Will Russell was born in Louisville and, according to him, has never left. Unless you count traveling the country several times a year to celebrate all that is the cult-favorite Coen Brothers film “The Big Lebowski” with a fanbase that grows larger and larger, faster and faster, every month. Russell, co-founder of the Lebowski Fest, an ever-growing celebration of the film that has existed since 2002, basically made the movie a cult hit. He continues to add to the diverse oddity that is the River City, pushing for the foundation of a festival based on Pee Wee Herman, as well as officially qualifying as a Roadside America attraction with the opening of his second WHY Louisville store, a retail space in both the Highlands and Nulu that celebrates odd souvenirs dominated by local artists.
After showing me a fake back alley-dealt Rolex he bought during his recent trip to NYC for Lebowski Fest (that seemed to stop working while he was displaying it with pride), Russell took the time to talk with me on a wintry spring day this week.
GetOutLouisville.com: What came first: Lebowski Fest or WHY Louisville?
Will Russell: Lebowski Fest came first. That was in 2002. In 2005, I opened WHY Louisville. The name WHY Louisville came from a line in “The Big Lebowski,” or a phrase in the movie, “What have you.” The WHY in WHY Louisville stands for “What have you”…When people would come to Louisville for Lebowski Fest, people would say, ‘“The Big Lebowski” is set in Los Angeles. Why is it in Louisville?” I realized I was surrounded by all these creative people doing creative projects…but there was no central store for that.
The concept of WHY Louisville was to be like a hub for the creative culture in Louisville and to help support local artists and showcase the creative culture in town. To help fight against the stereotype in Kentucky that there’s no culture here. It’s a way to show off the creativity in the city. It’s also a more accessible form of art, because not everyone can afford a $500 painting, but they can afford an $18 t-shirt. The artists get paid for the shirts and they get promoted through the store. Our unofficial slogan is “souvenirs that don’t suck”…
We opened the first store in 2005 in this little shitty place that had an air conditioner out front that dripped on people when they walked in…We moved down the block in April 2009 and we opened a screenprint shop in the back…Just a bigger space and much more visible…and this year in March we opened up our second store down in Nulu…
GOL: That was my second question. Why did you decide to open a second location in Nulu?
Will: I never wanted to open a second store, first of all. I’m not that ambitious, really. Running a store is a lot of hard work and I felt like I had my hands full with one store. But, I like Nulu, I lived in Butchertown for ten years, I thought I’d like to be a part of it…Since it was so nice and I already had the inventory and it was so easy, I was able to invest in some interesting things…We got a funhouse mirror from Fontaine Ferry Park, we’ve got a Fontaine Ferry ticket booth that’s our dressing room, we’ve got a big carnival wheel here and we give away prizes and we got Bonnie Prince Billy to donate his flip-flop for the flapper on the wheel. We’ve got a pony ride for a quarter. And the wax Colonel Sanders, which is terrifying.
GOL: It’s like a weird little museum.
Will: Yeah. I’ve been obsessed with roadside attractions since I was 17. Ever since I went to the Mystery Hole in Hawk’s Nest, West Virginia, I decided, “This is cool; I would love to one day one a roadside attraction.” That’s what started the whole Kentucky Rushmore madness. I was going to build this giant mountain in Cave City with Abe Lincoln and Colonel Sanders and Muhammad Ali and a horse head. It turned out to be this five million dollar project. That failed. But I submitted this place and they approved it. That was a big deal, and we just finished a mural over at the Highlands WHY Louisville store of Kentucky Rushmore, so I’m happy with that. It’s now a thing…and just before you got here I submitted it to Roadside America…
So, we’ve got big plans for the Colonel [wax model]. That Colonel is actually from Cave City, a place called the Wandering Woods…[The Colonel] is very lifelike. It has human hair and apparently one of the Colonel’s original suits. For the eight year anniversary of the WHY Louisville store on June 22 we’re going to do an event called the March of the Colonels. We’ve procured a hoverround…a motorized scooter…we’ve got LV 1, the hacker group, to modify a hoverround. We’re going to set the Colonel up in a hoverround and buckle him up and someone is going to remote control power him to lead a pack of Kentucky colonels in white suits with string ties…We’re going to do that on the pedestrian bridge, June 22.
GOL.com: Lebowski Fest: what’s the future of that?
Will: Who knows, man? The thing’s been going on since 2002. The first one was done on a lark. We didn’t even think it would be as big as it was; we thought 20 of our friends would show up and 150 people came out. The next year SPIN Magazine wrote about it…and then all of a sudden 1200 people were there and LA Times was there. It just exploded, and we started traveling with it. We’ve done over 50 Lebowski Fests in over 25 cities and overseas in the last 11 years. The next one is the 12th annual in Louisville on July 19-20. We’ve got the Kyle Gass Band…We’re gonna go to Canada this year.
