Skip to content

Everything was great until it sucked: Aiding and Abiding.

July 28, 2011 \am\31 9:40 am

This month: Patrick Wensink ruins orphans’ dreams at the 10th Annual Lebowski Fest.

“Step right up! Only a dollar, folks,” my voice booms through an electric megaphone. “Toss the dirty undies.”

“Hit a nihilist.”

“Help the kids.”

I am at a bowling alley parking lot with the summer sun setting in my face, cooking it pink. I am sweaty and regretting wearing pants. Luckily, the crowd doesn’t notice.

“All proceeds go to charity. C’mon, ladies and gentlemen, Toss the Ringer. Toss the Ringer. Toss the Ringer.”

People are wearing costumes, elaborate costumes, in every direction. Only infrequently do they pay attention to the guy barking through a bullhorn. I’m failing miserably at my simple job and simultaneously letting down disadvantaged children. Nice work, Wensink.

Until…

“They believe in nothing, show them you believe in something.”

Heads turn a little, a few chuckles poke from the passing crowd. Suddenly, I don’t feel like a sweaty buffoon. Now I’m just sweaty. Slowly, an audience forms because of those simple words.

I am a sort-of carnival barker at the Tenth Annual Lebowski Fest in Louisville, Kentucky. A two-day love-a-thon of all things Big Lebowski. Spinning the, “we believe in nothing,” line to my advantage is the sort of quote-dropping folks expect. It’s a line Chili Peppers bassist, Flea, and the other nihilists in the film turned into magic. And sure enough, its magic brings in contestants. A guy dressed like a buzz-shorn Vietnam vet—the spitting image of John Goodman’s character, Walter—sticks out a dollar. My wife takes the buck and adds it to the pot.

Cheers rise wildly, drowning my bullhorn. The crowd is sweaty, too, but couldn’t be happier than to watch someone chuck old underpants through the air.

This little sideshow, called The Ringer Toss, boasts a perfect replica of Jeff Lebowski’s rusted green 1972 Plymouth Fury. Our little contest features a bowling bag full of dirty underwear—“the whites” many people scream, further quoting the flick. Contestants are reenacting a scene from the Cohen Brothers’ cult film by tossing the Ringer. On screen, the Ringer was supposed to be a bowling bag stuffed with money, but Goodman’s Walter character swaps out the cash with his unwashed undergarments.

Ringer Toss in action (courtesy of Lebowskifest.com)

But at the Lebowski Fest, what is supposed to be a bowling bag of dirty underwear is, in fact…a bowling bag of dirty underwear.

The object of the game is to throw the satchel out the passenger window, over the car roof and hit the leather-clad nihilist mannequin (wearing a Nixon mask) with the bag, thus fusing together a later scene in the film. Flea must be busy, so plastic Nixon is our stand-in nihilist.

Walter’s real name is Luke, and he traveled from Dallas. “Let’s hear it for Walter,” I shout into the megaphone. People clap, people yell, people smile. “Walter-Walter-Walter,” I chant and people repeat. We’re one big, happy weirdo family. Maybe, I think, those orphans won’t go lonely tonight. Nice work, Wensink.

Luke from Dallas hucks the briefs end-over-end and clocks Nixon in the nose, collapsing its entire body like when Wicked Witches meets water. “All right!” I scream, “let’s hear it for Walter! Don’t forget to collect your prize.” His grand prize for hitting an inanimate object with stained BVDs: a 25-cent box of snap pops.

Such is the Lebowski Fest. Inane fun for the sake of inane fun. And for a decade, they’ve done it better than anybody.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing about this event. But a good Louisville citizen will fix that problem swiftly, telling anyone who’ll listen about our annual gathering of costumed silliness. People from Louisville are proud of the Lebowski Fest. Mainly, because it’s a good excuse for over drinking, but also because satellite events have sprung up around the globe from New York, to Portland, to England. It’s got a sterling reputation among dirty underwear aficionados. Folks, like Luke, travel from all over. I asked Hanes-tossers and heard “Arkansas,” “Long Island,” “Florida,” and other spots.

Louisvillians of a certain age mention the Fest in the same breath as the Kentucky Derby, Muhammad Ali and baseball bats—all Louisville originals. The Lebowski weekend involves, of course, watching the movie. And it finishes with bowling and costume contests (People do their best to mimic Jeff Bridges, John Turturro, Goodman, Steve Buschemi and others. But, more entertainingly, they also scrap together outfits based on characters from its famed hallucination scenes. Probably most entertainingly, others dress as actual quotes, like “Give me the money, Shithead,” featuring a woman with poo for a hat walking around with people dressed as $50 bills.).

