For bowlers visiting the Crescent City, Rock ‘n’ Bowl throws in plenty of what New Orleans is famous for – food, music and fun living. Relocated after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, Rock ‘n’ Bowl brought much-needed recreation to locals and travelers to the devastated city. The alley is modest in size, with 19 lanes. However, the joint is outsized when it comes to lifestyle accoutrements. Its kitchen kicks out local specialties such as jambalaya, gumbo, meat pies and beignets. It also specializes in gourmet burgers; the alley even maintains its own cattle ranch in southwestern Louisiana. It just might be the only bowling alley that grinds its own chuck. Plus, bowlers can top off a visit to Rock ‘n’ Bowl with music concerts, especially when zydeco, honky-tonk and blues acts fire things up N’awlins style. The venue’s stage can be seen from every lane, so the bowling can go on during shows. Rock ‘n’ Bowl is next to Ye Olde College Inn, a classic New Orleans eatery. How perfect is that?
By Michael Tisserand
Featured in Bowler’s Journal: November 1992, pgs. 100-102
New Orleans, Louisiana may be known as the birthplace of jazz. But the new sound in that town is called “Rock ‘N’ Bowl.”
There are more than 100 clubs featuring live music here in the Big Easy, but only one place to find Rock ’N’ Bowl: the World famous Mid City Bowling Lanes. While other centers might stage occasional “rock ‘n bowl” type promotions, Mid City Lanes’ owner has acquired exclusive rights to the Rock ‘N’ Bowl name, and the place is defined by the concept. Literally, locals and tourists alike go to this 18 lane center to dance until two or three in the morning, where the air is filled with sounds of crashing drums, honking saxophones, rolling bowling balls and falling pins. Given this atmosphere, it doesn’t take long for a bowler to start doing the Twist on the approach. By midnight or so, the jitterbuggers start to command the pits. When a familiar couple waltzes on the bar, regulars smile knowingly. It’s owner John Blancher and his wife, Deborah. It’s the signal to the fact that Rock ‘N’ Bowl, Blancher’s way is in full swing for another night.
Blancher is a lanky 38 year old New Orleans native, the type of man who’ll shake your hand as quickly as he smiles. He grew up around Mid City Lanes, but never dreamed he’d one day own the place. In fact, as he readily admits, he never really went bowling.
The story of Rock ‘N’ Bowl, in fact, has an unusual genesis. As Blancher explains it , it started with a lucky pilgrimage to Medjugorje, in what was then Yugoslavia, in the fall of 1988. “New Orleans was buzzing about these apparitions of the Virgin Mary that people had seen,” says Blancher. “I wanted to see it for myself.” He witnessed nothing unusual. But before going back, he placed a petition on a mountainside altar for a secret dream he’d been harboring. “Help me find something that would get my whole family involved.,” he wrote, and went home. “Later that year,” remembers Blancher, “someone asked me if I wanted to buy a bowling alley.
It was Mid City Lanes that was on the block. Opened in 1941, it is New Orleans’ oldest center. Originally located across the street from Pelican Stadium, Mid City enjoyed glory days in a busy sports neighborhood. But pro baseball moved out of New Orleans, and the city razed Pelican Stadium in 1958. Larger, more modern bowling centers opened in surrounding suburbs, and this seemed to seal the fate for the small old- fashioned Mid City Lanes. By 1988, the local chapter of the Knights of Columbus found itself saddled with a failing bowling center and looking for a buyer. “I stopped by to see it,” recalls Blancher, “My first impression was that it was a beautiful place. It was painted kind of piecemeal with whatever colors were handy, but besides that, it was just like something out of 1958. “But, “ he continues, “no operator in the city would touch it.”
By that time, Blancher- a self professed jack- of- all- trades— had already tried his hand at teaching, catering, selling insurance, and even modeling. He thought Mid City Lanes had a rustic charm that would make it ideal for catering parties. Securing a personal loan, he made an offer. For $25,000, Blancher found himself the owner of the bowling center, the fixtures, and equipment. “I heard through the grapevine that every bowling operator thought I was a complete fool for taking it over,” he smiles. The skeptics had their reasons. The year before Blancher bought it, Mid City Lanes posted a $50,000 loss.
