It all began at a tattoo expo in July of 2002. Scott Shuffitt and Will Russell were attempting to sell t-shirts and to pass the time they began exchanging quotes from the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic The Big Lebowski . From this emerged a daring idea: a convention celebrating all the wonder and strangeness of the film. By Shuffitt’s own admission, they only expected maybe 50 people to show up to the bowling alley they had rented, but the turnout was somewhere around 120. Encouraged, they did it again the next year. And the next. And so on until last weekend, when they threw the 11th annual Lebowski Fest.
Traditionally, the festival starts with the Movie Party at the lawn of Executive Strike & Spare , which hosts the event. Experimental band Mesiko , founded by former Louisvillian Ray Rizzo, opened the night (a full account of their performance by Jyn Yates can be found here ). I arrived towards the end of their set, just in time to hear the welcoming remarks by Shuffitt and Russell – who strutted onto the stage in bowling pin outfits to thank the sponsors and introduce the evening’s main entertainment: Mucca Pazza .
The Chicago musical group describes itself as a “circus punk marching band,” and I don’t think a more fitting description could be coined. It boasts somewhere between 20 to 30 members whose instrumentation includes a percussion section, trumpets, saxophones, a tuba, violin, guitar, and accordion, among others – even three cheerleaders. More than just a band, they are performers; each member wore a marching band uniform, and they shook and swayed and danced with the music, even occasionally leaving the stage to surge the crowd and play from amongst the masses. Other highlights included a truly heartbreaking violin solo and a guest performance  by six members of the Louisville Leopard Percussionists.
Thankfully, humidity was low and there was a cool breeze that night, which made for perfect conditions for an outdoor screening of The Big Lebowski following Mucca Pazza. I had not seen the movie in years, and one forgets how wonderfully strange it is. The film tells the story of the slacker known as The Dude (Jeff Bridges) who just wants to float through life, drink White Russians, and bowl with his friends Walter (John Goodman) and Donny (Steve Buscemi), but due to a case of mistaken identity, he finds himself entangled in a plot involving kidnapping, ransom, auto theft, severed toes, and the enigmatically sexual Maude Lebowski. Witty dialog and bizarre dream sequences abound, reminding the viewer exactly what makes this film great enough to warrant its own yearly celebration.
The festival continued on Saturday back at the lawn of Executive Strike & Spare with the Garden Party, featuring musical performances, lawn games, and what-have-you. The lawn games were hosted by Big Brothers & Big Sisters, and without the context of the film, these games would surely seem quite bizarre: toss the blow-up doll over the caution tape, launch the stuffed marmot into the tub, throw the coffee mug at The Dude’s forehead, lob a bag of dirty underwear out of a car window at the target (no word on whether the bag actually contained soiled unmentionables).
The sun beat down hard, keeping most people in the shaded area near the lawn games while the intrepid few braved the heat to get up close to the opening musical act: local bluegrass group The White Russians. The appropriateness of their name is no accident; they told of how they have always been Lebowski fans and cycled through several film-related names before landing on the current choice. They started with a rendition of the Rolling Stones’ “Wild Horses,” continuing on with various bluegrass standards and original works. Those who missed this performance need not worry – they perform every Thursday night at Dark Star Tavern.
The White Russians were followed by a comedy set by Derby City Dating Scene Improv, who can be seen regularly at The Bard’s Town. Louisville is a city which loves its improv comedy, and they gave several reasons why that love is deserved, with improv games such as a birthday song made up on the spot for a man named Scoop and a “slide show” of an Iraqi vacation utilizing a young volunteer from the audience.
Continuing the showcase of local talent, the stage was next occupied by The Deloreans , a unique rock band which wonderfully captures the hipster vibe of our local music scene – and I mean that as a compliment. Their set was woefully short for my taste, but the crowd was treated to fantastic songs such as “Starfish” and “Leviathan ,” as well as a song they wrote specifically for the festival: “Shut the F*ck Up, Donny,” during which they encouraged parents to stop up their young children’s ears with earmuffs. They closed with my personal favorite, the hyper and energetic “Buffalo .”
Americana/country musician Todd Snider  headlined the Garden Party, delighting the crowd with his energetic music and affable stage presence. As he informed the crowd, “The more noise you make in between the songs, the better we play in the middle. And the more you move around during the songs, that helps a lot, too.” No one really took him up on the suggestion to get up and dance – the sun was far too draining – but they certainly obliged him on the noise factor, cheering him on and shouting out encouragement. The crowd favorite was clearly his anthem known as “Beer Run ,” a quite silly song about adventures in beer-drinking. The crowd was not quite satiated following his performance, and so were graced with a double encore by Mr. Snider and his band.
Now into the evening, the crowd headed indoors for some bowling. Executive Strike & Spare boasts 52 lanes, all of which were promptly occupied by those eager to throw rocks. It was here that one could really feast on the crowd-watching: costumes, costumes everywhere! Countless Dudes wandered around holding White Russians (which had been pre-mixed in large batches in anticipation of great consumption); the occasional Walter and Donny could be seen strutting around; groups had come dressed in matching bowling outfits, one decked out completely in pink and wearing white wigs; even a Saddam Hussein or two could be seen in bowling attire (from one of the particularly strange dream sequences in the film).
The night concluded with the “nearly historic” after party in the bowling alley’s bar, hosted by the Monkey Wrench. I, unfortunately, was unable to attend, and thus cannot report as to whether the party finally crossed the line into completely “historic” – although I suppose only time can tell.
In the meantime, Lebowski Fest itself has secured its place in history, with offshoot festivals occurring around the country as well as being discussed in several books  and the subject of a documentary . It even has the official stamp of approval from Jeff Bridges, The Dude himself. One can presume the festival will be around for a while, so be sure to attend next year and witness all the craziness for yourself.
Photos: Ryan Armbrust