But the inanest of the inane is sandwiched between the opening and closing: the garden party. Which is where your narrator-slash-carny barker enters the picture.

The garden party turns the launching of rotten skivvies into a howling good time. There are also booths for marmot tossing and flipping a blowup doll on a trampoline made from a bed sheet, ala Jackie Treehorn’s beach party. All gaming proceeds, believe it or not, go to help Big Brothers Big Sisters. Not exactly the Little Lebowski Urban Achievers, but damn close. There is also nonstop action from bands on a Lollapalooza-large stage. My favorite was a group from Cincinnati composed of drums, accordion and banjo.

Somehow, my wife got mixed into the volunteerism. And through another stroke of fortune, I got to tag along. Today, the White Russian gods smiled and the Ringer Toss game needed an MC for an hour. An MC who, apparently, didn’t get enough hugs as a child because he’s hungry for attention. After Luke takes his trophy, I continue hollering through the horn, struggling to keep the interest of passers-by. This would be hard work even if it weren’t the dead of July and I weren’t wearing wet laundry. Unfortunately, it is and I am. Several times I hint to the college kid volunteering that he should give the bullhorn a shot—no luck.

Somewhere, big brothers and big sisters and their little orphan buddies are sad again. Nice work, Wensink.

But, slowly, maybe because of dropping movie quotes and maybe because the lady dressed as a bowling pin felt sorry for me, I help build a stack of dollar bills any pole dancer would be proud of.

I even get to meet a celebrity, unbeknownst to me.

Jim Hoosier, the actor who played Turturro’s sidekick, Liam, is on hand and tosses in a buck for the cause. We cheer Jim on, but he misses the mark. Undies spill from the bag across the lawn. Only later do I realize Hoosier wasn’t just someone dressed as the thick-necked movie bowler, but the guest of honor at this year’s Fest. Such is life when costumed fanaticism runs this deep.

This wasn’t the life I was expecting. I did not pass under the entrance tent with the intention of encouraging others to toss The Whites. And, even though nature’s melanoma factory is working overtime today, the nasty sun doesn’t stop me from having a good time. Later, cooling down, I can’t help but wonder why.

Normally, I hate this kind of shit.

The 10th Annual Lebowski Fest is a manufactured event. A festival. When visiting State Fairs, conventions, or regional fests I usually can’t escape the fact there is a certain sadness all around. There’s an aroma of desperation and fakeness in the air at those places.

Today, while working the bullhorn for all its worth, I would have been bummed if this Fest had any affiliation with a movie studio or was sponsored by a hip website or was intended to promote…anything. But there is hardly a whiff of consumerism, secret or otherwise. Yes, there are t-shirts and bumper stickers and car air fresheners and baby onesies with Lebowski-centric idioms for sale. And, yes, the admission is kind of high for a bowling alley lawn littered with dirty underwear. Astronomically high if you consider today’s entertainment doesn’t include any big-name bands or legitimate stars from The Big Lebowski.

But, I realize, maybe there’s a brilliant Lebowski Logic to it all.

Everything around the ugly green Plymouth is a type of reverse marketing. A sharp way to separate us and them. For example: when a small town hosts an apple butter festival, it’s not really to cherish their local toast spread, but to rake in money and encourage tourism. That’s no shocker. But Lebowski Fest’s admission fee and lack of marquee entertainment ensures only fellow lovers of silly fun and cult film fetishists attend. It dissuades anyone who would be attracted for any other reason than to simply bask in the glow of fellow obsessives and goofballs. This shrinks the Lebowski Fest’s gene pool dramatically and leaves something potent, pure, and fun.

On the whole, the festival isn’t trying to sell anything but a good time centered around a movie that has taken on a mystifying life of its own. And that makes the event a surprise. It kind of confuses me at first: attending a big event that doesn’t simply treat visitors as a wallet with a pulse. That distinction is so subtle I don’t even realize it until we’ve left the bowling alley that night.

I wasn’t prepared to be the PT Barnum of skidmarked whites and I wasn’t prepared to enjoy it so damn much. And I’m lucky. It’s surprising what happens when you bring together like minded lovers of the inane, a big event not selling anything and a bowling satchel filled with dirty underwear—it really ties a room together.

Advertisements
One Comment

Trackbacks

  1. I stand corrected. « We Who Are About To Die

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: