When I found out that I would be covering 2014’s incarnation of Lebowski Fest, I texted my first boyfriend—the only person I thought would appreciate this oddity. “Isn’t that in Ohio or some shit?,” he replied. Not quite, lovely boy with whom I used to swap spit. Yes, Lebowski Fest did begin in the midwest— Louisville, Kentucky, to be exact—but since its birth in 2002, the annual celebration of the Coen brothers’ 1998 cult film now occurs in various locations across the United States, and on August 22 and 23, 2014, Manhattan became a Lebowski mecca.
The first night of NYC Lebowski Fest was held at Lucky Strike, a massive 26-lane western midtown den decorated in faux-collage pseudo Warholian pop art portraits of celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe. The place screamed, “We are way out of your league, we have bouncers” rather than “Come join your local bowling league, we’re a fun-loving bunch!”; I was way too intimidated to even ask about the cost of a White Russian, the evening’s drink special. Lucky Strike Lanes boasts that it attracts the likes of John Mayer and Robert De Niro, but the only celebrities I saw on the night of the 22nd were potential doppelgangers of Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Julianne Moore, Steve Buscemi, and Tara Reid.
Besides unlimited bowling, the main draw of night one of Lebowski Fest was the costume contest. At my particular moment of entry, a woman dressed as Lingonberry pancakes was reveling in the cheers of her fellow fans, a diverse group costumed as bowling pins, lady vikings, and nihilists. The following couple were dressed as a quite literal version of the famous line “I hate the fucking Eagles, man,” which of course the crowd eagerly screamed; what is the point of a fan convention without the vocalization of the movies’s most popular quotes? The contest, hosted by Lebowski Fest co-founder Will Russell, was judged by the old and faithful applause scale: basically, the more creative, witty, or authentic the costume, the louder the applause. I parked myself on one of Lucky Strike’s many classy white leather couches while the Donnys were being judged. As a crowd of maybe 200 Lebowski fans screamed “SHUT THE FUCK UP, DONNY” in unison, a Lucky Strike waitress placed a bong full of beer in front of me. This was the first time I had ever seen such a contraption, but it would prove to be a Lucky Strike signature item. As its owners hit the bong (pressed a handy tap), they assured me it was “an investment”.
The only other person who seemed remotely interested in the bong was Winston, a man who I mistook as a Lucky Strike employee because of his Metallica roadie uniform (perhaps the most subtle costume of the night) and technical knowledge of bowling consoles. But in fact, Winston had traveled from Cincinnati, Ohio for Lebowski Fest and would prove to act as my Virgil throughout the night, guiding me through the more obscure costumes, the Lebowski Fest schedule, and of course, aiding me in the art of bowling.
Together, Winston and I watched the conclusion of the costume contest. As a few Walter Sobchak lookalikes straggled off the stage, a series of Dudes lined up in anticipation of their own moment in the spotlight. Throughout this whole ordeal, my main question for most of these guys is this: where does one purchase an authentic Lebowksi cardigan? Is there a pattern one can buy on Etsy and then ship off to grandma to knit? I later learned that these cardigans are available for purchase online, and my dream of a sweet elderly lady knitting her grandson a stoner cardigan popped like a bubble. Anyways, the final contestant, Dude No. 5, roared in celebration. This towering dude doppelganger was a dead ringer for Jeff Bridges circa Lebowski era. My second mistake of the evening was genuinely believing this man WAS Jeff Bridges. The resemblance was uncanny, like, fellow fans lined up to take pictures with him, this man was the Dude! It was only upon running into my former editor Ryan that I learned the truth: this man was no more a Lebowski than I.
Ryan was in the middle of “bowling the best game of his life,” which encouraged my boyfriend and I to join a game ourselves. Perhaps it was because Lebowski fans bowl without bumpers, or perhaps my mojo was thrown off by the sight of the Coen brothers DVD commentary playing on every other giant TV screen, but I continuously threw gutter balls. I found myself desperately wishing I was better at bowling so Winston would fist bump me (he probably would have anyways, he seemed like a good sport). As the festival goers became more intoxicated, presumably off bong beer and White Russians, everyone became even more friendly, which is saying something, because this crowd was already incredibly encouraging. Most Lebowski Fest attendees seemed to know each other, either from past fests or online forums. It is a healthy little community, a small society that only exists several nights a year. And although the idea of dressing up as a Coen brothers character still seems really fucking weird to me, I performed Shakespearean monologues at Renaissance Faires as a teenager, so I really can’t talk. Speaking of Shakespeare, one man was selling his translation of the film into Olde English: Two Gentlemen of Lebowski. Anyone who has seen The Big Lebowski knows that nothing quite happens in the film. Similarly, nothing quite happens at Lebowski Fests. They are celebrations of a lackadaisical attitude, the opportunity to connect with like-minded people. Really, nothing could be healthier.
In fact, it was surprising that such an amiable affair would contain even the slightest bit of competition, but the costume contest indeed had winners (prizes included a book of Jeff Bridges’ photography). Of course, the Dude No. 5, the Jeff Bridges lookalike, won Best Dude, to no one’s surprise but his own. Finally, the main characters then participated in a miniature bowling contest; Maude, Jesus, Walter, and the Dude each had one chance to bowl. But perhaps appropriately, the Dude was the only one to hit a pin.
As we returned to our bowling game, I finally hit a pin. I walked over to Winston to tell him my good news. Unknowingly, his response summarized the Lebowski Fest experience: “You never have a bad time bowling. It’s not about how good you are, it’s about having fun.”
“It’s like listening to James Brown, it’s always good.”