On Halloween Day, 1988, the center did a gross sale of only $29, including bowling and bar. The following morning, Blancher took it over. Deborah Blancher says that she thought her husband was a little “nuts”. Indeed, Blancher almost proved his critics right. Two months after he bought Mid City Lanes, he was talking with his lawyer about bankruptcy proceedings. His bank turned him down for another loan. Still, he kept the lanes open, hiring local artist Tony Green to paint an optimistic mural depicting the former Pelican Stadium. And rather than add amenities such as underground ball returns or automatic scoring, he changed the impact pinsetter to a magic eye. I wanted the place to look just like 1958,” he reasons.
At first, a few folks trickled in. Actors from a nearby theater would stop by after rehearsals, and a transient piano player named Billy Burke played for tips. Then one year after buying Mid City Lanes, Blancher thought he’d try booking a band on a weekend. Nobody knew it then, but it was the birth of Rock ‘N’ Bowl. Louisiana rockabilly singer Joe Clay appeared in one of those early bands. It was his first gig in a bowling center. “To be honest, I didn’t think it would work,” he acknowledges. “But after the first hour, people started jumping around on the dance floor- even where they were bowling. “Now,” says Clay, “everybody wants to play here. This place is unique, man.”
Blancher competes with other music clubs by offering low cover charges. He seldom goes above $5 for admission. His real drawing card however, has been a flair for offbeat promotions and an obvious love for bad, bowling related puns. There are, er, leagues of examples. Mid City Lanes offers free corned beef on St. Patrick’s Day and calls it “Shamrock and Bowl.” Thanksgiving means “Pluck and Bowl” for a turkey that cries “gob-bowl, gob-bowl.” A benefit for families of troops stationed in the Persian Gulf was called, of course, “Iraq and Bowl.” Once Blancher celebrated Elvis’ birthday by having a local impersonator emerge from behind the pins in a cloud of smoke. It was so popular that now he does it twice a year, on Elvis’ birthday and “deathday.”
This year, the local newspaper balked at one of Blancher’s promotions. It was a Good Friday show by a local gospel group, and the editors wondered about the appropriateness of a bowling alley church choir. Blancher explained all about Medjugorje. The ad ran. “People tell me they look forward to my ads each week,” he shrugs. “I figure if they don’t get a laugh, at least they get a groan.” And, as the former salesman quickly points out, Mid City Lanes gets attention.
Along with regular crowds numbering several hundred (much more during Mardi Gras and other holidays), this one of a kind bowling center attracts filmmakers and has been featured in music videos, and Miller Beer commercial. Blancher recently acquired exclusive rights to the name Rock ‘N’ Bowl” and is considering franchising. Rock ‘N’ Bowl still means long hours, but after four years, Blancher can claim a $36,000 salary while the lanes turn a $25,000 annual profit.
But even more important, he says, his family can work for the center. doing everything from cleaning the pits to typing the monthly “Rock and Bowlletin.” It is, he believes, an answer to his prayer. The catering experience has paid off, too. Mid City Lanes features a late night kitchen that serves such delicacies as fried alligator sausage. There’s a tradition in New Orleans of lagniappe , which means “a little something extra.”
Team bowling at Mid City Lanes includes a gay league, a yuppie league, and a mentally handicapped league, but Blancher discourages some serious bowlers from coming to a place that might not be- well, serious enough. “This will never be a big- league alley,” he admits cheerfully. “But the recreational bowler loves it here. People who have never bowled before come for the music. “Do I have to bowl?” they ask. Ten minutes later they’re putting on shoes and the next thing you see is they’re bowling, and jumping up and down and screaming about it.” According to Blancher, the easy-going atmosphere at Mid City appeals to the first- timers. “The lights are down and the music’s playing, so who really cares what your score is?” he reasons. It’s Blancher’s willingness to experiment with new ideas that has breathed new life into a historic New Orleans bowling center. “ If I hadn’t bought it, I believe these lanes would not be open today,” he says. Judging by the response, New Orleans is glad they’re open, too. For Rock ‘N’ Bowlers, these are the good old days.
NEW ORLEANS – After decades of Snook Eaglin’s endless song catalog, Eddie Bo’s warm smile and dazzling piano skills, Ernie K-Doe’s screeching, soulful sounds and countless perfectly bowled games, John Blancher is moving his New Orleans institution, Mid-City Rock n’ Bowl, down the street.
Blancher is closing the old Rock n’ Bowl Wednesday with a performance by Joe Krown, though he has already opened a newer, shinier version of his bowling alley/night club at 3000 S. Carrollton Ave.
Decades-old plumbing and electrical work, a building not handicap accessible, no sprinkler system and a landlord who was less than hospitable made his decision to move easy, despite worries from regular customers who thought the vibe that made the bowling alley famous might be lost in the move, Blancher said.
“No,” he said flatly if he would miss the old site, citing years and years of beer deliveries that had be to carried up two flights of stairs and a nearly endless parade of musicians who painstakingly lugged their equipment up the stairs.
“This place is obsolete,” he said looking at the old alley.
After the debut Thursday, the doubters were won over at the new alley, Blancher said.
“I’m gonna miss it, but I’m also so excited,” Blancher’s sister Becky, who works as a manager at the Rock n’ Bowl. “The new place is set up the same, just on steroids.”
She said her only regret to moving, while she became a little choked up, was that performer Snooks Eaglin, who passed away recently, would miss a chance to perform at the new building.
Just like on his first night of live music on Nov. 2, 1989, Johnny J and the Hitmen performed for the opening of the new site to a crowd of nearly 500.
Inside the new alley, while decorated with many of the old accoutrements from the old Rock n’ Bowl, like a velvet painting of Elvis and posters from Ponderosa Stomp, computers now score the bowling games, there is a larger space for dancing, and new wood floors adorn building that took nearly 18 months to complete.
Workers are still putting the final touches on the new building as Blancher and company work tirelessly to get everything in place for Jazz Fest which starts in two weeks.
Knowing how attached his customers are to the eclectic mix that brought people to his bar, Blancher said he will try and bring some of the famous murals of Pelican Stadium with him and he said the giant neon bowling pin would be moved as well.
The same artist was hired to paint a new sign outside the new building, he said, and he was keeping two lanes for parts, selling the other 16 lanes to a company in Florida.
But with everything that will be salvaged and make the journey down Carrollton, including a pair of bowling shoes that Tom Cruise once wore, not every customer was happy with the change.
“One guy asked, ‘Can you bring the dirt?’” Becky said.
An hour after Geno Delafose and his band kicked off the weekly Zydeco Night at the Mid-City Lanes last Thursday, the upstairs bowling alley was plunged into darkness — an apparent complication of Hurricane Ike’s offshore activities. Emergency lights provided some illumination, but the band’s amplifiers were silenced.
During an impromptu powwow with Delafose, Rock ‘n Bowl owner John Blancher suggested he continue to play with a more stripped-down configuration — just unamplified voice, accordion, rubboard and fiddle. Additionally, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, who was in the audience, volunteered to retrieve his piano-key accordion from the trunk of his car.
So for the next hour, Delafose and Barnes took turns singing French and English songs — mostly waltzes — as dancers and non-dancers pressed in close and reveled in the old-school, front-porch dancehall feel of the evening. The lack of air-conditioning also contributed to the authentic country dancehall vibe.
“It was pretty hip, a little different,” Blancher said. “I don’t know if anybody else could have pulled it off. But Geno knows all those old songs from his old man,” the late zydeco singer John Delafose. “And Sunpie is a champ — he knows the old stuff, too.”
When the power came back on, Delafose’s full band plugged in once again and played the rest of the night fully amplified.
THE BOWLING NEWS
Thursday, June 4, 1998
The United States District Court, Eastern District of Louisiana issued a consent judgement in favor of Mid City Bowling Lanes and Sports Palace, Inc. over Don Carter’s All-Star Lanes- Sunrise, Ltd. and Wolfram Video Corporation of Wisconsin. it was adjudged and decreed in federal court that “ownership of the exclusive rights in and to the mark of “Rock and Bowl”, “Rock & Bowl”, “Rock ‘N Bowl”, and “Rock N’Bowl” or any derivative thereof, or any phonetic equivalent thereof, or any word, term or phrase deceptively similar to the aforementioned phrases, to be used by Mid City Lanes throughout the United States without opposition of any kind…”
The decision was reached by the fact that a federal registration exists in favor of Mid City Lanes and Sports Palace, Inc. and that its continual use in commerce dates back to December, 1981.
