In the 15 years since Jeff Bridges debuted as “the Dude,” a slacker who drinks White Russians and goes bowling when things get tough, the movie “The Big Lebowski” has taken hold as a cult favorite.
As the Dude likes to say, “The Big Lebowski” continues to “abide.”
That is especially true in North Tonawanda.
This evening at 6:30, the Riviera Theatre will host its fifth annual “Lebowski Event,” which begins with a cocktail hour that in the past has attracted more than 700 people who have consumed 45 gallons of the milk-and-Kahlua cocktails.
Then, after viewing the 1998 Coen Brothers film, many fans continue to wear their Lebowski-style bathrobes and go bowling afterwards.
The increasing popularity of the happening, which costs $13 a ticket, has been a surprise to Frank Cannata, who was reluctant when his son and friends first proposed it soon after he took the job directing the restored Riviera six years ago.
“Of course, on Monday I got a lot of ‘I told you so’s’ from my son and my friends,” said Cannata. “I’ve learned to appreciate the humor of the movie.”
Cannata likes watching the way the actors in the movie play off each other as the comedy unfolds about laid-back Jeffrey “the Dude” Lebowski, who enlists help from a high-strung bowling buddy – played by John Goodman – after thugs mistake him for a millionaire, who is also named Lebowski.
Cannata says the crowd is another highlight. Fans come from as far as Jamestown and Rochester, and in elaborate costumes.
They wear bowling shoes and Viking hats and bring urns to imitate the scene in the movie where tossing a dead friend’s ashes into the sea goes awry, and the wind blows them into the Dude’s face.
“Every year, we just find more and more people picking up on small details,” he said. “They keep their costumes on when they go bowling.”
The movie is a natural fit for the Tonawandas, said Doug Heim, owner of the National Bowling Store on Oliver Street, which donates a commemorative custom Big Lebowski bowling ball. Etched with movie-related quotes like “The Dude abides,” it is raffled off as a fundraiser for the nonprofit theater.
“Man, everybody here bowls,” Heim said. “You have doctors and lawyers that bowl. Anybody from a trash collector to a brain surgeon, and it’s not inconceivable to have them both in the store at the same time.”
While his own slacker days have slipped into the past, Heim can still relate to the Dude’s habit of going bowling when he’s stressed.
“That’s the answer to all the problems that they’re dealing with,” Heim said. “Many times, I would do that if I was frustrated with things at work, at home ... I would just go bowling and take it out on the pins.”
The Rev. Ethan Cole, an Episcopal priest in Williamsville, thinks the movie’s continued popularity and relevance come from how the Dude doesn’t try to control things after he encounters problems, such as the bungled drop-off of ransom money for the millionaire’s “kidnapped” wife.
“Things happen to him, and he still makes a good life for himself,” said Cole, a friend of Cannata who lobbied for the Lebowski event.
“He’s following his core values, and his life unfolds in front of him,” Cole said. “He has a kind of peace with it, no matter what. That is a kind of lesson: to take life on life’s terms and to roll with it.”
For Bernie Glassman, a Zen teacher, the movie helps interpret Buddhism.
He and Bridges, one of his students, collaborated to write “The Dude and the Zen Master” as a way to simply explain their philosophy.
“The Dude is not attached to the Dude, he’s totally open,” said Glassman. “The answering machine just receives whatever people say into it. Abiding nowhere means not having any attachments. ‘The Dude abides’ is a short statement of just being open to the universe.”
When Matt Nolan’s father finally watched the movie after a few years of badgering, he broke the news by waking Nolan up at 7 on a Saturday morning with a text that said, “The Dude abides.”
“At that point, I couldn’t be upset,” said Nolan, 28, who has gone to the party at the Riviera with friends for the last three years.
He likes the movie for its subtle jokes.
“The more times you watch it,” he said, “the more times you pick up the little things about it [that] just make it so great.”
To him, one of the funniest parts is the when bowler named Jesus does a little dance to the Gipsy Kings’ Spanish version of the Eagles song “Hotel California” after he bowls a strike.
“You can miss it if you’re not even thinking about it,” he said.
He likes going to the Riviera with about six friends for the simple, unusual fun of drinking White Russians, watching the movie as people in the audience hoot and holler, and then going bowling.
“Basically, it’s just connecting with a bunch of random strangers over the love of the same movie,” he said, “which is kind of cool.”
This year, for the first time, Nolan’s dad is coming along. Helping his father get the complete Big Lebowski party experience has Nolan feeling excited and, perhaps, a little Dude-like.
“It was kind of random,” he said, “but it’s a good thing.”