When you think of Cincinnati the first things to come to mind are a love of hockey, thick Minnesota accents and social spats settled by urban rollerblade races.
Believe it or not, if you lived somewhere outside the Tri-State in the 1990s you might have envisioned the Queen City that way thanks in part to a little known but much loved flick called “Airborne .”
The 1993 comedy-drama based in Cincinnati features young Mitchell Goosen (Shane McDermott), a Zack Morris-inspired teenager from California who loves to surf, rollerblade and be “chill” all the time.
"Mitchell's life was a California dream--until he woke up in Cincinnati," states the narrator in the trailer for the film.
When his zoologist parents are given the opportunity for grant work in Australia for six months, Mitchell is sent to live with his heavily accented aunt, her husband and the couples son, Wiley, in the Queen City, so he can finish the remainder of his high school semester.
He arrives in the midst of a winter storm to a blue-collar Midwestern city and quickly comes to the realization he’s far away from the free-spirited beach atmosphere he has known his whole life.
His aunt Irene (Edie McClurg) and uncle Louie (Patrick O’Brien) are warm and hospitable, but come across as old-fashioned and somewhat socially nearsighted.
Wiley, portrayed by Seth Green, is an awkward teenager who is caught up in the latest big-city trends and desperate to fit in.
At school, some students shun Mitchell due to his laid-back demeanor, West Coast appearance and willingness to toss up the two-fingered "peace" sign at a moment's notice.
He also gets harassed by some of the gritty members of the school’s hockey team, including Jack (Chris Conrad), Augie (Jack Black), Snake (Jacob Vargas) and the Banducci brothers (Daniel and David Betances).
Tempers between the two sides escalate in some scenes, like when Mitchell causes his team to lose a pickup hockey game against the rival “preps” and when he falls in love with Jack’s sister, Nikki (Brittney Powell), who's not caught up in going to the mall and eating pizza like most "Ohio teenagers."
Despite the tensions, Mitchell ultimately wins the adoration of his classmates when he uses his rollerblading expertise to help win a race down a harrowing street route termed Devil's Backbone against the preps.
You didn’t see that one coming, right?
The 91-minute film plays on standard tropes and the storytelling is obvious, part of the reason why it received a positive score of only 17 percent from movie reviewers on the movie rating website Rotten Tomatoes .
But while the movie will not be remembered in the annals of film history, "Airborne" has a special place in the hearts of many people from the Tri-State.
“There was nothing more epic in my mind than rollerblading through the hills of Cincinnati and downtown, as the characters do during the final race,” Michael Sweeny recalled thinking after his first viewing of the movie. “Seeing it, the thrill was very real and sincere.”
The 26-year-old Northside resident says he first “fell in love” with “Airborne” when his sister gave him a VHS copy of the movie for his eighth birthday.
“It’s a tongue-in-cheek love. There’s a level of pride that it was shot here but I think a lot of people love it because of how ridiculous it is,” said Sweeny who referenced a scene on Mitchell’s first day where he was asked to stand in front of the class and introduce himself.
“I mean, where do they even do that? It certainly wasn’t my high school experience,” the St. Xavier High School grad said before letting out a brief laugh.
In some ways Cincinnati served as a stand-in for a generic 1990s Midwest town--where progress was slow-developing and life moved at a snail's pace compared to places like Los Angeles and New York City.
Seeing drastic development over the years, Sweeny thinks the city is now an incubator for big ideas and events so the film’s portrayal of Cincinnati is laughably dated and unrecognizable to him.
In spite of a less than genuine presentation of the Queen City, there's still something "romantic" about the movie to Sweeny and others of his generation.
"It was romantic to me as a child, and remains so—this notion of Cincinnati being the place a kid travels to in order to find adventure, rather than being the place he flees from. Big, exciting things can happen here. I believed that as a kid and still do."
The low-budget film was released Sept. 17, 1993 in 982 theaters nationwide and made $2,850,263 domestically, including $1,262,239 in its opening weekend. It earned the No. 12 spot at the box office that weekend.
It was also released in several other countries, including Australia, Japan and Hungary, where it received moderate box-office success.
But where the film made its biggest impact, at least socially, was in Cincinnati.
“I couldn’t get over the fact that a big screen teen romance/coming of age tale—arguably the quintessential American movie genre—was set in my very
own city,” Sweeny said.
His reaction to the film isn’t rare in that regard.
“Cincinnatians have a deep affection for the movie. And almost every person has some sort of ‘Airborne’ story,” he said. “Either their high school boyfriend was an extra or their dad lives on a street where a scene was filmed or their aunt helped with casting.”
Over several months in 1992, director Rob Bowman, cast and crew made their way to various parts of the Tri-State including Newport, Bellevue, Covington, Hamilton and various parts of Cincinnati.
Some of the famed locations in the film are Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky International Airport, Krohn Conservatory, Western Hills High School and Riverfront Stadium, where the epic race scene at the end of the movie was filmed.
The movie also featured Pompilio's Bar and Restaurant in Newport, which was first made famous in the movie “Rain Man” (1988), one of several films set at least in part in Greater Cincinnati .
"My experience of Cincinnati was unique because a film crew was always present due to the heavy shooting schedule. But, I would have to say Pompilios restaurant, the city skyline and the botanical gardens (Krohn Conservatory) stand out as favorites," McDermott told CityBeat in a recent interview .
Although McDermott and the film crews' visit to Cincinnati was short-lived, the few months they spent working on the film in the area entrenched them as a part of the city's quirky history.
“Call it a corny bit of overstatement, but ‘Airborne’ is a part of our history. I just wish the accents weren’t so inaccurate," Sweeny said in a half-serious manner.
While other films were shot in and around town, there’s something about the movie that has endeared itself to Cincinnatians, particularly children of the ‘90s.
“It has got all the characteristic features of that decade: Tie-dye, swooping haircuts, torn jeans, mad amounts of plaid, a soundtrack that’s a cross between ‘New Jack City’ and ‘Empire Records,’ and, of course, in-line skating,” Sweeny said.
One YouTube user labels “Airborne” a feature-length commercial for the ‘90s and that pretty much sums up the love affair many Cincinnatians have with the film.
The website FilmDrunk.com called it “the most '90s movie ever made” because of all the montages, bullies, wailing guitars, surfing, rollerblading and street sports. The film’s production coincided with the popularization of ESPN’s X-Games.
All that’s missing is a picture of Kelly Kapowski from “Saved by the Bell” and a Spin Doctors CD.
“We are currently living through a phase of intense ’90s nostalgia, so it only makes sense to relish the cinematic time machine that is ‘Airborne,’” Sweeny said.
Watching kids rollerblade around the exotic flora and fauna at the conservatory is fun and the hilarity of watching Green try on every stereotypical look of the decade during a scene set to the song “I’m Too Sexy” by Right Said Fred is hard to match.
But the movie operates on a much deeper social level and touches on some of the major topics in the United States at the time.
“On a more serious note, the ‘90s were all about the culture wars and ‘Airborne’ has that in spades. A grad student could write a dissertation on how Mitchell’s struggle represents the crisis of the left in the wake of Reaganism and he would have plenty of material to go on,” said Sweeny, who studied film at New York University before returning to the area two years ago.
“Practically every line out of Mitchell’s mouth is a recycled hippie catchphrase. That was the cultural climate my generation grew up in, so it feels very familiar and relatable.”
The ability to relate to the themes and events depicted in “Airborne” is what inspired Sweeny and his old high school classmate, Joe Besl, to celebrate the movie's 20th birthday .
The pair joked about hosting an actual event but it didn’t get much traction at first.
But after voicing the idea to a few friends, the duo said putting on the show “only made sense.”
“Everyone we talked to about the event chuckled and said it sounded like a great idea,” Sweeny said, noting the numerous pro-‘Airborne’ Facebook pages created by Cincinnatians.
At first they thought about trying to air the film at Krohn Conservatory, Longworth Hall or one of the other event venues featured in “Airborne,” but those weren’t conducive for hosting a movie-watching event for dozens of people.
They finally settled on Japp’s , a popular bar on Main Street in downtown Cincinnati where some of Sweeny and Besl’s friends work. They plan to start the movie at 8 p.m. Wednesday night.
“I knew people who worked there and it’s a great space with a projector so I thought, 'let’s rent out Japp’s,'” said Sweeny.
Sweeny and Besl refer to the event as a “labor of love” because they paid for the space out of pocket and aren’t going to profit from the event. The duo ended up approaching 12 of their friends to help rent out the space and make the event a reality.
While they won’t get rich as a
result of the event, they do plan to have a great time.
“The bar managers said we could do anything we want with the space because we rented it for the night so we thought 'why not have a ’90s-themed dance party?'” said Sweeny who admitted to scheduling to be off work Thursday in order to ensure he could enjoy Wednesday night’s festivities.
Attendees are invited to wear their best throwback attire and participate in "drinking salutes" during parts of the film such as when a character says "Cincinnati," when Mithcell goes airborne or a couple kisses on the now-defunct Covington landing.
“The goal of the screening is simple: To show attendees a great time. We want people to come watch the movie, have a laugh, dance and have a few drinks in the process,“ Sweeny said.
The support for the event has exceeded even its creators’ expectations.
“Joseph and I have been completely blown away by the response. When we first started organizing the event, we expected a turnout of about 30 people. But as we’ve promoted it, it’s become clear that the people of Cincinnati have a deep affection for ‘Airborne,’” Sweeny said.
They now expect a few hundred people to attend, including some who were only a year or two old when the film was released.
“We know some of the people will never have seen the movie before. For those who haven’t seen it, there is no better occasion to lose your ‘Airborne’ virginity.”
Who knows? Maybe a new generation of fans of the film will be born Thursday night. That’s an idea Sweeny and Besl support whole-heartedly.
“If the turnout is big and the response is positive, then maybe an ‘Airborne’ screening can become an annual event. That would be a dream come true.”