Meet Mike Kunda: Philadelphia’s Ambassador to Rockyland
Mike Kunda and Sylvester Stallone. Credit: David Maialetti & Matt Rourke
Like Sylvester Stallone scripting Rocky, Scranton, Pennsylvania-born Mike Kunda, founder of The Yo, Philly! Film Tour created his own career-defining role. Like Stallone in real life and Rocky Balboa on screen, he overcame insecurity and adversity to realize his dream. Senior contributor Jeff Heilman went behind the scenes with Philadelphia’s big-hearted, best-known Rocky impersonator and tour guide to learn about his unique “art becomes life” story.
Jeff Heilman: Right off, I feel like I’m talking with Sly himself.
Mike Kunda: He had me the instant I first saw Rocky on TV in 1979. I was 11. The movie, the character, and that Bill Conti soundtrack changed my world. I loved superheroes and wore Superman and other costumes under my clothes. The schoolyard bullies went to town on me, which kickstarted my odyssey. In Rocky, I saw an insecure guy getting mocked and chastised, like me, who used his hat and jacket as his shield. When my coal miner grandfather gave me his fedora and leather jacket, I had my armor and started believing that I could face the bullies.
Jeff Heilman: But still a long road ahead?
Mike Kunda: I told my guidance counselor my career goal was to be Rocky. Not an actor or a boxer, but Rocky. You can guess her reaction. Last in my class, I skipped college and went straight to work. From mucking out horse stables to serving as a police officer, I had 25 jobs in six years. In 1998, I took a management job at Lens Crafters, moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania with my wife Sue, and put Rocky on the backburner. I still wore the hat and jacket, recited the lines when walking our dog, and painted Rocky scenes. Then the Rocky bell rang again.
Jeff Heilman: I hear destiny calling.
Mike Kunda: I had no idea. In 2005, after hearing that Sly was filming Rocky Balboa, I drove to the outdoor set in Philadelphia. “Bring your painting of Rocky breaking Apollo Creed’s ribs in the 14th round of the first movie,” Sue had said. “Maybe you’ll get his attention.” Sure enough, he comes over, as classy and kind-hearted as you hope he’d be. We spoke for 15 minutes, he signed the painting, and left. Pow.
Jeff Heilman: What happened next?
Mike Kunda: A series of events that changed my life, starting with a visit two weeks later to the Victor Café in Philadelphia, which stood in for Adrian’s restaurant in Rocky Balboa. Sly was reportedly greeting fans outside around midnight each day. So I go, hang out, and am about to leave when I felt a tug on my jacket. It was the restaurant’s co-owner, Alexa DiStefano, along with her husband Greg. “You must Rocky’s double,” she said, insisting I come inside even after I explained that I was just a fan.
Sly gives me a fist bump like he knew me but could not place me. Then he and Burt Young transformed into Paulie and Rocky for a scene. Talk about emotional! I also met boxer Pedro Lovell, who played Spider Rico in the first film. Driving home in the dark two hours later, I again figured that was it.
Soon after, Alexa and Greg invited me and Sue to the first of many dinners at the Victor Café. We became friends. That June, they asked us to join Sly’s 60th birthday celebration at the restaurant, seating us by his table. At one point I’m outside with Sly. Sue takes our photo, posing fist to fist. Then we start trading Rocky lines back and forth when he mentions a guy who gave him a painting. That’s when it clicked. “That’s how I know you!” he said. “I knew you were familiar.”
Two weeks later, I read that Philadelphia was sponsoring a national Rocky look-a-like contest. The grand prize was two tickets to the Rocky Balboa premiere, including walking the red carpet, sitting with Sly, and attending the after-party at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Jeff Heilman: Cue the Rocky music!
Mike Kunda: I did not enter.
Jeff Heilman: You’re kidding.
Mike Kunda: No. My old insecurity and schoolyard trauma from being laughed at came roaring back. I wasn’t going to go through that again.
Jeff Heilman: Even with this clear opportunity to advance toward your dream?
Mike Kunda: No. You can imagine my surprise when a contest official called me weeks later to confirm receipt of my letter about what the Rocky character meant to me and my photo with Sly. “You look like his brother,” he said.
Jeff Heilman: I’m guessing your Adrian was involved.
