Literally Everything Is a “Real Philadelphia Story”

A look back at the most over-used phrase in local storytelling.

“So … what do you guys know about Philadelphia?” I was talking with new people I’d met in Toronto last year, and they asked what I knew about the city. I considered my response with some trepidation; it’s not as if Philadelphia has the best rep. But I figured the worst I’d get is some taunting about Mitch Williams.

How silly of me. It would have been better if they asked how I dealt with all the garbage. Instead, I got the usual: A real blue-collar town, Rocky Balboa, cheesesteaks, “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It.” Fortunately, we quickly moved on to talking about our favorite It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia episodes. I should have expected your usual Philadelphia cliches.

I thought about this when I read about the forthcoming documentary about the Sons of Ben. “It’s a real Philadelphia story,” said director Jeffrey C. Bell. “A real Philadelphia story” is one of those cliches that people use when they’re not quite sure what to say, like when sportswriters say a team has a “blue collar fanbase.” (The only teams that don’t have blue-collar fanbases are rich prep schools in kids’ sports movies.)

Just what is a “Philadelphia story”?

I decided to do some searching to find out. I painstakingly searched newspaper and blog archives to see what, exactly, has been called a “real Philadelphia story.” A little spoiler: The term no longer applies to a wacky comedy of remarriage where Tracy Samantha Lord Haven divorces C.K. Dexter Haven and re-marries him, essentially on a whim. In order to be called a “real Philadelphia story” nowadays Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn would have to run up the Rocky steps, eat cheesesteaks, throw snowballs and eat at Federal Donuts.

“Real Philadelphia story” is right at home in sports articles. Usually, the Philadelphia story is one of mediocrity: So we have real Philadelphia stories about, say, the futility of Philadelphia sports teams (A blog post headlined, “The Real Philadelphia Story“). (Cheer up, blog that hasn’t updated since Dec. 2007! The Phillies won the World Series in 2008!) And you get it in stories about the failure of sports buildings, too:

In early 1968, wind gusts blew part of the Spectrum’s roof off while a crowd was waiting to watch the Ice Follies. Financial straits soon forced the arena’s original owner to sell. It was a real Philadelphia story.

Don Steinberg wrote that, and I think it works: The roof blowing off the Spectrum is a real Philadelphia story, because something went wrong in the most ridiculous way possible. But sometimes real Philadelphia stories are uplifting, like when college basketball announcer Bill Raftery blurbed the Hank Gathers biography Heart of a Lion (a steal new at $144.18!):

This is a real Philadelphia story about a young man who used the game to help his family while setting an extraordinary example for all to witness.

Sometimes it’s used to describe MLB umpire-turned-Chickie’s and Pete’s doorman Eric Gregg by hacks like 23-year-old Dan McQuade. (There’s a lighthearted Gervase burn in there, though, which I still fully endorse.)

“A real Philadelphia story” is frequently applied to fiction, too. These are “real Philadelphia stories”: early-2000s CBS drama “Hack” (locally shot, starting David Morse and Andre Braugher), the film Blow Out (producer George Litto and director Brian DePalma are Philly natives) and, in this excellent over-the-top comment thread, last year’s production of Hope Street and Other Lonely Places at Azuka Theatre:

Forget Toby, Forget the Inquirer. Go see Hope Street because it is a real Philadelphia story written by and for real Philadelphians.

In this sense, a “real Philadelphia story” is a message: It’s much like the city, and it’s (usually) made by people who are from here. The second part’s a little silly—yes, an outsider could certainly produce a wonderful, important piece about Philadelphia—but I guess more often than not Philadelphians will trust a local.

Occasionally it’s used as a defense: See Sports Illustrated‘s Dr. Z citing his birth in Philadelphia in a mailbag piece titled, “The real Philadelphia story.” (In it, Zimmerman does this real Philadelphia story: He’s ripped on a WIP appearance for picking the Eagles to go to the playoffs, then when they make the playoffs and WIP asks him to come on again, he tels them to “piss up the end of a rope.”)

Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction, though, and gets the “real Philadelphia story” label. For example, great moments in local firms doing branding work:

“How many brands are launched from Philadelphia?” asked Berny Brownstein, the Center City ad shop’s chief executive officer. “Few and far between. This is a real Philadelphia story.”

The Brownstein Group did the national ad campaign for then-locally based Native Eyewear, which sells higher-end sunglasses and goggles. It debuted at the 1998 Warped Tour, so imagine this real Philadelphia story: Ska/swing-revivalists Cherry Poppin’ Daddies performing as suburban teenagers shopped for new sunglasses.

That’s another positive story, but more often it sounds like the tale of the Spectrum roof. Take this story from Daryl Hall:

Mayor Street declared Saturday Hall and Oates Day to coincide with the duo’s homecoming show at the Tower Theater, and Daryl Hall thought he would read the proclamation to the packed crowd of 40- and 50-somethings (and some of their children). Hall requested a copy, but somewhere between Street’s office and his hotel room, it disappeared. “It got stolen. That’s a real Philadelphia story, isn’t it?” Hall laughed when he recounted the anecdote.

Obviously, this is a silly cliche, but I think it’s useful to look at: In one sense a “real Philadelphia story” is just a code for a Rocky-type story with an underdog overcoming insurmountable odds. (Okay, so it’s more like Rocky II.) That’s not really useful. But in another sense it’s the true Philadelphian worldview, the slanted one with equal parts cynicism and love for the city and a jaded take on anybody who tries to say otherwise. A situation where things go wrong in some hilarious fashion. So, um, kind of like the tale of George Kittredge, essentially left at the altar by Katherine Hepburn’s character in The Philadelphia Story. Maybe these references aren’t so far off after all.

Oh, also, sometimes it means Larry Kane witnessing a driver having a bad experience with the PPA.