Bowl Me Under
The Rock’n‘Bowl® had become a recognized part of the New Orleans music scene by 1993
The Rock’n‘Bowl® had become a recognized part of the New Orleans music scene by 1993. In June, I had begun a regular Zydeco night every Thursday and it was met with immediate enthusiasm. I had no idea that there was a pent up demand for the southwest Louisiana music idiom in New Orleans. That enthusiasm was about to vault me into the national and the international music scene. Looking back, what occurred is another example of the invisible hand of God working his magic.
One Thursday early evening in October, a fellow in his mid fifties sat at the bar in a t-shirt, cut off shorts and sandals. I was working the bar because one of my bartenders didn’t show up for work. He was eating an alligator po-boy and I began a conversation. “ You’re not from here, huh?” I asked. He told me, “No, how do you know?”. “Because only tourists eat alligator po-boys. The locals eat shrimp and oyster po-boys,” I informed him. I explained the alligator was on the menu primarily to initiate attention, as I had to be, perhaps, the only bowling alley in the world serving alligator. He explained to me that he had just gotten into town and the hotel where he was staying had already closed their kitchen. He went across the street to the Home Plate Inn, a local bar/restaurant, but their kitchen was closed. They sent him down the street to the bowling alley. At that time, I had a mentally handicapped bowling league on Thursday nights. I explained that as the league ended, Zydeco music would begin and there would be a complete turn around in the crowd from bowlers to dancers. That night, the renowned Rockin Dopsie and the Zydeco Twisters was scheduled. Things got pretty busy that night and I never got from behind the bar since I was a bartender short. Near the end of the night, one of my customers told me I had to meet someone they had met and the guy was a writer for the National Geographic. Things had calmed down and when I walked over, lo and behold, it was the fellow whom I had served the alligator po-boy at the bar.
He loved the place and the music. He had been sent by National Geographic to spend several months in New Orleans in an attempt to get a pulse on the city. Unable to get a room downtown, the only vacancy he could find was down the street from my business. It was pure happenstance that he ended up in my business. He shortly after found an apartment but he returned every Thursday night for the Zydeco.
One night he asked if he could interview me for his story. I told him of my trip to Medjugorje before buying the bowling alley in1988 and I relayed a story of an afternoon when six Buddhist monks paid a visit. The monks had never bowled before but had seen my neon bowling pin from the sidewalk as they were walking barefoot down Carrollton Avenue. An interpreter explained that Buddhist monks try everything once to gain experiences in life and asked if they could bowl. Well, there they were barefoot in their saffron robes throwing balls with two hands down the lane. I told him that I had wished I’d had a camera and used the photo in an ad. The caption would read, “People climb the mountains of Nepal to ask the Buddhist monks the meaning of life, the monks climb the steps of the Rock’n‘Bowl®.”
In January, 1995, the article on New Orleans in National Geographic hit the newsstands. It was 19 pages long but a whole page was written on the Rock’n‘Bowl® and the story I had relayed to him. It was unbelievable what it set in motion. CNN did a story in February. USA Today in March, Life Magazine in April, Southern Living in May, Rolling Stone in June, and the NBC Today Show in July. To this day, hardly a month goes by that someone is not reporting a story on the Rock’n‘Bowl®.
While Rock’n‘Bowl® remains predominately a locally driven institution, there are always some visitors from elsewhere dropping by to experience the native flavor of the New Orleans institution. By July, 1995, I had begun to have a steady and viable business. My party business was growing by leaps and bounds and I needed more space. Because I leased my business upstairs, there was no opportunity to expand. However, below me there was a recent vacancy. A deal was made with my landlord to lease 5000 square feet beneath the bowling alley with an entrance that was right next door.
We named it “Bowl Me Under” and utilized it for parties, for overflow nights during Jazz Fest and countless special events and fundraisers. It was never as popular as the upstairs bowling alley but it became very handy to handle multiple events.
The lease was signed for just short of 10 years at my request. The expiration was May 31,2005, as I had reasoned that if I wanted to ever get out, shortly after Jazz Fest would be the ideal time, as Jazz Fest ends the first weekend of May. It was a plan that resulted to be quite fortuitous some ten years later and again strengthens my belief in the invisible Hand of God.
