For the past five years, Mike Kunda has been leading the Yo, Philly! Rocky Film Tour, taking fans to the movie’s most iconic locations, from Mickey’s gym to the “Rocky steps” at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. But no one is a bigger fan than Kunda himself. We caught up with the Rocky impersonator, who explains why the boxing classic — which first opened in theaters 40 years ago, in November 1976 — still resonates today.
“Growing up, I always had problems with schoolyard bullies. My dad worried because I wasn’t one of the tough kids. I wasn’t prone to fighting back. He thought, ‘Maybe if my kid watches a movie about a boxer, it might give him some inspiration.’ It was a Sunday night, and we were sitting in my parents’ living room in Scranton, Penn. I was as an 11-year-old in 1979 when I first watched Rocky. It was the music that grabbed my heart and never let go.
“A few years later, my parents bought a VCR, and I recorded Rocky when it was on TV again. I would replay the fight scenes over and over so I could learn how to throw a few deadly punches. Although I was never the fighting type, I did enough to put the bullies on standby. My grandfather had given me his old black fedora, which resembled Rocky’s. It was like a suit of armor for me.
“In 1990, [I was with] my then girlfriend, Sue — she’s now my wife. One night, we said, ‘We’re going to watch Rocky and Rocky II.’ While watching them, I said, ‘Hey, do you want go to Philly tomorrow? I’d like to try to find some of the filming locations.’ So, we went down. On the way home, Sue said, ‘Somebody should start a Rocky tour.’ I let that percolate, and after I won a national Rocky lookalike contest in Philadelphia in 2006, I started to revisit that idea: How could I bring people to Rocky-land?
“My first official tour was with one of the Pope’s Vatican guards. I picked him up, and we had an amazing time. I would pick up my clients right out in front of their hotel, and we would drive up to Kensington, in northeast Philadelphia, where they filmed all of Rocky’s neighborhood: his apartment in the first movie, Mickey’s gym, the pet shop. Rocky’s apartment [still has] the 1818 address painted on the red brick. It’s faded, but when we turn the corner, I don’t have to tell Rocky enthusiasts what this location is. They literally sit in the car slack-jawed and say, ‘Oh, my God, it’s the house that Rocky built.’ The block has not changed in 40 years.
“When you pick up your clients, you’re complete strangers, and about 20 minutes in, I do my best to make it seem like we’ve been friends for a very long time. I remember having these loggers from British Columbia. They were big men, like 6’4”. [They got] so emotional standing in front of Mickey’s gym — I mean: breath taken away, go down to one knee. They said, ‘This is where Rocky trained to be a champion. This is where he got the eye of the tiger.’
“One of the deepest emotional moments I ever had was with a mom who contacted me. Her son had cancer at 8 years old, and to get through chemotherapy, he would watch Rocky and Rocky II. A young boy, with all the distractions in today’s world, goes to a movie that’s 40 years old for inspiration. The mom and dad said, ‘When you make it through chemo, you can go anywhere you want in the world.’ This kid could have picked Paris, he could have picked Disney, he could have picked anywhere. But he said, ‘Mom, I want to go to Rocky-land.’
“Now the kid is 10-years old. I picked them up a few weeks ago at their hotel. I’ve got the hat and the coat, and I’m like, ‘Hey, yo, kid, how you doin’?’ He’s blown away. I’ve never seen a kid happier, and I’ve seen some happy kids. This kid is a Rocky aficionado. At the end, we always finish the tours at the Rocky steps. And here he is throwing his arms up like Rocky, his hero, at the top of the steps, with his mom and dad surrounding him. It was quite beautiful.
Watch an interview with Kunda:
“Rocky is about believing in yourself. I see a lot of kids, and they get that message: It’s not about how hard you can hit — it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. Anyone can lash out. Anyone can say something derogatory. But how do you respond? You try to go higher, as Michelle Obama says.
“Rocky helps me to go higher. Like, this election has brought out a lot of negativity, and when I found myself getting negative, I said, ‘No, no, no, no, no. Come on, you’ve got to rein it back in. Don’t buy into the anger when people bait you.’
“For me, Rocky is about taking the highest possible ground.”
Watch a video about the locations in Philadelphia: