How a truck driver turned massage therapist became a legend at Oak Street Beach
Bruce Groeper is a massage therapist at “the beach to see and be seen” who will tell you he’s a bit of an unknown legend. He may be right.
Chatting with Bruce Groeper is like consuming a fully dipped Italian beef — uniquely Chicago.
For the past 16 years, the armored truck driver turned massage therapist has been kneading flesh from a cabana at Oak Street Beach in the shadow of the Gold Coast.
Sit for a rub and he might share with you his fix to the naming rights dustup a few years ago that resulted in the nearby John Hancock skyscraper officially changing its name to simply 875 N. Michigan Ave.
“You just name it after Herbie Hancock,” he said with an exasperated measure of “duh,” while referring to the legendary Chicago-bred jazz musician.
He’s called building management to let them know. The idea would be passed up the chain, they told him.
As he works your shoulders, the pronunciation of his last name might come up.
It’s German. The official pronunciation rhymes with paper, he said.
“But my entire life people have been looking at my name it was like it was groper, so I’ve just embraced it and now I joke around and say I’m the only licensed groper in the country. I got to work with what my daddy gave me, right?”
On a recent day, Groeper, 56, massaged Erica Bennett, a regular, with one hand while occasionally using the other to soothe her fussy baby, in a stroller next to his massage table.
“I’m used to crying babies. I have 27 nieces and nephews,” said Groeper, who is divorced with no kids “but somehow I got all the dad jokes.”
Clients include an array of passersby, regulars from all over the city and those who occasionally see his cabana from high-rise windows and get a massage jones.
And there’s the occasional boldface name.
“I’ve worked on Mario Van Peebles, Jerry Springer, Billy Zane and his dad, Bill, and that guy from ‘Clash of the Titans,’ ” he said.
Groeper charges $25 for 15 minutes — or on Mondays, it’s only $35 for a half hour.
He also occasionally offers gratis services to lifeguards — if they’re over 18.
“If they’re limping or hurt and I can do something to fix it, and I don’t, and they can’t save someone who’s in trouble because of that, that’s on me,” he said.
Groeper lives on the Northwest Side near where I-90 and I-94 split, an area he calls “the crotch of the Kennedy.” He sets off from there on his e-bike each morning for the 10-mile trek to the beach.
Oddly enough, he isn’t a big beach guy. “I never understood why people just lay on the sand and cook.”
His take on sand: “I’ve come to embrace it because I can’t get rid of it.”
He landed by the water because an influential ex-girlfriend who loved beaches seeded the idea.
But cracking the bureaucratic code of setting up a business on park district property was difficult.
Groeper said he caught a lucky break when he got a gig working a wellness fair the park district held for its employees. There, he pitched his idea to a number of decision-makers as he worked his massage magic.
“I’m a Chicago native, I pressed a lot of flesh to get here, just like politics in the city,” he said with a laugh.
Resume includes stint as an armored truck driver
He grew up one of nine siblings on the Northwest Side near the Brickyard Mall and graduated from Gordon Tech High School, now known as DePaul College Prep, before studying criminal justice at Triton College.
“I was going to be a Chicago cop, but by the time they offered me a job I was too far down another path,” he said.
“But I did catch a car thief last year,” he said. “He was driving down LSD smashing into cars and bailed out and jumped over the fence and onto the lakefront path by my cabana, and I ended up tackling him and holding the guy until two bike cops came by. I said, ‘Hey, officers, here ya go. Have a nice day.’ ”
His resume also includes stints as an armored truck driver, including for a company owned by John “Quarters” Boyle, who was convicted of stealing millions in small change from the Illinois Tollway Authority.
“We all joked around, ‘If we only knew’ ... but honestly, that’s not in my blood,” said Groeper, who also has held a variety of office jobs at a Chicago law firm.
“I’m content, man, doing what I’m doing right now. ... If I have to work, why not be outside?” said Groeper, who works at a massage shop in Wilmette in colder months.
His mother, Agnes, is 92 and a former Catholic school teacher who was on maternity leave from her job at Our Lady of the Angels School when a fire broke out there in 1958 that killed 92 students and three nuns. His late father, Cletus, taught at DeVry University.
Groeper sees himself as part of the landscape.
“I wanted to get sewn into the history and legend of Oak Street Beach, which has always been the beach to see and be seen one way or another,” he said.
“I’m not sure why I’m not more famous. I’m the only one.”
Groeper’s face appears in a mural painted by artist Jeff Zimmermann on a viaduct a few feet from his business.
But an honorary “Bruce the Masseuse Way” sign, bestowed by the city and placed on a light pole near his cabana, would also be appropriate, he said.
“I am Oak Street’s second favorite son. The only sun they like more than me is the one in the sky.”