Not just about Philadelphia, and not just about movies

Review Popular culture

December 31, 2006|By Bill Ordine | Bill Ordine,Sun Reporter

Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America's Most Famous Steps

By Michael Vitez / photos by Tom Gralish

Paul Dry Books Inc. / 129 pages / $22.95

When I first heard about the premise of Rocky Stories - a collection of photos and profiles of just plain folks scaling the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps immortalized in Sylvester Stallone's signature movie - my initial impression was that the notion, while interesting, might be a bit parochial.

Rocky is such a Philly thing, I reasoned, that the reach and appeal of such a book beyond the banks of the Schuylkill and the Delaware River was probably limited.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

The book's creators, writer Michael Vitez and photographer Tom Gralish, both Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists at The Philadelphia Inquirer, spent a year camped out at the art museum watching people make that famous ascension and, only after the trip was completed, asking them about it.

Many of the runners and joggers, some of whom took the 72 steps at a crisp clip while others wheezed and gasped their way to the top, were hardly locals.

They were from Australia and Turkey and France and Italy and India.

And what brought them to this place where the magic is drawn from a fictional prize fighter whose ambition - to accomplish something apparently out of reach and, in the process, better himself - has a transcendental quality that's proven to be universal in its appeal?

The 127-page book is being published as the Rocky series celebrates its 30th anniversary and the most recent installment, Rocky Balboa, is being released. Stallone contributes a foreword.

Through four seasons, Vitez and Gralish chronicle a parade of step-climbers, many talking of hope and faith, aspiration and perseverance.

There was a middle-aged former drug addict celebrating breaking a 25-year-old habit. A minister in a wheelchair whose friends helped lift her along the steps. A trio of businessmen on their way to an important meeting. A wedding party. The cancer survivor.

Often, they would "rocky" at the top of the steps, a movie-inspired verb that describes the act of copying Rocky triumphantly thrusting his arms and dancing, silhouetted against the Philadelphia skyline.

One of my personal favorite tales was of Mehdi Jabrane, born of a Moroccan father and French mother, who grew up in a housing project for immigrant workers in southwest France. The 25-year-old first saw the movie as a child and has watched it over and over. The unassuming Philly pug became his role model and inspiration to escape dead-end circumstances and attend college.

When Vitez encountered him, Jabrane had come to Philadelphia at least twice and on both occasions had run the museum steps.

"Each time, it's the same motivation, the same desire, the same dream," Jabrane says in the book. "When I'm upstairs, I feel great, untouchable, proud, because the road was long for me to come here. I'm not talking about the trip from France, but the road to be a good person."

Bill Ordine is an enterprise reporter on the sports staff of The Sun.

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