The Greatest Philadelphian Who Never Lived

Illustration by Chris Gash

A podcast from the Monument Lab’s Paul Farber explores the wide appeal of a bronzed fictional boxer.

Like many Philadelphians, Paul Farber C’05 didn’t understand the allure of Philadelphia’s Rocky statue. He was perplexed by tourists who waited in long lines to snap a photo with a monument to a movie character—which stands near the steps leading to more critically revered artwork inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

It was his mother who made him rethink his attitude.

“I was teaching a Penn Urban Studies course a few years ago called Mapping Philadelphia and she asked me if I was covering the Rocky statue,” Farber recalls. “I scoffed, and she gave me this look that made me pause and think twice.” So Farber—head of the Monument Lab, a nonprofit public art and history studio that critically explores the past, present, and future of monuments—added Rocky to the curriculum and was “blown away by the way my students pulled out their reflections about the way the movie and the story merged with the actual city.”

Realizing that for too long he had “overlooked the Rocky statue” as a monument that all kinds of people invested with meaning, Farber began to scope out the line of visitors to the eight-and-a-half-foot tall statue of Rocky Balboa, the underdog Philly-bred boxer played by Sylvester Stallone in the Rocky film series. Farber initially thought he might write a book about how tourists and Philadelphians alike interact with the statue, but after a suggestion from his friend and writer Salamishah Tillet C’96 G’04, he decided it would work better as a podcast.

That’s how The Statue, a six-episode series produced by WHYY and hosted by Farber, was born. Released earlier this year, The Statue had “one of the biggest premieres for a podcast at the station,” says Farber, adding that it’s garnered close to 200,000 downloads “from around the country and around the world.”

In the first episode, Farber explored the international appeal while contending that the statue is far more than “a tourist trap.” He found and interviewed people from different countries who’ve made the pilgrimage to see the Rocky statue and run the “Rocky Steps,” where the boxer completed a training run through the streets of Philadelphia in the original 1976 film’s iconic montage. One of the most prominent voices in the episode belongs to Haseeb Payab, an Afghan who fled the Taliban to resettle his family in Philadelphia. Needing to be close to a good children’s hospital because of his daughter’s heart condition, he chose Philly over a couple of other big cities in part due to his love of Stallone and the Rocky movies. He even told Farber he sees himself and his daughter, who’s survived longer than doctors had predicted, reflected in the underdog Rocky character who persevered and overcame obstacles. “People connect to this monument in ways they rarely do with other statues,” Farber said to close the opening episode, adding that four million people every year “come from all over the world just to wait in a long line and take a picture with a movie prop from almost 50 years ago.”

Photo by Gene Smirnov courtesy The Statue

The fact that the Rocky statue has become such a tourist destination is something of an underdog story itself. Or, as Farber put it, “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.” Initially created by sculptor A. Thomas Schomberg for a short scene in Rocky III, the statue was donated to the City of Philadelphia after filming—“like a party favor nobody asked for,” Farber told listeners. Shunned by art museum officials as little more than a movie prop, it was moved to the South Philly sports stadium complex, before ultimately returning to the base of the museum steps in 2006 when a sixth installment of the Rocky film franchise was released. These days, the city and art world have more or less embraced the statue, and Farber is planning an event for the podcast at the Philadelphia Museum of Art on July 14.

One of Farber’s favorite parts of the podcast was going to Palm Springs, California, to visit Schomberg, who worked with Stallone to create a statue featuring a head tilted slightly downward so it could be “shot from below” for the film “but also appreciated from below, where people could see themselves in it,” Farber says—making it more relatable than many conventional monuments that “tower over us and reinforce stories of dominance.”

Farber and his team were unable to connect with Stallone, which early on cast some doubt on the project. “But as soon as you start talking to people, you realize it’s bigger than the statue, it’s bigger than the star,” says Farber, who reported from different Philadelphia neighborhoods to unpack the varied legacies of the Rocky story. Listeners hear from an activist in Kensington (where much of the film was shot), an artist in the Italian Market (which Rocky famously runs through), and actors performing ROCKY, the Musical at the Walnut Street Theatre, among others.

Farber also visited parts of the city where Joe Frazier is best remembered, posing a difficult question as to whether the elevation of a fictional white boxer came at the expense of Frazier—a real-life Black heavyweight boxing champion from Philadelphia who “stands in for multiple generations of Philly boxers who also deserve their own accolades and appreciation for the way they uplift the city.”

“It was important to show that there are real-life boxers in Philly, especially Black boxers, whose stories are eclipsed by ‘the most famous Philadelphian who never lived,’” Farber says. “And so we tried to have a both/and approach: appreciate the journeys of the people who find meaning in the statue, and make sure that we devoted airtime to the stories of real-life boxers in Philly and their ambivalence to the Rocky legend. There was room for both, and it was important to see all of that come together in one story.”

Farber hopes to continue this kind of storytelling with a second season of The Statue, exploring the impact of a different monument in another city. “This was such a profound and inspiring experience, because the story could be told with a multiplicity of voices,” Farber says. “I want to go to another place. Each season would be a biography of a statue that tells the story through the perspectives of the people who hold it up and carry that legacy forward.”—DZ

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