Robert Kim just wanted to go fishing.
That’s what he told me about his decision to go to Peachtree City last year for a weekend getaway. Unfortunately, his hopes of catching anything were quickly dashed – after a day out on Lake Peachtree, the fish just weren’t biting. So, Robert decided to go do something he was a bit more familiar with. He grabbed his karaoke machine, a tip jar, and his dog Roscoe and headed to the local Kroger.
This might seem like an odd group of items to take on a grocery run, but if you shop at the Kroger in Brookhaven’s Cherokee Plaza, you have probably seen Robert Kim before. The 74-year-old often sings Frank Sinatra, Elvis, and other standards outside of the store, an extracurricular activity he took on to augment his Social Security checks.
James Whitten, who used to be the store manager at the Cherokee Plaza Kroger, was the one who made the decision to let Robert sing. But the answer was not an immediate yes. The first time Whitten met Robert, he pointed at Whitten’s picture on Kroger’s foyer wall and told him that he didn’t like it.
Whitten wasn’t impressed. “Neither do I,” he replied. “But that’s what Kroger wants out there. So what can I do for you?” According to Whitten, Robert asked if he could take Whitten’s headshot. Whitten said no, and sent Robert on his way. But he kept coming back.
“That third time he came back, I said, you know what – you’re taking the time, you’re persistent,” Whitten said. “Let me look you up and we’ll figure out how to make this work.”
Normally, you might consider taking up a stranger on a photo shoot to be a bad idea. And normally, you’d probably be right. But Robert has more than a little bit of experience with photography, to say the least. In addition to his standing gig at the Kroger, he runs a photography business called Robert Kim Photography. He initially took up the camera as a way to make a living between acting jobs in the early 1980s. According to his website, one of his first clients was Angie Voight – or Angelina Jolie, as you might now know her.
Robert also caught the acting bug at a young age, making his film debut at age 8 as an extra in the 1957 Rock Hudson film “Battle Hymn,” and can be seen in films like “Payback” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He’s got a bunch of wild stories from those days – over a Zoom call one afternoon, he told me a few of them, including one about how he spent a summer touring as a drummer with the rock group Climax. His parents didn’t necessarily approve of his lifestyle, but for Robert, there was no other option.
“I come from a very conservative Korean family,” Robert said. “My father was a dentist, and he wanted me to follow in his footsteps. The last thing I wanted to do was stare into people’s stinking mouths for eight hours.”
After Robert took Whitten’s photo – which Whitten says is still his Kroger photo to this day – Robert asked if he could sing outside of the store. Kroger normally doesn’t allow such a thing, but Whitten agreed to give it a try.
“I didn’t think it was going to be a good hit,” Whitten said. “But the customers in Brookhaven, they took a liking to him.”
The Fishing Trip
Robert took his trip to Peachtree City on Aug. 25, 2022. After the first time he sang at the Kroger, he drove his golf cart back to his motel and was stopped by a “stunningly beautiful” young woman with a “lilting British accent.” The woman asked him if he was the man who had just been singing outside of the grocery store, and he replied yes.
He pauses here and takes a breath when he’s recounting the story to me. I had only been speaking to him for about 20 minutes at this point, but one thing about Robert that’s immediately clear is that he knows how to tell a good story. “This is the beginning of the most bizarre, amazing, and unexplainable event of my entire performing life,” he said.
The next day, Robert gave up on fishing entirely and went to the Peachtree City Kroger. Back at his motel, another strange woman approached him. After once again confirming that he was in fact the man singing Frank Sinatra songs outside of the local grocery store, she asked him for a favor.
Robert recalled that the woman handed him $40 and asked if he wouldn’t mind singing a couple of songs for her friend. Why not, Robert thought, and grabbed his karaoke machine and Roscoe before climbing up a set of rickety motel stairs to sing for this mystery patron. At the top of the stairs, he came face to face with a bearded man sitting in a cheap, plastic patio chair. Robert introduced himself and asked what song the man would like to hear. I’m not particular, the man replied. You can’t go wrong with the classics, so Robert belted out a couple of Sinatra tunes before the man stopped him. The man left for a few minutes, then came back with a group of friends he thought might be interested in joining their little impromptu concert.
Robert ended up singing for the small group for a good while longer than he anticipated, performing Sinatra, Elvis, Michael Bublé – you name it. As the night came to a close, he took a selfie with the bearded man. “I hate taking selfies,” Robert grumbled to me over Zoom. “But I took a selfie with this nice old man.” The man handed Robert some money, thanked him, and that was it.
Robert returned to his room, and found that one of the men who had watched him sing was staying in the room next door. Before the two said goodnight, Robert asked: “You know your friend with the beard upstairs? What does he do for a living? He’s a very interesting man.”
The man paused. He asked Robert if he really didn’t know. Assuming the mystery man might be a locally known somebody, Robert explained that he was just visiting from Atlanta. The man’s next question only added to Robert’s confusion. Have you heard of “The Godfather?” Well, yeah. How about “Apocalypse Now?” Yeah, of course!
The man looked at Robert and said: “Well, you’ve just been singing for Francis Ford Coppola for nearly an hour.”
Could It Be?
I should say here that I wasn’t able to speak to Francis Ford Coppola for this story. I texted briefly with his assistant, who told me that they would put in a request, but Mr. Coppola was out of town and very busy working on his upcoming film “Megalopolis.”
