If you live in Philadelphia, you get used to the spectacle. Legions of people, every day, in all kinds of weather, retrace Rocky’s iconic run up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. When they reach the top, they turn to face the city below and pump their fists in jubilation.
Michael Vitez (Col ’79), a Pulitzer Prize-winning staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, often observed this curious pilgrimage. Thirty years after the movie Rocky premiered, the zeal had not abated. All of these people that ran the steps shared a certain momentary joy when they reached the top—a joy that begged to be recorded. So he decided to write a book.
For Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America’s Most Famous Steps, Vitez spent a year hanging out at the steps with photographer Tom Gralish. The pair started on New Year’s Day 2004 and wrapped up the following New Year’s Eve. Their method was simple: just show up on the steps. They were there with camera and notepad on Easter Sunday at dawn and on random lunch hours, weekends and Halloween night.
Organized by the seasons, the book tells the stories of many private triumphs and many journeys, some just begun. Some are celebrating having overcome a drug addiction or cancer. One young man who runs the steps is a heart-transplant recipient who is celebrating another year.
What is it about those 72 steps that draws people?
“The movie, in its own kitschy, corny classic way, represents what is great about America,” writes Vitez. “An Everyman can make his dream come true; an underdog can triumph through hard work; and few things are possible or worthwhile in life without love and friendship.”
The fictional story of Rocky Balboa is about a washed-up boxer from Philadelphia whose life is going nowhere. But he undergoes a remarkable transformation when he accepts a challenge to fight the heavyweight boxing champion of the world. The first time Rocky attempts the steps, he fails, woefully out of shape. Near the end of the movie, however, he tries again and succeeds. At the top, he spins and pumps the air—an often imitated choreography for which Vitez coined the verb “to rocky.”
Sylvester Stallone, who starred as Rocky, explains the mystique of the steps in the book’s foreword: “You know, you can’t borrow Superman’s cape. You can’t use the Jedi laser sword. But the steps are there. The steps are accessible. And standing up there,” he writes, “you kind of have a piece of the Rocky pie.”