It’s Time to Ditch Rocky, Philadelphia

The world is more likely to associate our city with a fictional character than with the Liberty Bell. See the problem here?

It was 1996, and I was standing at the top of the Art Museum steps looking down the Ben Franklin Parkway to City Hall. A video camera was swinging toward me, dangling from the arm of a large jib mounted on the flatbed of a truck. I was the host of Access Hollywood, and I was home in Philadelphia to host a special on the 20th anniversary of the movie Rocky.

A producer handed me a script, and after reading the first line I said, “I’m not saying this.” The script read: “Hi, I’m Larry Mendte in Philadelphia, the city that Rocky put on the map 20 years ago.” When I showed the line to the producer to share a laugh, he looked at me with a quizzical stare and said “What’s the problem?”

I was dumbfounded. “Rocky didn’t put us on the map,” I said indignantly. “The country was born here. We put America on the map.” To his credit, he got it and was clearly embarrassed he didn’t get it when he first read the script — heck, he may have written it — but I was on a roll. “We started modern democracy, the U.S. Constitution, not to mention the first U.S. newspaper, the first mint, the first fire department. Remember Ben Franklin?” I was now getting a cold stare.

I wasn’t ranting at the producer (he and I are still friends) as much as I was ranting at Hollywood’s shallow understanding of our city and Philadelphia’s inability to tell its story for the past few decades.

In 2005, when a Philadelphia group was trying to get the 2016 summer Olympics, they did a poll to find out what people around the world associate with our city. It’s not the Liberty Bell — according to the poll’s result, most people in other countries think the Liberty Bell is in Boston. Again, it’s Rocky.

Don’t get me wrong, Rocky and most of its sequels are great movies. But the fact that a fictional character is perceived as our only claim to fame is annoying, and worse, a source of ridicule. In 2006 during a comedy festival at what is now Susquehanna Bank Center, comedian Bill Burr tore into an unappreciative crowd of hecklers with a (link waaaay NSFW) 12-minute, obscenity-riddled attack on the crowd and all things Philadelphia. Somewhere in between his hope that everyone in the crowd gets cancer and gang-raped was this observation (obscenities removed): “Rocky is your hero. The whole pride of your city is built around a guy who doesn’t even exist.”

It is infuriating because it’s a perception that’s allowed to exist because no one corrects it. Allow me to get things started. With a nod to Philadelphia magazine, the keeper of all great Philadelphia lists, I offer my own list of just five people from the Philadelphia area we should be known for by the rest of the world.

    1) Ben Franklin. If the pride of this city is built around any one man, it is Franklin. This Founding Father, inventor, publisher and legend has a parkway, a bridge, an institute and a hundred other Philadelphia namesakes. Born in Boston, he conducted life’s work in Philly. 

    2) Wilt Chamberlin. Don’t ever say to a Philadelphian that Michael Jordan is the greatest player of all time. Wilt was so dominant in his time that they had to change the rules of the game to make it fair for the other players. Before the world knew Wilt, he was the star of Overbrook High School in West Philly.

    3) Andrew Wyeth. If he isn’t America’s greatest painter, he is in the conversation. He lived all of his life in Chadds Ford, Chester County, where many of his children still paint at his studios.

    4) Dick Clark. He dominated pop culture for five decades with game shows, bloopers and New Year’s celebrations, but it all started with Bandstand in Philadelphia. Clark was born in Mount Vernon, New York, but it was when he moved to Drexel Hill, Delaware County, that he became a star.

    5) Grace Kelly. Before Princess Di, Grace Kelly was the world’s most famous princess. She gave up movie stardom to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco — not bad for a Philly girl.

There are many more. I have just started my list. Feel free to add and amend. It’s time to let the world know that there is more to us than a fictitious beefy Italian with a bad Philly accent and “yo” Tourette’s.

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  • Denise Rambo

    I’ve had personal experience with this perception. A couple of months ago I had a colleague from the UK In town for a week. When I asked her if she had any other plans for her time here, she said that she’d made arrangements with a tour company for a private tour of the city with an emphasis on the Rocky locations. Other than that, the only thing she wanted to do was go shopping at the King of Prussia malls. Oh – and she wanted to go to the zoo to see some obscure rodent-type animal they have there.

  • Rich-D

    Everyone is entitled to an opinion and many are of the opinion that the first Rocky film was a classic work of art. A film which utilized some of the most noteworthy features of Philadelphia as it’s stage. If the film generates endearing memories of this City, I personally would not be one to complain. .

  • Lewis Whittington

    How about Leopold Stowkowski and the Fabulous Philadelphians

  • Lewis Whittington

    Not to mention Philly’s incredible jazz history

  • Joe19015

    Very nice Job Larry, despite the fact that my office is accross the street from Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, I am frequently asked by visitors what Philly is known for other than Rocky! It really gets me angry. Of course then I take them on a tour and I include Valley Forge in my tour.

  • Joe Burkle

    Agree. When I moved to TX, so many people thought of Stallone etc. first when they asked me about Philly. I’m in Houston now, the 4th largest city in the US, growing faster than any city in the US, and it pains me that no one has a clue about the real Philly. They obviously know it’s a “historical place”, but no real connection. The food, neighborhoods, history, music, food, people, culture, (did I mention food!!) things to do,,,,,miss you Philly! I always made it a point to show folks visiting the countless little gems that make up Philly, that you’d never see on a brochure as well as the awesome well-known spots.

  • Michael s.

    Dick Clark??? Payola? He was a crook.

  • Jackie Chipotle

    I long for the day that Philly is known as the backdrop city for Tina Fey’s 2008 masterpiece, Baby Mama.