Eight years later, an old baseball friend of mine, Pete Barbarich, was tending bar for me in Bowl Me Under on Monday nights. He told me he’d heard through the grapevine that an old, iconic New Orleans restaurant, Ye Olde College Inn was secretly for sale. They wanted to sell but they didn’t want to advertise for fear of their employees quitting. Opened in 1933, after the repeal of prohibition, it had a storied past of local athletes, musicians and politicians. Time had not been kind of late and it had begun to lose its once glorious luster. At the Rock’n‘Bowl®, my son, Johnny Blancher and my son-in-law, Jimmy Hankins were working full-time. We were confronted with facing the stark realities that, first, there wasn’t enough revenue generated for all three of us to meet our future financial needs – they were recently married and beginning families. Secondly, inevitably, I was going to lose my lease by 2015, and regardless of the success I enjoyed, we could all be out of work with nothing to show for it down the
Ye Olde College Inn was 11 blocks down from Rock’n‘Bowl® on S. Carrollton Avenue. Being in rather close proximity, I thought there would be some opportunities to cross promote. My son and son- in-law had interest in the restaurant business and so I decided to bite the bullet and buy the business and its property. On the property was the restaurant, a sizable parking lot, and a brick and steel building on the corner that once housed the first A&P grocery in New Orleans in 1929. We bought the business from the 85 year old surviving son of the man who opened the business in 1933, Emile Rufin, and Emile’s nephew, Ray Riecke.
A small anecdote is in order here. On the day of the act of sale, I was looking for a picture of the Blessed Mother to hang in the restaurant immediately after passing the act as I had done when I first bought the bowling alley in 1988. Unable to locate one, I came across a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. After the act of sale, Emile and his family and Ray and his family, came to lunch to celebrate the sale. A short time later I arrived with the Sacred Heart and took a secular picture off the wall and replaced it. After lunch, Ray and his wife asked me about what I had done. I explained about my devotion to the Blessed Mother and that I was unable to find a picture of Her but I knew the Sacred Heart would work just fine. They told me that they had wanted to sell the restaurant for some time and that they offered a novena to the Sacred Heart to send a buyer. On the 9th and final day of the novena, I had walked in and offered to buy it. You can imagine their surprise when I walked in that day and hung that picture.
Taking over Ye Olde College Inn was quite an undertaking. The physical plant was in terrible shape and the menu was now an antiquated fiasco. My son and son-in-law worked around the clock seven days and nights a week. We initiated crawfish boils on Fridays, a Cajun brunch where we first introduced Amanda Shaw, and an emphasis on fresh vegetables. It was a monumental effort but progress was slow. To make matters worse, my son-in-law, who was in the National Guard was deployed to Iraq. This was a trying and arduous situation and it wasn’t about to get easier.
In December, 2004, the general partners of the LLC that owned the shopping center where the Rock’n‘Bowl® leased, passed away. The partnership was assigned to the trust department of the Hibernia Bank. Translation: there were new landlords. At the same time I was approached by a production company that was filming a movie featuring Lindsay Lohan, called “Just My Luck”. I came to terms to let them film in February, 2005, during Mardi Gras, since that is a historically slow time for me.
My new landlords protested, threatening to sue unless they received half the money, on the grounds that my lease gave me the right to operate a bowling alley and not a movie set. I, of course, thought their position was absurd and that everything I did involved renting, from shoes, lanes, and party space as a normal course of doing business.
Realizing that they were on shaky legal ground, they then tried to leverage my lease on Bowl Me Under, which was expiring May 31, 2005, a few short months later. While I had verbally agreed with the prior landlords before their deaths, over renewing the lease, I had nothing in writing. Rather than concede, I told the new landlords they could have the property back and I moved out a few weeks after Jazz Fest. The invisible hand was at work. When I vacated Bowl Me Under, I moved everything out of the space and into the then empty former A&P grocery building next door to Ye Olde College Inn.
Ye Olde College Inn had an excellent lunch business but the dinner business had suffered after years of neglect. My son and I reasoned that we should create a new restaurant with a Thai concept open only at night. We could then maintain our excellent lunch business during the day and develop a dinner business next door. We immediately started gutting the former A&P building and began building a new restaurant. We had put in the metal studded walls and began saw cutting the concrete floors to lay down new plumbing. To do this, we had to raise everything off the floors while we made the saw cuts. We were on our way – and then Hurricane Katrina paid a visit.
As Katrina approached, there was an awareness that this was one terrible storm. There was a realization that power could be out for weeks and we were going to suffer property damage. My son- in-law was in Iraq so my son and I started preparing to make the best out of a bad situation. Expecting to lose power for our coolers and freezers, we iced everything down in tubs and cans in an effort to save what we could. We left the day before the storm to locate a large generator in Lafayette, in hopes of returning the next day and getting back in business. We figured that power would be out for no less than 10 days and if we were able to get back in business, we would be in position to do very well. At 6 a.m. the next morning, my son and I were up getting ready to leave Lafayette when we got a phone call that the 17th Street canal levee had failed.
It’s difficult to explain when fate deals a hand to you like Katrina. While being confronted with the stark reality of the unknown, you are also beset with the realization, at the moment, there is not a doggone thing you can do about it – except pray. I watched events unfold on television daily but I knew there was nothing I could do until they patched the levee and the water stopped flowing into the city. Surprisingly, in the days immediately after the storm, I slept longer, harder, and more peacefully than I had in almost 20 years. While knowing that everything I owned had been damaged by flood water, I also knew there wasn’t a thing I could do about it until some time had passed.
