Rocky Balboa & Philly Go the Distance

Monday, November 21, 2016

Forty years ago, a movie about an underdog boxer in Philadelphia became the ultimate underdog. Rocky, written and starring Sylvester Stallone as main character Rocky Balboa, premiered this week in 1976 and went on to win three, Oscars, Best Film, Best Director and Best Editing, out of its 10 nominations. The little film that could had a rumored budget of under $1 million dollars and, to date, has grossed more than $225 million. The pop culture phenomena that is Rocky has crossed multiple generations and driven the original film and its six sequels to box-office success with a total franchise gross of more than $1 billion dollars (and counting).

Philadelphia in the 1970s, like Balboa, was an underdog due to decades of turbulence from crime, corruption and civil unrest. Though, like Balboa, the city endured through struggle and heartache. New policies enacted by Mayor Ed Rendell in the early 1990s started a revitalization effort that continued for decades. City Center saw an increase in multi-housing developments, slowing the city’s 40-year population decline. As we moved into the 21st Century, crime declined significantly, and tourism became one of Philly’s main industries. According to the September 2016 MSA Employment Report put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Philadelphia MSA is ranked 11th nationally in absolute growth and above the national average in percentage growth. It’s also one of the top 20 MSAs for job creation.

Though not found in any official cast list, the city of Philadelphia was a major player in the movie and the entire franchise. Below are some of the Philadelphia locations that even a casual Rocky viewer would recognize since most – but not all – of them appear in what is arguably one of the most recognizable movie scenes in film history:

Philadelphia’s 9th Street Italian Market:  During the previously discussed training montage in Rocky (and also seen in Rocky II), Balboa runs through Philadelphia’s iconic 9th Street Italian Market, which is the oldest and largest working outdoor market in the United States. Butcher shops, bakeries, coffee shops, produce stands, cheese purveyors, cafes, restaurants and bistros can be found there to this day.

Kensington:  Several sites in the Kensington neighborhood in north Philadelphia were used for the filming. Balboa’s apartment is located at 1818 East Tusculum Street. The owner rented the apartment out for the filming for $50 and, other than a new front door and updated hand railings, it looks as it did in 1976. The building that stood in for the exterior of Mighty Mick’s Gym is located at 2147 North Front Street, and the building still looks the same with its red brick facade. Never used as a gym, the building at one point was a Dollar Plus Market. The building was featured in Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III, Rocky V, Rocky Balboa and Creed, and the signage was affixed for each new movie for consistency. In Rocky, the internal gym scenes were shot in a now-demolished Los Angeles gym. Steps away from Mighty Mick’s was the pet shop where Adrian worked, which was an actual pet shop for years until it closed in the mid-2000s.

Penn’s Landing:  Balboa runs on Penn’s Landing along the Delaware River waterfront. At the time of filming, the area was mostly industrial but now is frequently the site of parks, outdoor concerts and movie screenings and pop-up beer gardens in addition to a frequent spot for joggers and walkers. A short walk from Old City and Historic Philadelphia, Penn’s Landing is a year-round destination with an Olympic-size ice rink with a heated pavilion in the winter and a spectacular New Year’s Eve fireworks display.

Philadelphia Museum of Art Steps:  The climax of the famous training montage shows Balboa running up the 72 steps – now known as the Rocky Steps – that lead to the Philadelphia Museum of Art on Benjamin Franklin Parkway northwest of downtown Philadelphia. The scene is reminiscent of Balboa's rise, starting out as a self-proclaimed “bum” in Kensington and ending up in a more affluent, successful area of the city. The scene is often recreated by tourists and parodied in movies and television, including The Nutty Professor, In Her Shoes, The Simpsons and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. The Rocky Steps were featured in every Rocky film except for Rocky IV. For Rocky III, Stallone commissioned sculptor A. Thomas Schomberg to create a larger-than-life depiction of the triumphant boxer, and, since 2006, the statue has lived north of the Rocky Steps and is a frequent stop for tourists and fans alike, all vying to get their photo with Rocky Balboa.

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