Groupies Gearing Up for Louisville ‘Lebowski Fest’

By Max Gross

Published July 18, 2003, issue of July 18, 2003.

As every “Big Lebowski” devotee knows, you don’t roll on Shabbes. So when Will Russell and Scott Shuffitt announced plans to have the Second Annual Lebowski Fest on a Friday night, fans of the 1998 comedy were aghast.

“We kept getting e-mails saying, ‘You can’t have this on Shabbes,’” Russell told the Forward. Thankfully, the 500 to 700 film groupies who gather in Louisville, Ky., for this weekend’s three-day “Lebowski Fest” need not worry.

For the uninitiated, Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Big Lebowski” follows a shaggy, lazy, unemployed Angeleno known as “The Dude” (Jeff Bridges) and his oddball friends: his pedophiliac bowling rival, “The Jesus” (John Turturro); his arty, new-age lady friend, Maude (Julianne Moore), and the loan shark/pornographer Jackie Treehorn (Ben Gazzara).

And, of course, there’s Walter Sobchak (played by John Goodman), a lapsed Catholic, Polish-American Vietnam vet and convert to Judaism. When Walter is asked to roll — that’s bowl to nonfans — on a Saturday, he screams: “I don’t roll on Shabbes!” It is now Lebowski law.

This isn’t the only law followed by fans of the film, which is gaining the kind of cult following that “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and “Star Trek” enjoy. Its fans are happy to spend hours reciting dialogue, inveighing each other’s Dudeness and indulging in the activities favored by the film’s protagonists. There are fan Web sites (Thedudeshouse.com), Dude T-shirts (krazyshirts.com) and even an online “‘Big Lebowski’ Random Quote Generator.”

While “a lot of college kids” are into the movie, Russell said, “there are some older [fans]…. Military people are into this movie, sports guys. I hear rock bands play it…. It reaches across a lot of boundaries. It’s kind of a buddy movie…. It’s not trying to bring world peace, but it’s a great comedy, and the characters are amazing.”

First among these characters is Walter, who converted to Judaism when he got married. Although now divorced, he adheres adamantly to his religion. When the Dude says that Walter isn’t really Jewish, Walter freezes — like a deer in headlights. “I’m as Jewish as f–king Tevye!” he declares.

Russell and Shuffitt first conceived of the festival at a tattoo convention. Shuffitt, who owns a clothing store, was there with Russell to sell T-shirts. During a lull, the two began rattling off dialogue from their favorite movie. If tattoo groupies could have a convention, Russell said, why shouldn’t there be a “Big Lebowski” convention?

And so Lebowski Fest (www.lebowskifest.com) was born.

Last year’s inaugural “Lebowski Fest” didn’t exactly go according to plan. Roughly 150 fans showed up for an evening of costumes and bowling — and white Russians, the Dude’s drink of choice, made with Kahlua, vodka and milk. But the festival was held in a bowling alley owned by strict Baptists; no drinking was allowed.

“White Russians are a big part of the movie,” said Jody Barnes, 20, an Indiana University Southeast student who plans to make this festival his second. “There was at least one big sign that said, ‘No Cursing,’” he added, which “put a damper on the plan to show the movie.” The film contains an abundance of profanity.

Ah, well — the Dude abides.

“This year,” Russell said, “there will be plenty of cussing.” And plenty of white Russians; Kahlua is one of the sponsors.

The organizers expect three times as many attendees this year, and Spin Magazine listed the festival as one of this summer’s hot events. “It blew our minds,” said Russell. “It was this little thing that we put on last year, and to see it next to Snoop Dog and Lollapalooza….”

Rob Roman will be shooting a documentary about the festival, and Jeff Dowd, the Coen brothers’ inspiration for the Dude, is expected.

Also on the agenda are Lebowski-inspired meals — “Lingonberry Pancakes” — and a parade through the streets of Louisville led by a replica of the Dude’s 1972 Plymouth Fury III; several groupies are dressing as the Dude’s carpet, and one as Richard Nixon. (The Dude has a framed photo of Nixon getting ready to release a bowling ball.)

A theater has been reserved for a midnight screening of the film on Friday — it seems that most devotees don’t mind watching a movie on the Sabbath. The bowling, however, begins after sundown on Saturday, for all those fans who won’t “roll” because they’re Sabbath observant — or because Walter is.



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