Arts & Culture
3:05 pm
Wed August 14, 2013

Grab Your Bowling Shoes & White Russians! Lebowski Fest Returns

Lake Effect's Mitch Teich interviews Lebowski Fest’s founder Will Russell.

This weekend in Milwaukee, festival-goers will celebrate a culture of laziness, drinking, and the sometimes unfocused thoughts that go along with both.

Milwaukee has the rare honor of hosting Lebowski Fest for the second consecutive time.
Credit Lebowski Fest

And while that might seem like a normal weekend here, these specific and peculiar activities refer to the lifestyle embodied by The Dude – the character at the heart of the Coen Brothers’ cult movie, The Big Lebowski.

The movie, which stars Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi, is 15 years old.  It has no overt Milwaukee connection, but is popular enough here that the city will host Lebowski Fest starting this Friday for a second consecutive year – a rare honor.

But what is it about Milwaukee that makes it such a fitting venue for Lebowski Fest? Founder and “Achiever” Will Russell says Milwaukee's culture goes well with the movie.

“Milwaukee is a town that loves drinking and bowling, and The Big Lebowski as well, and it really just turned out to be the perfect town for Lebowski Fest,” Russell says.

A Louisville, Ky., native, Russell fell in love with The Big Lebowski’s sharp humor and carefully-scripted yet nonchalant dialogue. He says it's the movie’s quotability that inspired the festival. 

"At band practice we spent more time quoting The Big Lebowski than practicing, and we were not a very good band, but that’s how this thing kind of started," he says.

So 12 years ago, Lebowski Fest was born. The event was held at a rented-out Baptist-run bowling alley where management forbade a screening of the film because of its coarse language.

“We did the first one on a lark,” Russell says. “We thought it would just be fun, and maybe 15, 20 of our friends might show up.”

Russell was baffled when the event attracted upwards of 150 people - "We just couldn’t believe that people traveled from other cities."

Encouraged by the strong showing, Russell and company held the festival the following year. Attendance "went from 150 people to 1200 people, and then we started traveling with it, and then we added music.”

Russell even got the chance to meet Jeff Bridges, who played “The Dude” in the film, at the 2005 Lebowski Fest in Los Angeles. Better yet, Bridges gave “The Dude’s” signature jelly sandals to Russell to wear.

“It was kind of warm and moist and a little bit gross,” Russell says, “but as soon as I stepped into it I felt just instantly relaxed, enveloped by the spirit of ‘The Dude.’ That was pretty cool.”

Russell has enjoyed the whirlwind journey as Lebowski Fest has grown into the huge celebration it is today.

“There’s something about watching that movie with thousands of people, and everyone knows the lines, and they’re dancing along to the music,” Russell says. “It’s just a really fun party.”

Lebowski Fest opens Friday in Milwaukee with a free outdoor screening of the movie in Cathedral Square Friday night. The festival runs through Saturday, if you’re not into the whole brevity thing. This fall, San Francisco and New Orleans will also host the festival.