Top Gun is one of my all time favorite movies. And I would guess that most of the world, at least you fine folks that were raised in the 80s, would agree with me. The main characters were 100% bad ass and sexy – men wanted to be Maverick and wanted to sleep with Charlie; women wanted to be Charlie and wanted to hit the sheets with Maverick. Yahoo! And in the end, you felt patriotic as hell! Perfect.
But the crazy thing is, I love Top Gun for one additional reason. It has some of the best movie bar scenes ever. Who doesn’t love it when Goose and Maverick sing, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeeling? How fun is it to watch Goose sing, Great Balls of Fire? And how perfect is the final bar scene when Maverick and Charlie reunite to give it another shot? It’s a thing of beauty, really.
Every August, I make it a point to watch Top Gun….over and over and over. Part of the reason for that is because Chicago has a phenomenal tradition called the Air & Water Show. The water part leaves much to be desired, but the air part is killer. Watching the Blue Angels or the Thunderbirds fly over head and maneuver themselves into pretzels and various formations is awe inspiring. And, of course, it always reminds me of growing up in the 80s. Top Gun helped define part of my upbringing, but then so did watching the real thing along North Avenue Beach.
During the mid-1800s, Chicagoans were hungry for some beachy recreation. But the city owned all of the lakefront land so the few beaches that were accessible were for complete and total private use. In order to make some money, the city either sold land or leased it to savvy real estate investors who knew that constructing a building with beach and lake access would make them rich. Hotels were the answer and use of the facilities were limited to its residents and members. A great example of this was the famous Chicago Beach Hotel which was built in 1890. It was located at 51st St. and Hyde Park Blvd. and it was constructed to accommodate the masses that would flock to Chicago for the 1893 World’s Fair.
After much public campaigning, city officials soon realized the importance of the lake and its beaches for its residents. The first public beach opened on July 1, 1895 in Lincoln Park between Fullerton and Diversey. As time passed, more public beaches opened, partly fueled by Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago.
North Avenue Beach came to be in the early 1920s and the original beach house was constructed during that period. It was meant to resemble a sleek ocean liner, because during this time, it was big boats and not fighter planes that took people’s breath away. It was a distinct piece of architecture and it really looked as though she had just docked herself on the shores of Lake Michigan right in the middle of our city. In 1959, North Avenue Beach, and the beach house, hosted the first ever Air & Water Show. It’s been a popular spectacle since it started. But the decades of people coming and going ultimately put a lot of wear and tear on her, and soon, the beach house sadly became a nasty place to be. The bathrooms were foul in more ways than one. Vandalism and gang activity soon took over and that once great little beach house turned into a run down, shabby shack. Although she did have landmark status, it was time to go and she was destroyed in the mid 1990s.
The structure was rebuilt at the cost of $7 million and today its replacement is practically identical to its original. Opened just in time for the summer of 2000, the new beach house offers more to do, eat, and drink than its predecessor. It continues to host the Air & Water Show, and today, it is the oldest, and largest, free admission air and water show in the US and attracts over 2 million people over a two day period. The entire top floor is now Castaways, an outdoor bar that caters to locals and tourists alike. And while you can enjoy astounding views of our skyline, the real star of the show is Lake Michigan. Beach life and culture thrive here and it’s no surprise if you find yourself craving a fruity tropical drink (they have a drink called Goose Me) while you listen to Jimmy Buffet, Bob Marley, or something that thumps, thumps, thumps all day long. Cheesy is it? Absolutely! But it’s a perfect place to be if you need a break from the chaos on the bike lanes or some sand-free sun time. It’s also a fantastic place for people watching. Oh, and look over there, I think I see some greased up, shirtless bozo on the volleyball court that actually thinks he is Maverick. Man, I love this city.