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.