Rocky statue: Art or a prop?

The Baltimore Sun

PHILADELPHIA -- Visitors to the Philadelphia Museum of Art are greeted by exquisite sculptures of legendary warriors: Prometheus strangling a vulture, John Paul Jones and the Marquis de Lafayette striking defiant poses against the British Empire, and Greek fighters slaying lions on horseback.

City officials say there is room for one more: Rocky Balboa.

To mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Rocky and this week's first-ever "Philly Loves Rocky Week," the city wants to permanently move a 9-foot bronze statue of the Italian Stallion in boxing trunks to the foot of the art museum steps - the steps that Rocky immortalized by running the day before his epic battle with Apollo Creed.

The statue, showing Rocky with muscular arms raised in triumph, was created for the filming of Rocky III in 1981.

In the movie, the statue is at the art museum, unveiled by adoring city dignitaries in honor of Rocky's victory (in Rocky II) over Apollo in their rematch.

Rocky's alter ego, Sylvester Stallone, donated the statue to the city on the condition that it be displayed in a prominent place. For most of the past 24 years, that spot was Philadelphia's Spectrum.

Now, the city believes, a more appropriate location is the steps of its world-class art museum.

But those who oppose Rocky's presence at the museum refuse to drop like Ivan Drago in the 15th round (Rocky IV). The city's Art Commission, instead of rubber-stamping the new location as some expected, deadlocked on the issue at its meeting last month. One member dared to say the statue wasn't art at all.

The panel will take up the issue again tomorrow - the same day Rocky Week is scheduled to kick off.

Some say it's only right for the "Rocky Steps" - a destination for thousands of Rocky pilgrims every year - to be adorned with the Rocky statue.

Others argue just as fiercely that a statue created for a movie does not belong anywhere near a museum that houses masterworks by Rodin, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, Picasso, Matisse and Dali.

'It's a movie prop'

"It's not an artistic high point of sculptural practice," said Penny Balkin Bach, director of the Fairmount Park Art Association, which commissions and preserves public art in Philadelphia. "It's a movie prop. That's what it was made for. It's not an insult and it's not an opinion. It's a fact."

The debate - at its core about the definition of art as well as the identity of a city trying to reconcile rapid gentrification with the preservation of its soul - has played out on sports talk radio, in letters to the editor and over the counters of cheese-steak stands. There is no easy consensus.

"I think the Rocky statue should be put at the top of the steps, where it belongs. It looks good up there," said Tom Francano, general manager of Pat's King of Steaks in South Philadelphia, where the famous Philly cheese-steak was invented.

Pat's is featured in the first Rocky movie, which won three Academy Awards, including best picture.

Francano's opinion, however, is not universally held, even in Rocky's old South Philly neighborhood. Don Nardi, 63, has been coming to Pat's since cheese-steaks cost a quarter (they now run $7 or more). A Philadelphia native and a member of the museum, Nardi doesn't think Rocky belongs there, although not entirely for reasons relating to artistic taste.

"I think people who go to the museum are more of educated, liberal leanings," said Nardi, a retired builder. "Rocky is more a blue-collar guy, so why not put him where people enjoy him - at the stadium?

"I sound like a snob when I say it doesn't belong in front of the museum. But you know what? Everything in its place."

Stallone donated the statue to the city in 1982 with the expectation that it would remain at the top of the museum's steps, in front of the majestic Corinthian columns. The Art Commission would have none of it. When the commission chairman at the time, Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr., heard of the plan, he said, "I hope you are jesting."

Rocky was evicted and banished to the Spectrum, then home of the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers. But nine months later, the statue was returned to the art museum for the premiere of Rocky III. Then there was a problem: After the premiere, filmmakers left the statue at the steps. The museum had to pay $12,000 to send it back to the Spectrum, according to news reports.

So when the statue returned in 1990 for the filming of Rocky V, the museum secured a written contract from the film's producers promising to remove the statue when they were finished. This year, it was taken from the Spectrum with the intention of placing it at the museum for the filming of Rocky Balboa, the sixth film in the franchise, due out in December. But it wasn't needed and was put in storage.

The statue's temporary visits to the art museum are apparently not enough for Stallone. The actor's friends and associates say he wants the statue to be a permanent fixture at the museum.

