Lots of movies have inspired their own fan conventions. Let’s see, there’s Star Trek and Star Wars and…The Big Lebowski? (This article was first published in Uncle John’s Curiously Compelling Bathroom Reader.)
When The Big Lebowski hit theaters in 1998, it didn’t make much of a splash. Though it met with critical acclaim and was well received by loyal fans of Joel and Ethan Coen, the film’s director, producer, and co-writers, it barely broke even at the box office. Following on the heels of Fargo, the Coens’ most successful film to that point, Lebowski’s modest earnings came as a disappointment. But then in 1999 it went to video and became a cult classic.
As Lebowski fans will tell you, this is a movie that gets better with repeat viewings. There are so many threads woven into the complicated plot, and so much dry humor and memorable dialogue, that the film simply can’t be taken in at a single glance. The Big Lebowski is one of those movies where you catch something new every time you watch it.
Here’s the basic plot: In a case of mistaken identity, Jeff “The Dude” Lebowski—a lazy, unemployed, hippie bowler—is assaulted by thugs who are actually looking for a paraplegic millionaire named Jeffrey Lebowski, whose trophy wife “owes money all over town.” During the course of the assault, the assailants pee on The Dude’s living room carpet. Deciding to seek restitution from the real Lebowski (because “the carpet really tied the room together, man.”) The Dude and his two bowling buddies, Walter and Donny, are drawn into a web of intrigue involving kidnapping, pornographers, and nihilists; Lebowski’s avant-garde daughter, Maude; a high-school student whose father used to write for the TV western, Branded; and intricately choreographed bowling-dream sequences. There’s a lot more, but you’ll have to watch the movie a few times to figure it all out…which is exactly what thousands of devoted fans have been doing for nearly a decade.
Three years after the movie’s release on video, two Lebowski fans, Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt, were killing time while manning a T-shirt booth at a tattoo convention in Louisville, Kentucky. Business was so slow that the two friends began entertaining themselves by quoting lines from Lebowski. The people at the next booth turned out to be fans as well, and soon joined in. Eventually, Russell and Shuffitt’s booth became the most popular spot in the convention hall, with bored vendors congregating to repeat their favorite bits of dialogue from the film. At some point, according to Russell, “Scott and I were like, man, if they can have this goofy tattoo convention, we should have a Big Lebowski convention.”
Bowling and What-Have-You
Because bowling is a central theme in the movie, they decided the event should be held in a bowling alley. Unfortunately, the only alley in Louisville that they could afford was a Baptist-run establishment that prohibited both drinking and bad language—a problem because it’s hard to quote lines from the film without cursing, and because The Dude is rarely seen without a White Russian in hand (at one point he can’t find any half-and-half, so he mixes his White Russian using powdered nondairy creamer). Nevertheless, the alley was rented and, with a $42 advertising budget, the “First Annual Big Lebowski What-Have-You Fest” was scheduled for October 2002. They expected a handful of their friends to show up and were surprised when 150 people—dressed up as their favorite characters from the movie—arrived for a night of bowling and a screening of the film.
Russell and Shuffitt immediately began making plans for the second festival. Word got around on the Internet, and it proved to be almost too successful: 1,300 devotees showed up to a venue that could only hold 800. The following year 4,000 fans came…and the event’s organizers have never looked back—they’ve added festivals in Las Vegas, New York, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas.
The Dude Abides
The event has taken on a life of its own. A few years ago, strange signs began appearing in the crowds at concerts and sporting events. Back in 2003 they read, “Lebowski 7:19.” The next year: “Lebowski 6:19.” These are not references to some book of cinematic scripture; they are the dates of the next annual Lebowski fest.