So the future of Lebowski Fest: I think it’s gonna go on and on and on. It’s just weird enough that I think it’s gonna keep going. We just did one in New York this weekend and we did one in LA last month. Jack Black showed up dressed as Evil Knieval singing Elvis. It was nice. The fan base continues to grow…I think there’s new generations of fans when they see the movie. They go to college, they get high and they watch “The Big Lebowski” and the love it and think “oh, go to the Lebowski Fest.” You know, it’s fun…it’s a different kind of event than a lot of events like your typical concert…At Lebowski Fest, the fans are the stars of the show. I don’t do anything, really. I book the venues and open the doors and the fans bring the party. It’s their costumes and creativity and energy that really drives the event….it’s just a great community…The Facebook page has almost doubled in just the last four months…The film is like your favorite album. It doesn’t matter that you know what is going to happen next; you just can’t wait to see the Dude drop the roach and crash the car.
GOL.com: What about Pee Wee Over Louisville? This the first year for that, right?
Will: Pee Wee Over Louisville. This is an idea I’ve had for years. That’s my second favorite movie of all time, “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”…My aesthetic was very highly influenced by “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” All of this carnival stuff going on in here, that’s all derivative of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”
The idea was launched in December when my daughter Stella was born. It was a combination of her being born –she kind of ignited a lot of joy and love and inspiration in me – and then I saw the documentary “Beauty is Embarassing” with Wayne White, who designed and created and voiced a lot of the puppets in “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”
GOL.com: OK, I didn’t know about this.
Will: Yeah, it’s so good….Wayne White is part of the legend that is “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” It’s a really inspirational documentary. So seeing that, I said, “This is cool, I love this guy, now is the time.” I decided Pee Wee Over Louisville would be my daughter Stella’s one year birthday party. So it’s going to be in September.
I reached out to Paul Reubens initially, and his manager and his publicist, booking agent, personal assistant, nothing. Didn’t hear anything back. Didn’t know what was going on. About a month ago, Paul Reubens calls the Lebowski office…So I rushed to the phone and I checked the message and called the number back and then I realized that the message had been left nine days earlier. I didn’t get to talk to him, but I did get to talk to his business manager. Unfortunately, Pee Wee is currently closing a deal on some network television show involving the Pee Wee Herman character, and his contract is super-prohibitive. He can’t license the character, he can’t license reruns of the show…So, it sounds like, maybe, Pee Wee Over Louisville may not happen. They might shut it down.
I’ve got a call set up today to do something. We may end up changing the name to Louisville’s Big Adventure, and it’s gonna be marching bands playing the score. Squallis Puppeteers are doing Pee Wee’s puppets; bike parade; we just registered with Guinness [Book of Records] to try and set the world record for the most Pee Wees dancing to “Tequila,” which I think we should be able to get since the current record is one Pee Wee. Costume contests. A screening of the film. This will all be in Tyler Park September 7. It’s all set…It may not happen, but I’m trying to work it out. I want to see it happen. I’m not doing this as a money-maker; I’m doing this for my daughter’s birthday, and I’m doing this because I think the fans really want it… When Pee Wee was popular, Pee Wee was everywhere…and then all of sudden Pee Wee was gone. Toys were pulled from shelf. You weren’t allowed to talk about him or like him. It was like he got ripped away from the fans…I think there’s a real need in the fan community to celebrate this and to reconcile that terrible separation that happened with all the fans…
And I like to watch fan culture come to life. I got to see that with Lebowski Fest and it’s been marvelous. The fans are really creative and they come in costumes and I want to see what happens, and I think Paul Reubens would enjoy seeing this, as well. All of these things are possible and they can be amazing.
GOL.com: How has the birth of your daughter impacted your goals and all of this stuff that’s going on?
Will: Well, somehow, it’s made me more productive. When you have a newborn, you’ve got to be on your game. There’s no shutting down. It has made me more productive, more efficient, way more happy. It’s enriched my life in ways that words could never describe…I love it. I love being a dad. And in that time we’ve opened a second store, launched a new festival, I took over Lebowski Fest…I wrote my memoirs…Ray of sunshine. She’s really cute. Cutest baby ever.
GOL.com: What do you think about the future of Louisville and where do you think the town’s headed?
Will: Louisville is fucking on fire. There’s this renaissance going on.
GOL.com: I kinda feel that way about it, too.
Will: I don’t know why. I think Nulu has something to do with it…For some reason the national media has really taken to Nulu: Please and Thank You is in “Martha Stewart Living,” the barbershop [Market Street Barbers] is in “Esquire”…there just something. And the national media and all the tastemaker publications really like Louisville. It’s this sleepy southern town that has the Derby and all these great restaurants here and, of course, bourbon, which they think is great. The spotlight seems to be on Louisville and I’ve always noticed that Louisville has the weird thing that nothing seems to get any real recognition unless something outside of Louisville recognizes it. My Morning Jacket, nobody gave a shit. Then “Rolling Stone” started talking about My Morning Jacket and suddenly we give a shit. Same thing with Lebowski Fest. Nobody gave a shit, and then “SPIN Magazine” and it’s always been like that. I think we’re on track with an Austin or a Portland…We’re similar to Austin in that we’re a more progressive culture in a very conservative state…Yeah, we’ve got it going on.
Written by Brian Manley / Photos by Shawn Price