"It was quite clear it was very meaningful for him to bring it back there," said Stephanie Naidoff, the Philadelphia commerce director who worked with Stallone on securing locations for filming Rocky Balboa.

"I don't believe this is a question of whether it's art or not," Naidoff said. The statue, she says, symbolizes the city's rebirth: "Philadelphia, which for so many years thought of itself in underdog terms, is a winner at this point, much like the story Rocky tells. This is a wonderful opportunity for us to capture that feeling by moving it back to the museum area."

The museum steps are one of the city's top tourist destinations. Tens of thousands visit every year, many without ever venturing into the museum. All day long during the summer, tour buses pull up to the museum and disgorge their passengers, who run the 72 steps to the top, duplicate Rocky's triumphant circle dance, run down and get back on the bus. On a recent morning, groups from Japan and France crowded the steps, and four young Frenchmen started doing push-ups and stretches while they hummed the Rocky theme song.

Next month, the steps will be celebrated in the book Rocky Stories by Michael Vitez, a 21-year veteran of the Philadelphia Inquirer who spent a year at the steps talking to those who ran them. Many, he said, get to the top expecting to see the statue. Instead, they find a set of footprints and the word "ROCKY" engraved in stone.

Vitez doesn't think the statue should be at the top of the steps, but he supports the plan to place it on a grassy spot just east of the steps. "The statue draws its power from these steps," he said, "and the closer it is to here, the more meaningful it is."

The plan to move the statue won approval this spring from the art museum and the Fairmount Park Commission. The only body that still needs to sign off is the Art Commission

Officials say it shouldn't require any thumb-breaking (Rocky's profession before his first fight with Apollo) to make it happen. When the Art Commission met in early August, it split 3-3 on the move. But three members were absent, and city officials expect they will support the plan when the commission reconvenes this week to vote again.

"It's going in front of the art museum," Jimmy Binns said decisively. Binns, 66, is a longtime power broker in Philadelphia, a lawyer and Stallone pal who played Rocky's lawyer in Rocky V and will again in Rocky Balboa.

"During the course of filming this movie, I said to Sly, 'Do you want the statue here?' I said, 'If you want it here, I guarantee it's gonna go here.'"

He envisions even more: "It will be lit 24/7. It will be on a pedestal. We're building a 16-foot-diameter walkway around it, and it will look like it was there forever."

Philly Loves Rocky

Binns is the organizing force behind Philly Loves Rocky Week, which kicks off with a boxing exhibition, followed Thursday by a Rocky and Adrian look-alike contest. On Sept. 9, festivities will culminate with the Hero Thrill Show, which will include a classic car show, a performance by the city police motorcycle drill team and a fire department demonstration of life-saving techniques. Stallone will be the grand marshal.

And at some point during the week, the 60-year-old actor expects to dedicate the Rocky statue in its new location, his representatives said. Binns is confident it will all come off as planned.

"This little committee says it's not art. Well, who are they to say that?" Binns said. "I really don't take kindly to people imposing their opinion on a city, and that's what's happened here with these people who are the naysayers. If you canvassed 100 Philadelphians, a minimum of 90 would say put that thing back where it belongs. ... You'll get some people who say they're art connoisseurs. I mean, who cares?"

As an added incentive to moving the statue, Stallone has agreed to donate to the Spectrum a full-size replica, which he has in California, so both the city's sports and art patrons will be able to see it.

One other person who would love to see the statue at the museum is its creator, A. Thomas Schomberg. He said he intended the statue to capture the message he took from the film - that an average guy can make good on his own talent and ability. But Schomberg, who specializes in monuments and athletic figures, said he can't help but be hurt when people say the statue isn't art.

"Somebody who's saying it's not art really needs to be a little more guarded," Schomberg said in a phone interview from his studio outside Denver. "Is it good art? Then you get into value judgments and philosophy. Is it a prop? Absolutely."

He's staying out of the debate, though, and says he'll be happy if the statue's on display anywhere in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, he's producing 12- and 20-inch replicas of the statue to put on sale by the end of the year, the smaller at about $100, the larger between $400 and $600.

Then, little Rocky statues will be under Christmas trees, on office desks and at the center of dining room tables. They will be wherever their fans want them to be.

stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

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