Let’s Go Bowling: The Weird, Wonderful World of Lebowski Fest
Lakewood, California is just north of Long Beach, and is best known for being the birthplace of the Denny’s restaurant chain. It’s one of those post-WWII boom towns just blends into the rest of the towns blanketing the Los Angeles basin. There’s a lot of tract housing, some small mom and pop stores, some industry. Really, there is nothing that distinguishes Lakewood from any other cities in Southern California. Yet, it was here, in this nondescript place, in front of a bowling alley, that I saw something I had never seen before: a girl dressed up as a bloody toe swaddled in cotton. It was here, at this bowling alley, that I entered the strange land of Lebowski Fest.
The Big Lebowski was released in 1997 as the Coen brother’s followup to Fargo, which had been nominated for 7 Oscars, won two of them, and finally showed mainstream audiences what film geeks had known for years: that the Coen brothers were legitimate artists and two of the great filmmakers of their generation. So it stood to reason that The Big Lebowski would blow these guys up. Then the movie was released, and audiences pretty much stayed away. No one could figure this movie out. Was it a comedy? A detective story? What was with the weird Busby Berkley style dance sequence in the middle of the movie that seemed to have nothing to do with anything? What’s a nihilist? The movie quietly disappeared from theaters, and the Coens continued to follow their muse, making everything from screwball comedies to Depression-era takes on Homer’s Odyssey. But with a advent of DVD, people started looking anew at Lebowski, and in the comfort of home, something clicked. Home audiences found a movie with distinctive characters who spouted ridiculously quotable dialogue involved in situations that were hilarious in their outlandishness. And just like that, a cult following was born.
And so it was that I found myself at this bowling alley, standing next to people dressed up as pederasts, Vietnam vets, Viking women with giant tridents and bowling ball shaped brassieres, and the aforementioned giant toe. This is Lebowskifest, the two day festival dedicated to all things Big Lebowski. The fest was started in 2002 in Louisville, Kentucky by a few fans of the movie. They bowled and recited lines from the movie. That first festival has grown into multiple Lebowski Fests around the country, each a two day event: day one is a giant screening of the movie, day two the bowling party. Having just recently watched the movie 4 times in the span of one week, I figured the bowling party would be the best way to experience what the festival had to offer.
Having previously been part owner of a bowling alley, and having had the benefit of unlimited free bowling, I’m actually a pretty good bowler. But I also need complete concentration and near silence to be at the top of my game. I was not going to find that here, not with the soundtrack blaring loudly over the speakers and a guy with an uncanny resemblance to The Dude constantly stepping up to the line as I was getting ready to throw. Yet that didn’t seem to matter, as I sipped my White Russian and watched as a girl dressed as Maude in the aforementioned Viking gear threw a strike. Another guy dressed as The Dude, wearing a tool belt and cable repairman outfit, started dancing behind her, and it was like I was in the movie for a moment.
There was a trivia contest. Specifically, Lebowski trivia. More specifically, really obscure Lebowski trivia. There’s a difference between knowing a movie, and being totally obsessed with a movie. There’s a difference between knowing what type of pancakes the narcissists order and knowing how much the urn Walter and The Dude were going to buy to transport Donnie’s ashes was. There’s a difference between knowing the name of the porn film Bunny Lebowski was in, and how many episodes of Branded Arthur Digby Sellers wrote. And at Lebowski fest, I learned there are people who can answer ten really obscure Big Lebowski trivia questions in less than a minute and a half, and I am not one of them.
After I had been thoroughly thrashed by the trivia gods, I settled in to watch the best part of the evening: the costume contest. Yes, there were people dressed like the main characters, and some of them looked great. But it was the bizarre, out there costumes that really amazed me. There was a guy dressed as Walter’s dirty undies, and a group of guys dressed as the Goldbrickers Union. No, there was no Goldbrickers Union in the film. These guys took a random line said by a minor character in the film and turned it into costume. Same for the girl dressed up as Ms. Jamtoss, Larry Seller’s teacher, whose only appearance in the film is on the homework The Dude finds in his car. The crowd circled around with cameras, cheering every costume, no matter how elaborate or lame.
And that was it. Lebowski Fest ended pretty much the same way the movie did, quietly, with some people still bowling. It was the perfect way to end an evening that celebrated a film that wasn’t a huge success, but slowly and quietly became one of the big cult hits of the last 20 years. I walked out of the bowling alley, into the night air of Lakewood, promising I would be back next year. Just then, I watched a guy dressed a giant bottle of Sioux City Sarsaparilla get into his car and drive away.