[Interview] Mike Todd, Filmmaker: Documenting Joe Frazier’s Gym

Posted on: October 11th, 2012 by Julia Rocchi

UPDATE: The National Trust for Historic Preservation and its preservation partners hosted a film screening of the documentary, “Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears,” at Temple University in fall 2012 that received an overwhelming response from attendees. The film about Frazier’s life that spotlights the importance of saving his gym in Philadelphia resonated with students, faculty, local preservationists and community activists alike.

In an effort to reach a wider audience with the film and raise funds to support preservation of the gym, the National Trust entered into an agreement Kultur International Films LTD., Inc. recently, in which the National Trust receives a portion of the proceeds from sales of the documentary DVD.

The National Trust will receive 40 percent of the discounted sale price ($17.99), or $7.20, on any sale of the DVD. Visit Kultur to watch a clip of the film or purchase a DVD. Enter the unique code “JFNT” to support us in protecting an iconic historic site and receive a discount on purchase of the DVD.

After watching the film, share your stories and thoughts on our Saving Places website.

It’s an old-fashioned story: the local boxing gym that becomes a community hub and plays an important role in its neighborhood. Can such a place still exist in the 21st century? Documentary filmmaker Mike Todd believes it can -- and considers boxing legend Joe Frazier a prime example of how to make it work.

Todd’s latest film, Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears, delves into Frazier’s relationship with his Philadelphia community through the lens of his world-famous gym, which he ran for more than 40 years with his son Marvis. Todd says, “I was interested in what motivated Joe to keep it open. He had devoted his life to it and built up a lot of community goodwill. It was amazing to see him still sitting behind the desk.”

But as often happens with documentary filmmaking, the inspirational story Todd started to tell was soon overtaken by history. As the filmmakers worked to raise funding and interest for their project, the gym was facing its own financial difficulties. Then Frazier passed away in 2011, and the gym closed for good.

Todd remembers, “We could see this important, iconic place slipping away. We as filmmakers wanted to step in. We did outreach to see if someone could take over its administration to help out. Surely someone, somewhere, would step in. Marvis and Joe wanted to keep it going. But that didn’t work.”


Director Mike Todd (l.) jokes around with boxing legend Joe Frazier (r.) at the gym.

The good news is, hope is on the horizon for Joe Frazier’s Gym. Named a National Treasure this year, the National Trust is collaborating with Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia and Temple University’s School of Architecture to designate the modest three-story building as both a local and national landmark. It’s also working to find a preservation-friendly buyer for the property.

On Tuesday, October 16, the National Trust is organizing a screening of the film in Philadelphia with a complementary panel discussion to follow (event details here). In advance of the event, we sat down with Todd to learn more about his filming experience and reflect on what the building -- and Joe Frazier himself -- meant to him.

What went through your mind when you first entered Joe Frazier’s gym?

On one hand, it felt like a really important, iconic place with historic photos everywhere. But on the other hand, it felt like a community center. Kids were running around. It was a safe place where people had respect for each other. Joe’s name was on the door, and people knew they could go there to have space and freedom from the pressures of North Philadelphia (even if they never became famous boxers). You see so many celebrities who associate themselves with charitable work only for public relations value, but Joe did it with no recognition and his own money.

Who did you encounter in the course of filming that had connections to the space?

Oh, there were so many stories. People went to train there. People were mentored there -- not just in boxing, but in other opportunities outside the gym (job training, for example). If you were prepared to work hard and were motivated, and wanted a way out of the circumstances you were given, the gym was there to help you.

One great example is Richard Slone. He’s an artist, originally from England. He wanted to be a boxer, and every week until he turned 16 he would call Marvis and Joe, because his dream was to train with them. Marvis always encouraged and supported him. So when he finally turned 16, Slone came to Philly to train. He had nothing when he arrived, and ended up living in the back of gym. He became like a son to Marvis and Joe, who looked after him for 10 years.

Meanwhile, Slone was sketching pictures there at the gym. Marvis said to him, “You may never be a boxer, but you can be an artist.” Now Slone is one of the most successful sports artists in America.


Joe Frazier and his son Marvis pose at the gym.

What would losing Joe Frazier’s Gym mean to the neighborhood? To the sports community? To the world?

When we were 2.5 years into filming, the gym closed. Renovations weren’t going to solve anything; it was just stalling time. Marvis was still trying to find a benefactor, but with no success. The gym was slipping through the cracks, much like Joe did. When he passed away, the world remembered who he was. It was so clear how iconic he’d been, but in later years was unrecognized. The work the gym did in the community wasn’t recognized either.

You have to look at Joe’s life in a 20th century U.S. context. Joe’s story says something about the United States and its history, but also speaks to an international audience as symbol of hard work, dedication, and perseverance. There’s meaning and investment in the gym -- it was a beacon of hope.

To lose the gym would be a lost opportunity for the city. He’s a truly remarkable figure. Anyone would be proud to say Joe Frazier lived and ran a gym in their city. You can still preserve the legacy of what it meant, and it’s a story that can still inspire people.

If the building can be preserved and help people remember who Joe Frazier was and what he did -- both as a sportsman and a person engaged in community issues where others had turned their backs -- even posthumous recognition would be amazing. We want Joe to get the recognition he deserves.

How can your film help the cause to save the building?

In May 2011, Joe came to the preview cut in New York City. It was great we got to see the film with him. I even did a Q&A session with him. At the end, the audience gave him a standing ovation. In retrospect, it was great he got to see the story our film tells and why he deserves our respect. (He liked it, too!)

Our film can help raise awareness of why what Joe did there is still relevant -- that his life and the history he represents are still relevant. In that respect, it would be a fantastic achievement to keep the gym open as a place that provides a space for the community, as well as a museum about Joe and the civil rights movement of that era. It is a place linked to the most dramatic years of his life; I think it would be a place people would visit.


Quenell Jones films Joe Frazier in action at the gym.

What’s your dream for the future of Joe Frazier’s Gym?

Seeing the gym included on the 11 Most Endangered list this year proved its importance. It captured the public’s imagination. Our film captured those final years, and we captured that history. I just feel there’s a lot more to run with this -- it’s not sunk in how meaningful this issue can be.

My dream is to see the gym as a place where Joe is remembered, to make it a tribute to Joe’s achievements and what he dedicated his life to. If it can still inspire people locally, nationally and even internationally, then it will truly celebrate Joe’s life and capture what the gym represented.

“Joe Frazier: When the Smoke Clears” is available from FilmBuff on iTunes, Amazon, YouTube Rentals, Cinemanow, Vudu, and XBOX. You can also contribute to the campaign to save Joe Frazier’s Gym at SavingPlaces.org.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi

Julia Rocchi is the associate director for digital content at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and walks around looking up at buildings.

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