The Rock ‘N’ Bowl in New Orleans has become one of the premier music spots in the world focusing on blues, cajun, and zydeco music. It has been featured in National Geographic, Life, Rolling Stone, and the NBC Today Show as well as countless other media outlets. The Bowler’s Journal featured the alley in Nov, 1992.“We were doing Rock ‘N’ Bowl before the ‘cosmic bowling’ boom,” says John Blancher, proprietor of Mid City Lanes, “With the national and international publicity we received during the slump in the bowling industry many proprietors attempted to mimic our success by combining bowling and music. I want to emphasize that I encourage the combination. Mid City Lanes asks only that they call their production something besides “Rock ‘N’ Bowl.”
The concept of “Rock ‘N’ Bowl” at Mid City Lanes features live music and dancing. Recreational bowling is emphasized over league bowling. Parties and receptions also figure greatly in the bottom line.
Any questions regarding the judgement should be referred to our trademark attorney, Mr. Rick Stanley (504)523-1580.
Int. Cl.: 41
Prior U.S. Cl.: 107
Reg. No. 1,850,925
United States Patent and Trademark Office
Registered Aug. 23, 1994
ROCK ‘N’ BOWL
MID CITY BOWLING LANES & SPORTS PALACE, INC. (LOUISIANA CORPORATION)
4133 SOUTH CARROLLTON AVE. NEW ORLEANS, LA 70119
FOR: ENTERTAINMENT SERVICES; NAMELY, A BOWLING ALLEY THAT FEATURES LIVE MUSIC PERFORMANCES, IN CLASS 41 (U.S. CL. 107). FIRST USE 1-28-1989; IN COMMERCE 1-28-1989 SER. NO. 74-199,500,FILED 8-30-1991. GLENN CLARK, EXAMINING ATTORNEY
What about the murals?
As word spread that John Blancher would close the original Mid-City Lanes Rock¤‘n’¤Bowl and move to a new location at Earhart Boulevard and South Carrollton Avenue, he frequently fielded that query from concerned patrons.
In 1991, Blancher commissioned artist and “gypsy jazz” guitarist Tony Green to render nostalgic New Orleans scenes near the bowling alley’s bathrooms.
Green resurrected Pelican Stadium, which once stood across the Tulane/South Carrollton intersection from Rock ‘n’ Bowl. On another wall, a classic New Orleans neighborhood scene unfolded outside a tavern sporting a red Jax beer sign. Painted doorways framed a Storyville prostitute in striped stockings and a young Pete Fountain leading pianist Professor Longhair, bassist Jim Singleton and Green himself on guitar.
The original Rock ‘n’ Bowl hosted its final show on April 15. When he left, Blancher intended to take much of it with him — including the murals. Days after Jazz Fest, the demolition began.
Bowling lanes first laid down in the 1940s — heavy maple near the launching pad for balls, lighter pine closer to the pins — were sawed into thirds and toted down Rock¤‘n’¤Bowl’s infamous staircase, the bane of every amplifier-toting musician. A retro bowling alley in Austin, Texas, bought several lanes; others were bound for Jacksonville, Fla.
Blancher kept lanes 17 and 18 to slice up for table tops and souvenir squares. He plans to sell the bowling pins June 13 during an Anders Osborne show at the new Rock ‘n’ Bowl, with proceeds benefiting Tab Benoit’s Voice of the Wetlands organization.
The battered old bowling balls, however, went out with the trash.
“It’s tough to decide what to keep,” Blancher said. “I don’t want to junk up the new place. But some of this stuff … I just can’t throw it away.”
He hoped to find a use for the old scoring tables, retro-cool pink relics from the 1950s that resemble Rosie the robot maid on “The Jetsons” cartoon. He planned to restore the old maple bar and hang pieces as mantels in his new venue’s party rooms.
Moving the murals required power tools and brute strength.
When Blancher closed the downstairs “Bowl Me Under” annex in 2005 — weeks before Hurricane Katrina flooded it — he moved a more recent set of Green’s street scenes to Ye Olde College Inn, another Blancher business.
Rock ‘n’ Bowl murals on the move
The upstairs murals presented a more difficult challenge, especially sections painted directly on 2-inch-thick plaster. Other sections were painted on Sheetrock.