So, I wasn’t able to speak with Coppola to hear his side of the story. But, Robert sent me the selfie he took with Coppola that night. I wasn’t there to witness this interaction, but Robert’s description of the pretty British girl who first approached him in the motel parking lot sounds a lot like Nathalie Emmanuel, who stars in “Megalopolis.” Pre-production on the movie had begun by at least July of 2022, and a September article states that Coppola had been living in Peachtree City. Principal photography began at Trillith Studios in Fayetteville – 15 minutes away from the Peachtree City motel in question – on Nov. 1, 2022, and filming ended on March 30, 2023.
Taking into consideration all of these factors, it makes sense that Francis Ford Coppola would have been in Peachtree City at the same time as Robert Kim. But standing in his motel room, Robert was baffled.
“He looked vaguely familiar,” Robert said when I asked him if he recognized the director. “But the last person who would be staying in this fleabag joint would be Coppola! Why would he be here in the first place?”
That’s a good question, and one that also has an answer. The motel – which according to multiple accommodation booking sites used to be a Days Inn & Suites – is actually the All-Movie Hotel, which Coppola reportedly bought in August of 2022. The hotel is listed as “temporarily closed” online, but on the Coppola family website, there are three open job positions. The general manager for the hotel confirmed that it is closed for renovations at the moment, but was temporarily open last year before the project started.
But Kim didn’t know about Coppola’s real estate investments at the time, and he still didn’t buy it. Then, he unfolded the bill that definitely-not Francis Ford Coppola had handed him that evening. Where he expected to see $5 or $10, he saw $100.
Could it be? He quickly googled the director’s name and found himself face-to-face with the man he had been singing to just moments before.
The next day (after not much sleep) Robert was approached in the parking lot by a lone figure in a golf cart. It was Francis Ford Coppola. According to Kim, Coppola asked him if he sang anywhere professionally. When he told him about his Kroger gig, Coppola responded: “We have similar occupations – I work for tips, too.”
The two chatted briefly, Robert made it home, and it seemed like the dream had ended. But when Robert opened his email, he found a message asking if he would like to audition for “Megalopolis.” He was gobsmacked – his entire life had been upended over the course of two days. But there was one problem.
Robert didn’t have a car. He said as much, thinking that would be it. But then he was told that a car would be sent for him. His only instructions? Bring your karaoke machine and your dog.
“I mean, for me to be discovered in a nowhere town in the middle of nowhere,” Robert said. “Once again, I wanted to go fishing!”
Before Robert entered the audition room, he thought it would be similar to his last meeting with the famed director – an intimate thing, with just a few people. Maybe even a few beers for good measure. Instead, he found himself in front of what felt like a firing squad of casting directors lined up behind a huge desk.
He became instantaneously nervous, so much so that he couldn’t even turn on his own karaoke machine for how much his hands were trembling. Someone walked over to give him a hand, and Robert wrangled all the courage he could muster.
“I’m gonna give these guys some free entertainment [like] they’ve never seen,” he remembered thinking. “If nothing else, I’m going to make them smile.”
The audition ended, and months went by without hearing even a peep, and Robert began to resign himself to the fact that he probably didn’t get the part. He recalled saying to a friend over the phone: “Why the hell would he want a senior citizen Korean man who’s singing in front of a supermarket?”
But months after that audition, Robert got a call. He was cordially invited to a table read of “Megalopolis” with all the stars of the film – stars like Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Adam Driver, and Aubrey Plaza. Once again, he told the person he didn’t have a car to get down there. Once again, he was told don’t worry – we’ll send one.
Robert described the table he showed up to as “100 feet long,” feeling like the best of the best of Hollywood were all sitting there, staring at him – he figured they thought he was the lunchtime entertainment. Coppola greeted him, and told him that he wanted to have him sing a certain song in the film.
I don’t want to say what the song is. Who knows what the final cut of “Megalopolis” will look like, but just in case, I’d rather keep this one a surprise. All you need to know is that the song in question stopped Robert in his tracks. That’s an anthem, he thought. To do that song justice, you need a singer with a voice like Whitney Houston, not a guy who sings outside of the grocery store.
He said as much to Coppola. “I do Elvis, I do Sinatra, but I’m a microphone singer,” he remembered saying. “You have to have a big, big voice to do this.” According to Robert, Coppola simply told him to stop trying to talk his way out of the job.
When Robert says things like, “I do Elvis,” he really means it. There are some glowing five-star Google reviews of the Cherokee Plaza Kroger online, with customers waxing poetic about his Sinatra impression. During our conversation, he told me about his stint on “The Gong Show,” an amateur talent contest from the 1970s, in which he performed and won as a Japanese Elvis impersonator named Yoshi Suzuki. As Yoshi, he would pretend to have a poor grasp of the English language and then break out into a very convincing Elvis voice. He does the bit for me over Zoom, and I can attest that his Elvis is very, very good.
Robert told me that while he didn’t think he could do the song justice if he did it straight, he felt like he could nail it if he did it as Elvis. Apparently, Coppola did too – on IMDB, Robert’s role in “Megalopolis” is listed as Elvis impersonator.
Never Give Up
In the interest of not spoiling what Robert’s big scene might look like, I’ll just say that his description of the day of filming is chaotic, to say the least. It certainly matches the vibe of some reports that surfaced during the production of “Megalopolis,” suggesting that there was a certain amount of chaos on set. But all throughout our conversation, Robert had nothing but glowing things to say about Francis, as he called him.
“I have never met a kinder, gentler, more supportive person in my whole life than this guy,” he told me, and I believe that he means that. Throughout our conversation, Robert was energetic, quick, and straightforward about why he wanted to share this story with people.
“What I want to tell people, particularly younger people, is never give up on your dreams, and always follow your passions,” he said. “Never give up.”