Mike Kunda: My wonderful, supportive, devoted wife had framed that shot of us from the birthday party and given it to Alexa and Greg as a gift. They wrote the letter and entered me in the contest. I was a finalist, beating out 2,500 other guys around the country. That’s when I listened to my inner Rocky. This time I was not going to walk away in fear. I was going for the dream. The other contestants seemed to have it all, the build, the Italian nose, the voice. But I went for it. Sue and I spent an hour before the judging in full character. I was not Mike, I was Rocky; she was not Sue, but Adrian. And I won, validating everything I had ever believed in.
Jeff Heilman: Incredible.
Mike Kunda: It was and got me to where I am today. Two weeks later, the March of Dimes invited me to a charity event. Standing in front of 7,000 people for three hours was an eye-opening experience. I realized right away that I’d go nowhere just saying ‘Yo Adrian’ and other Rocky lines, like some one-trick Elvis impersonator. As I learned from local Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross impersonators, you must believe that you are the character. Even when people goof on you, you think, act and speak like the character. If you don’t believe it, nobody will.
Jeff Heilman: How did you move forward?
Mike Kunda: Sue said I needed an agent and a manager, so I reconnected with Chris Wiseman, a guy from an old Stallone chat room. We shook hands over burgers and beers and he’s been my manager ever since. I started out emceeing events at the Philadelphia Convention Center and other venues, welcoming delegates from the stage and working the floor. It was a lot of trial and error, learning from mistakes and making new ones, but always going one better than before.
Jeff Heilman: When did your Rocky tours come into the frame?
Mike Kunda: I lost my job in the 2008 downturn and despite looking every day, was out of work for more than two years. In an epiphany, I wrote Cue the Rocky Music, my self-published memoir. I knew I had to get it in Sly’s hands, so I had a friend in L.A. see what he could do. Book in hand, he ran into Rocky IV actor Dolph Lundgren in a cafe and asked if he would get the book to Sly. Dolph called me “crazy or amazing” but agreed to do it.
Understanding how perception of his personality can affect people, Sly’s great qualities include putting people at ease. Rocky and Rambo is a down-to-earth guy who asks fans about their lives. And in my case, his social media post holding my book was next level.
My first Rocky tour, for a public group in 2010, was an expensive flop. I lost big bucks renting a school bus. “Go private,” said Sue, coming to the rescue again. Early bookings included three Samoan brothers in my two-door Kia Rio. “Great tour but maybe get a bigger car,” they said. Another helpful early client was a vacationing Swiss Guard from the Vatican who put me onto marketing myself on Facebook and TripAdvisor. His review on the latter, my first, sent my business from seven tours a year to 15 a month. Then Sly posts him punching me in the face in front of the Rocky Statue, endorses my tour—I’m the only one with Sly’s stamp of approval—and bookings jumped to 150 a month.
Jeff Heilman: Be careful what you wish for! Especially when it works out!
Mike Kunda: Dreams can come true if you never give up. One more thing. Back in 2006 on the Rocky Balboa set, I was approached by Jim Toscano, a Detroit filmmaker looking to make a short about a Rocky fan. Jim, also a fan, soon realized that 15 minutes would not be long enough. The project turned into an award-winning documentary, The Pretender, released in 2018. That was big, but the true dream moment happened as the film was being finalized. Talking with Sly outside the Victor Café on the last day of filming Creed 2, he asked about the documentary. Sly, my childhood hero, asked to be in my film.
“I want people to see us connected,” he said. “You are the ambassador to Rockyland—I want to be part of your journey.” I could have cried. He had his assistant record us talking on my iPhone and it was cut in late.
Today, I do up to 45 tours a month on peak, maximum seven people. Book me 4-6 months in advance. I pick up you at your hotel or other designated spot and then take you back in time. Rocky was unpermitted and filmed guerilla-style. Director John Avildsen, the crew and Sly drove around Philadelphia in a van, jumping out for shots. Over three-plus hours, we hit 60-plus locations, many unchanged from 1976. I’m Rocky and you’re in the movie—many times it’s the customers who cry. Nostalgia for the film and that era is big.
Jeff Heilman: Again, cue that Rocky theme—thanks Mike.