In the basement of a nondescript office building in Phoenix Hill, there is a secret Wonderland. It houses a couple hundred thousand dollars of pop culture memorabilia mostly from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s — “Beetlejuice,” “Star Wars,” Pee-Wee Herman, cryptids, clowns, horror, sci-fi, fantasy. Will Russell, the king of this land, says a friend told him he has terrific “creepdar” — that he instinctively zeros in on all things that are just on the edge of being creepy. He’s fine with that.
This is the LebowskiFest World Headquarters, aka the Funhouse, aka the League Office.
Russell is the man behind the WHY Louisville stores on Bardstown Road and in NuLu. I just learned that WHY is an acronym standing for “what have you” — a quote from the “The Big Lebowski.”
He’s also the co-founder of LebowskiFest. This month he will complete the final payment to his former partner and co-owner and will become the sole owner of the 14-year-old traveling festival celebrating the movie written and directed by the Coen Brothers.
Coincidentally, our interview gets disrupted by a call from The Washington Post. Turns out “The Big Lebowski” is one of 25 films selected by the Librarian of Congress to be inducted into the National Film Registry. The Coens were not available for comment. Russell is the next best thing.
There has been a grand turning of the tide in Russell’s life of late.
It’s mostly been a rough year for Russell for a number of reasons; he says it’s been a “nightmare.” Serious health problems left him feeling numb and distant for much of the year. Listening to him tick off the personal and dire details of his crisis is heartbreaking.
But if you follow Russell on social media, you’ll know all of that has changed. He’s come out on the other side, after proper treatment, a genuinely happier, healthier person. His posts are deeply introspective at times and goofy at others. “Today already rules,” reads a Facebook post from earlier this week. He throws around “YOLO” like it’s still trendy. But I don’t think he’s being ironic. Talking to him makes you realize he is very much living in a “you only live once” universe.
He says he’s lucky his businesses were in such good hands during his darker moments — both managers at the two WHY Louisvilles and Tyler Gill, the “bag man” for LebowskiFest, kept the Russell empire marching on.
The War on Drugs’ Lost in the Dream has been his jam this year. He says it may very well be his favorite album of all time. To him it feels like taking a warm shower, in the desert … there was more to his analogy, but I’ll just leave it at that. The album is popping up at the top of lots of Best of 2014 lists and was written by a man struggling with sometimes crippling mental illness and anxiety. It’s playing nonstop in the Funhouse.
Apparently the Funhouse was a mess until recently. The LebowskiFest HQ has been in the space for at least four years. But until recently, Russell says it was a place to get in, do your work and get out.
But a little while ago, he decided to clean it up and relocate his immense pop culture collection from his house and the stores to the office. And the Funhouse was born.
Pee-Wee Herman is dominantly featured in the Funhouse. Two years ago, Herman pulled the plug on Russell’s “Pee-Wee Over Louisville” event — a festival like LebowskiFest, only family-friendly. It was meant to be a big public party for his daughter’s first birthday. But Herman — Paul Reubens, actually — said ixnay on the partyay.
“Today’s word is forgiveness,” he posted on Facebook this week. That’s because he’s packing up a Christmas present for Reubens. He’s sending him his Kentucky Colonel certificate, bumperstickers, “a plastic dinosaur, because why not?” and some “Pee-Wee Over Louisville” event stickers. All he would like in return would be to have a 15-minute phone call with his childhood hero. He has some ideas he wants to bounce off him.
“I’ve always been a collector,” says Russell. He was raised by parents who spoiled him and bought him anything he wanted. He doesn’t know when he finally settled on pop culture nostalgia as the focus of his collection. Focus may be too strong a word. There is no focus to his collecting, unless that focus is Russell himself. He says nostalgia probably represents his “need to connect to his inner child.” But the 38-year-old doesn’t want to think too hard about that.
Russell describes his collecting first as a “passion,” and then changes his mind and calls it an “obsession.” Then he changes his mind again and goes back to calling it a “passion” — “obsession is dark,” he says.
Russell was homeless for six months in 1995, or as Russell says it, “nineteen hundred and ninety-five.” Now he’s a successful businessman with two stores and a festival, all of which more than make money. He has 12 employees — a fact he realized at the recent Christmas party at Vernon Lanes. “That was a moment,” he says.
He’s thinking about his next project. He can’t reveal what it is quite yet, but he says “all signs point to ‘yes.'” He has great people involved. He figures his troubled early life was Act I, LebowskiFest was Act II, WHY Louisville was Act III. “The next Act,” he says, “will undoubtably be the grandest.”