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With its cornucopia of craziness held in bowling alleys across the United States, Lebowski Fest abides by the quirky spirit of the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic “The Big Lebowski.”
Text: Adam Pringle
Country: United States

hen you first walk inside, it looks like just another packed night at a bowling alley, with the loud crashing of pins greeting you from all directions as you arrive.

Until you notice that seemingly everybody is drinking a White Russian (a delectable delight made with vodka, coffee liqueur, and cream), and you see a girl in a scantily clad Viking outfit next to a guy sporting a homemade cardboard cutout of a check for 69 cents. And are those guys nearby supposed to be the Eagles, the ones bowling with that other guy in a hooded black leotard wielding a giant pair of cardboard scissors? And why are they playing so many Creedence Clearwater Revival songs tonight?

By the time you hear the words “Over the line!” screamed for the umpteenth time, there’s no escaping it: You’re now at a Lebowski Fest.

Lebowski Fest is an annual festival where fans gather to celebrate The Big Lebowski, the Coen Brothersquirky and quotable 1998 comedy about a bowling-loving, White Russian-drinking Los Angeles layabout known as “The Dude” (played by Jeff Bridges) who unwittingly gets involved in an intriguing kidnapping plot worthy of Raymond Chandler, complete with German nihilists, a porn mogul, a severed toe, and a feisty marmot – all in the name of recovering his beloved rug that, in his words, “really tied the room together.”

Lebowski Fests have been held in a number of cities across the United States, including New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. They are usually two-night events, with a screening of The Big Lebowski held on the first night, followed the next night by the main attraction of Lebowski Fest: the bowling alley festivities. The bowling party features unlimited bowling, White Russians, stands selling a wide array of Lebowski-related merchandise, and trivia and costume contests (hence, the presence of 69-cent check costumes and other get-ups that are sometimes based on nothing more than a throwaway line or sight gag from the film – at Lebowski Fest, no costume is too obscure).

The flagship festival in Louisville, Kentucky (Lebowski Fest’s birthplace), even includes a whole day of outdoor festivities, complete with Lebowski-themed carnival games and a variety of musicians and other performers. Among the performers who have appeared at the Louisville event are They Might Be Giants, My Morning Jacket, and comedian Brian Posehn.

Numerous actors from the film have also appeared as special guests at various Lebowski Fests. Although Bridges and character actor Peter Stormare (who played one of the aforementioned nihilists) appeared at the first Los Angeles Lebowski Fest, most of the actors who have joined the festivities had minor roles in the film. Within the confines of Lebowski Fest, however, these bit players are treated like superstars by devotees of The Dude.

Among the Lebowski actors who have basked in the warm glow of Lebowski Fest is Jim (James) Hoosier, who portrayed the bowling partner of The Dude’s flamboyant, pedophiliac rival, Jesus (played by John Turturro). Hoosier estimates that he has been to 14 Lebowski Fests, including all of the Los Angeles events and the last five Louisville events.

“If I could afford it, I would be at all of them,” Hoosier says. “It’s fun to be around people who enjoy the movie as much as I do, and to see them quote lines from the movie and scream when I come up on the screen, it’s just kind of crazy. It puts me in awe to think that my small part in the movie has turned into such a big thing.”

Although The Big Lebowski was a box office disappointment upon its original release, the film gradually gained a massive cult following after it was released on home video. Among the many that fell under the spell of Lebowski was Scott Shuffitt, the eventual co-founder of Lebowski Fest.

“It stayed in my VCR for probably six months to a year, and when I was watching it a lot, it was through the winter season where I lived,” Shuffitt says. “I’d come home at night, after I’d been working 14 hours a day, and I’d watch it and I’d get to escape to sunny Los Angeles from the grey skies of the Midwest.”

The origins of Lebowski Fest date back to July 2002, when Shuffitt and Will Russell were selling T-shirts at a sparsely attended tattoo convention in Louisville. “Bored out of our minds,” in Shuffitt’s words, the two decided to start quoting lines of dialogue from The Big Lebowski. Soon, other vendors at the convention joined in on the fun.

“The guy in the booth next to us would say a line, and another guy nearby would say a line, and we saw this little community pop up all of a sudden,” Shuffitt says. “And one of us said, ‘If they can put on this mediocre tattoo convention, why can’t we have a Lebowski convention?’”

