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In New Book, 'Rocky Stories' Get Re-Enacted on Art Museum Steps
They're really just stone steps, all 72 of them: five flights of 13 and another with seven steps -- and those last ones are always the toughest on the legs.
But throw in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the panoramic view of Center City in the backdrop, along with some background music provided by film composer Bill Conti's "Gonna Fly Now" -- a tune that's all too easy to get stuck in your head -- and you've got the "Rocky" steps, a place many equate with Philly as readily as they do Independence Hall or the Liberty Bell.
Of course, that's where people have been re-enacting the famous cinematic moment -- running to the top and celebrating with arms raised high in the air -- ever since the release of the original "Rocky" film in 1976.
"I thought to myself, 'Who are these people, and why do they do this and where are they from?' " recalled Michael Vitez, a Pulitzer Prize-winning features reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
One day in 2004, after completing a bike ride through Fairmont Park, the now 49-year-old decided to find out.
"I noticed there were these two guys, and it was a hot July day. They both had their shirts off, and they were sweating like crazy," said Vitez. "They would run to the top, dance around and run to the bottom, and they kept doing that. They were so happy."
He found out that the two were best friends from Denmark -- big Rocky Balboa fans -- who had planned a special trip to Philadelphia for the sole purpose of running up the steps and celebrating their friendship.
That interview became the genesis for Vitez's new coffee-table book Rocky Stories: Tales of Love, Hope and Happiness at America's Most Famous Steps. Inky staffer Tom Gralish took most of the photos, and Sylvester Stallone sort of penned the introduction. (He'd actually left a series of long messages on Vitez's answering machine.)
Vitez -- whose parents were Jewish refugees from Europe who decided to raise their son as a Unitarian -- spoke about his book during a Chanukah dinner party at Stein's Famous Deli in Northeast Philadelphia.
The event was organized by the two-year-old Northeast Suburban Brith Shalom Lodge, a social and philanthropic group that caters to senior citizens.
When he first began work on Rocky Stories in 2004, nothing new was happening in the world of the fictional "Italian Stallion."
There were no rumblings of moving the Rocky statue back to the museum, which happened back in September, and certainly, there was no inkling that Stallone was planning a sixth installment of the saga, titled "Rocky Balboa" -- which incidentally grossed more than $12 million on its opening weekend.
"It isn't really Rocky that this book is about," he said excitedly. "The steps have become this place where people celebrate the message of the movie."
He noted that he's never been a huge fan of the film, which captured three Academy Awards back in 1976. But he has become intrigued with one of its iconic sites -- the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which over the years have become a place where people celebrate personal triumphs, and so, in turn, have become a source of great human-interest tales.
In one year, he visited the museum roughly 200 times, always showing up at different points of the day.
Among the 52 anecdotes included in the book are: an actress looking for inspiration in her career, a formerly homeless man who had conquered several addictions and a Frenchman who had been in trouble with the law -- and viewed the Rocky films as an inspiration to help turn his life around.
Vitez also witnessed two proposals, both of which made it into the book.
When he would first approach his step-climbing subjects, most looked at him like "I was crazy." But then, they'd readily tell their stories.
Vitez didn't get far into his presentation at the deli before questions started to fly from the audience, who were digging into some chocolate ice-cream cake while he spoke.
How many people did he interview? About 1,000.
How many refused to cooperate? Just two, including an Ivy League rower from Australia, who ran up the steps naked on a dare.
Did he ever run up the steps himself? Twice, he said.
The first time was when he got the call from Center City publisher Paul Dry and learned that his book would indeed be printed and distributed. The second time was during the filming of "Rocky Balboa," a brief moment that made it into the credits of the new film.
"It was inspiring," said 80-year-old David Cramer, of the presentation.
For the past year, Cramer has lived in a condominium across the street from the museum.
"Until now, I really didn't get the gist of what running up the steps really meant," he acknowledged," and how important it can be to people."