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Lebowski Fest: White Russians, bathrobes and bowling

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As the "Big Lebowski" phenomenon grows each year, diehard fans wonder if the increased exposure is taking the festival out of its element.

If this weekend you noticed a preponderance of people in bowling shirts and bathrobes drinking White Russians and talking about the aesthetic qualities of rugs, don’t worry — it was just Lebowski Fest, the annual celebration of the Coen brothers classic, "The Big Lebowski."

What started as a one-off event 14 years ago has since grown into an industry unto itself. But what happens when a cult film starts to hit the mainstream?

For fans of the film, you either get it or you don’t. Kalif Fuller, dressed in bathrobe and a Dude t-shirt, is waiting at the doors of the Fountain Valley bowling alley two hours before it opens. When asked how much other Lebowski merchandise he owns, he confesses:

It's in the low eight or nines, but I've got a buddy who's got every single edition, DVD, shirts and posters, so he's in the high 80s.

By 8:30pm several hundred people have flooded inside, and those in costume really tie the room together. For non-fans, deciphering who’s who can be complicated. There are bath-robed unemployed stoners, scissor-wielding nihilists, ferrets, Vietnam vets and, in one case, a former TV western writer in an iron lung.

But this is not just an American thing. Tom Greenough is from Wales, and in his country a family member has made some of the movie's dialogue part of the official record.

My brother is a speech writer for the government and managed to sneak some Lebowski quotes into a speech that you’ll see on TV.

While the bowling alley where they shot the movie has been torn down, Lebowksi Fests are going strong with five or six events this year. They plan to expand to London in the fall. There’s even a store in New York called The Little Lebowski Shop, where owner Roy Preston — a good man, and thorough — says they sell pretty much everything movie related.

We have T-shirts, bumper stickers, [and] books on "The Big Lebowski." There are Lebowksi condoms… the Jesus character, Jesus condoms.”

Biff Bang Pow is a company in Simi Valley that's been making Lebowksi action figures for 10 years. And while they’ve just re-upped their deal to expand into things like Lebowski car shades, owner Jason Lenzi says you still have to be careful.

As a geek, I want to turn people on to stuff, tell your friends, but you don’t want it to go top five, because then it’s not as special.

Back at the event, Liz Flores says that for her first fest she came dressed as a toeless nihilist, but that proved too exhausting. So this year she’s Maude, the Dude’s special lady friend, in full Valkyrie mode. She shares the same concerns as Jason Lenzi.

I’m looking at the line, a lot of people not in costume, people here to be here, not dressed up. I’m not hardcore, but I love the movie so I want to be a part of it. If it gets too big it’s gonna ruin it.

William Russell started the fest in Kentucky in 2002.  It’s run as a break-even enterprise and he’s taken steps to keep it a natural, zesty enterprise just for the fans — business aggression will not stand.

We’re not some faceless corporation. We’ve been approached by corporations and told them no. It was a powerful liquor company, they offered a lot of money, but it’s not about the money.

As for the Coen brothers, well, if they think it’s over the line, the only time Russell heard from them was when he asked if they’d sign off on a movie fan book. He remembers: “We approached them, they replied with one line: you have neither our blessing or our curse.”

Which went on to become the epigraph of the publication, proving, perhaps, that the Coen brothers also abide.

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