Paul Farber. Our engineer is Charlie Kaier.
Sound design and mixing by Jon Ehrens for Rowhome Productions. Rowhome’s executive producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers.
Marketing support is provided by The Podglomerate.
Our tile art was made by William Hodgson. Our theme song is a remix of Bill Conti’s Gonna Fly Now, created by Moqita, that’s Justin Geller and Billy Dufala. Special thanks to Gabriel Coffey, Kayla Watkins, Elizabeth Estrada, Sarah Glover, Danya Henninger, Grant Hill, Terri Murray, Emily Rizzo, Maiken Scott, Sophia Schmidt, and the Monument Lab team, especially Laurie Allen, Lola Bakare, Aubree Penney, Gebby Keny, Clare Fisher, and Florie Hutchinson.
The Statue is a production of WHYY and part of the NPR podcast network, in partnership with Paul Farber Projects, with in-kind support from Monument Lab. Find us wherever you get your podcasts.collapse
Executive Producers: Tom Grahsler, Paul Farber
Producers: Michael Olcott, Michaela Winberg
Engineer: Charlie Kaier
Sound Design and Mixing: Jon Ehrens for Rowhome Productions
Executive Producers, Rowhome Productions: Alex Lewis, John Myers
Tile Art: William Hodgson
Theme Song: Justin Geller and Billy Dufala of Moqita
Special Thanks to Gabriel Coffey, Kayla Watkins, Elizabeth Estrada, Sarah Glover, Danya Henninger, Grant Hill, Terri Murray, Emily Rizzo, Maiken Scott, Sophia Schmidt
Special Thanks to the Monument Lab team including Lola Bakare, Aubree Penney, Gebby Keny, Clare Fisher, Laurie Allen and Florie Hutchinson.
Gonna’ Fly Now by Bill Conti, courtesy of Sony Music
The Statue is a production of WHYY and part of the NPR podcast network, in partnership with Paul Farber Projects and with in-kind support from Monument Lab.collapse
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