“We grabbed a little Post-It notepad and jotted down a couple of notes – you know, ‘Have it in a bowling alley.’ ‘Costume contest.’ ‘White Russians.’ That’s how we got started.”

Shuffitt and Russell booked a Baptist-owned bowling alley in the “seedy part” of Louisville for the inaugural Lebowski Fest that October. (“We figured it was something we could afford without taking too great of a risk,” Shuffitt says.) Although the bowling alley didn’t serve alcohol – and even prohibited cursing – 150 people showed up, with some Lebowski diehards traveling to the event from as far away as Tucson, Arizona.

“There is quite a bit of cursing in the film, and we had all these sound bites [from the film] that we planned on playing throughout the night, and they wouldn’t let us do it,” Shuffitt says. “Still, even without that stuff that you think would go hand-in-hand with a Lebowski Fest, everyone still had a really great time. From that, we could tell that this was something special.”

For the following year, in addition to booking a non-Baptist bowling alley that would allow cursing and the serving of White Russians, Shuffitt and Russell expanded Lebowski Fest to three days to include the film screening and a “recovery brunch” held the day after the bowling party, and even film producer Jeff Dowd (the real-life inspiration for The Dude) showed up to give his blessing to the proceedings. Attendance increased nearly tenfold over the previous year, to approximately 1,400.

Over the next couple of years, Lebowski Fest expanded to Las Vegas, New York, and Los Angeles; by 2007, Lebowski Fest went international with events in London and Edinburgh, Scotland. To date, Lebowski Fests have been held in 16 U.S. cities, with Tampa, Florida, scheduled to hold its first Lebowski Fest next February (and Shuffitt says that Lebowski Fests will be held at one or two other new U.S. cities in 2011).

Shuffitt also hopes that he and his Lebowski Fest crew (which includes Russell, Ben Peskoe and graphic designer Bill Green) will be able to lure another Lebowski star to a future event, pointing out that Turturro and John Goodman (who played Walter, The Dude’s belligerent, Vietnam War-vet-and-proud-of-it friend) have expressed interest in attending a Lebowski Fest.

“We don’t know these people very well, but we have their e-mail addresses,” Shuffitt says, “and we try to keep them updated on what we’re doing just so that if things fall in the right place at the right time, they can make it out.”

To the Lebowski faithful, though, it’s not the star power that brings them back to Lebowski Fest year after year – it’s the promise of sharing good times and exchanging lines of dialogue with fellow fanatics. One of the many who make the yearly trek is Daniel Macri, who has been to the last three Lebowski Fests in Los Angeles and says The Big Lebowski is his favorite film of all time.

“This isn’t like Top Gun – this is a movie that’s really unique, and Lebowski Fest is a festival where you can basically do whatever you want,” Macri says. “Every time I go, there’s good vibes – not to mention White Russians and bowling.”

As for how to explain why Lebowski has garnered such a fervent following, Shuffitt says the work speaks for itself.

“It’s written well – the Coen Brothers write great characters that are memorable and stick with you,” he says. “It’s definitely quotable, and it’s shot very well.”

And for Hoosier and countless other Lebowski lovers, much of the film’s appeal lies in the achiever who’s at the center of it all.

“Everybody has a little bit of The Dude in them, including me – there’s some days where I don’t want to get up and get out of the house,” Hoosier says. “It’s a movie that a lot of people can relate to.”

FUN FILM FEST FACTS

  • Starting in Australia, the 1975 Rocky Horror Picture Show cult classic draws in hundreds of fans for its midnight showings around Australia as well as the U.K., and U.S. Rocky Horror has a large following in LGBTQ communities. Moviegoers sing the songs that accompany the musical and are often in costume.
  • Conventions are also a place for fans to meet while dressed as their favorite character. Sci-fi conventions, such as Star Trek (Trekkie) conventions, are held across the United States, where fans can buy one-of-a-kind merchandise associated with their favorite book, comic, movie, or television series.
  • Most conventions have Guests of Honor – people who are well-known figures in the community of fans, including actors, writers, and even fans who have become famous for their act participation in the fan community.

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