The job fell to contractors Jason Brettel and Robert Henderson. Brettel knew the room: As a boy, he worked odd jobs at Mid-City Lanes. More recently, he has played drums there with his Latin soul “boogaloo” band Los Poboy-citos.
Green’s tavern street scene — that’s Louis Armstrong chatting with a policeman — was much too big to fit through the doors. Lit by leftover neon beer signs, Brettel and Henderson cut it in half lengthwise. The upper section quivered as a dozen hands held it in place.
“The moment of truth,” Blancher said.
It let go easily, the Sheetrock still attached to the wood frame of the women’s restroom wall.
Laid out on the floor, the 6-by-16-foot painting could pass for an artifact from an Egyptian tomb, if Egyptians had inhabited 1950s New Orleans.
Keith Spera / The Times-PicayuneThe upper portion of the “tavern” mural makes an uneasy passage out of the original Rock ‘n’ Bowl.
Even halved, the mural endured an awkward trek downstairs. The upper section buckled; the Sheetrock cracked between the “T” and “U” in the “Dancing — Saturday Nights” motto on the tavern marquee. The large square depicting the Pete Fountain band got wedged in the doorway, passing through only after doors and hinges were removed.
After loading the paintings on a panel truck, workers wrestled a sandwich-making machine and an enormous beer cooler down the stairs — slightly less sexy than the murals, but just as critical to the operation.
The murals, cooler and sandwich machine shared a five-minute ride to the new Rock ‘n’ Bowl, whose new home borders the West Carrollton, Hollygrove and Fontainebleau neighborhoods. All three neighborhood associations, Blancher said, objected to the continued use of “Mid-City” in the venue’s name.
So he now refers to it as simply Rock ‘n’ Bowl. But the exterior “Mid-City Lanes” logo, a re-creation of the original, remains. “That’s an iconic bit of New Orleans,” Blancher said.
Rain threatened as the workers unloaded the murals, but held off. Two big sections entered through a back party room, past Blancher’s wife, Deborah, atop a 10-foot ladder to install light bulbs.
Keith Spera / The Times-PicayuneThe lower half of the “tavern” mural is loaded into a truck for the five-minute ride to the new Rock ‘n’ Bowl.
The tavern scene was slightly too long for the dressing-room wall adjacent to the new Rock ‘n’ Bowl stage. Brettel and Henderson suggested trimming off the two women, one with an umbrella, at the mural’s right side.
“If you can save the ladies, do it,” Blancher instructed.
The ladies were saved.
Even with alterations, Tony Green is “delighted” that his 18-year-old handiwork found a new home.
“It would have been a real pity to have this little slice of New Orleans life tossed into a Dumpster or painted over with cheap, nasty latex paint,” Green said. “It has been a real treat over the years to hear the positive feedback from the public about my Rock ‘n’ Bowl mural.”
Once the murals departed, Blancher and his crews finished gutting the old place. Among the cherished totems that remained until the end were the bowling shoes worn by Tom Cruise (size 10) and Archbishop Philip Hannan (size 9), enshrined on opposite sides of the stairwell.
“The secular on one side,” Blancher said, “the spiritual on the other.”
A portrait of the Blessed Mother hung near the jukebox since Rock ‘n’ Bowl’s inception; Blancher credits a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, with inspiring him to buy the business in the first place. As he closed the doors for the final time on Sunday, the Blessed Mother left with him.
“I didn’t think it was quite right to take her out of here until I was completely done,” he said.
Chris Granger / The Times-PicayuneA section of a Rock ‘n’ Bowl mural passes a cardboard cutout of the late great zydeco bandleader Beau Jocque. Both items moved from the old Rock ‘n’ Bowl to the new.
He claims no nostalgia for the original bowling alley at the corner of Tulane and Carrollton. His relationship with his landlords there had grown tense, and with a lease option coming up, Blancher decided to make a move. Now, he owns a brand new, much larger bowling alley and entertainment complex.
“This place, I’m very grateful for,” he said as he surveyed the nearly dismantled Rock ‘n’ Bowl. “But I have no sentimental attachment.
“It’s like you may have had a wonderful life on Earth, but heaven’s going to be a whole lot better. I really like where I’m going. I’m glad to be moving on.”