Fortunately, because of the catastrophe, the army sent my son-in-law home earlier than planned and he was back two weeks after the storm. The levee had been plugged by that time and with his military credentials we were able to come back in and check on our properties. My son, my son-in-law, and myself lived in the same neighborhood and there was three feet of water. They had two- story houses and lost their first floors. My home was raised three feet four inches and had escaped major flood damage but had a good deal of wind and rain damage.
The Rock’nBowl® was amazingly spared. Being upstairs, it was above the 7 feet of floodwater that rose in its neighborhood. Just three months earlier, what was formerly Bowl Me Under, was destroyed along with the other businesses that lined the first floor. In addition, a tornado had touched down right out the back door of the Rock’n‘Bowl, went south for a hundred yards taking the roof off the remainder of the shopping center and then turned due west destroying the businesses behind me. Down the street at Ye Olde College Inn, there was three feet of water, effectively destroying the restaurant which was in poor physical condition already. Next door, however, the brick and steel building which I had just been gutted and was saw-cut prior to the storm was in relatively good shape. In addition, because I had raised everything off the floor for the saw-cutting, all my equipment, furniture and murals that I had removed from the former Bowl Me Under had been saved. Being already gutted, all I needed to do was pressure wash it and get back to work. On the down side, because Ye Olde College Inn was actually above sea level, flood insurance was not required and I took a total loss on the building.
While Rock’n‘Bowl® upstairs was virtually unscathed, the entire neighborhood and surrounding businesses were in shambles. City officials initially told me that it would be April or May of 2006 before electricity would be accessible.
The first order of business by our family would be to gut the homes damaged by water and get the second floors in livable condition. The next order of business was to get electricity to our homes and businesses. We were initially repeatedly turned away but we didn’t take “no” easily. I finally reached a city official and told him that while everything around me was destroyed, Rock’n‘Bowl® needed only electricity to get open. At this time, I believe that having a business that was a New Orleans icon proved fruitful. There was so much depression in the city over all the landmarks that had been lost in the storm. Any business that could open would be a beacon of hope to the masses still unsure that the city could ever come back.
The official promised me a permit to replace my water-damaged electrical panels that were on the first floor behind the bowling alley and an inspection to certify it but he couldn’t guarantee the power company would connect me. I reached a close source of mine with the power company that told me he didn’t know if it was possible to get a city inspection but if I did, he’d hook me up. Suddenly in mid-October, where before I was told it was impossible, I had hope. There was another major obstacle. Every single electrical supply house in the city had been put out of business in the storm. There was also a shortage of electricians to get anything done. By the grace of God, my brother-in-law, Keith Andrepont, with whom my family stayed with during and after the storm, was a retired electrical engineer. He had the understanding and the contacts with electrical supply houses in Lafayette to be of great assistance. Ronnie Taylor, a friend and long time electrician for Ye Olde College Inn, was not affected by the storm and was available to lend a hand. For a little over a week, we would drive to Lafayette and pick up electrical parts and deliver them back to Taylor. On October 25, 2005, a little less than 2 months after Katrina, Taylor completed the panels. The inspector came out in 20 minutes and 15 minutes later, Entergy connected us with power to the Rock’n‘Bowl! You would have had to have been living in New Orleans at that time to understand just how miraculous this was.
It wasn’t over yet- by any means. I had electricity but I had no gas, no phones, and no cable. Beneath me were the decimated businesses, including a grocery and restaurant that had not been cleaned out and gutted. The stench was sickening. Automobiles and refrigerators lined the neutral grounds and side streets. It was nothing short of a war zone. All my coolers and freezers in the Rock’n‘Bowl had to be thrown away as they were ruined by decaying food. Replacing them and getting new ones was no easy chore as we had to get a crane and take them off the roof and have the crane lift the new ones onto the roof as the units could not come up the staircase. There were no elevators at the Rock’n‘Bowl®!
My son, son- in-law, and friends worked around the clock getting things cleaned up inside. I set a date of November 10, 2005, to reopen and called the newspaper and WWL TV to let them know of my plans. I contacted any employees and friends that I could – many had not yet returned. There was no way to advertise and because I had no phones, people could not call to know if we were open. I hired Eddie Bo, the legendary New Orleans R&B piano artist, to play that first night. Eddie drove in from Lafayette to make the gig, as he had lost his home in the flood. The prior Friday, Keith Spera with the Times Picayune reported we’d be opening on the following Thursday, November 10. That Thursday morning Eric Paulsen made a short announcement on the morning show that the Rock’n‘Bowl® was re-
opening that night.
It was magic! There was not a single light on S. Carrollton from Claiborne all the way to the lake. Not a light had been lit on the Interstate. In total darkness, with carnage everywhere, a single neon bowling pin shone. Seven hundred people showed up that night. There were more hugs, kisses, and tears than you could imagine. We had all lost so much. Yet there was this feeling among all there, that we hadn’t lost the Rock’n‘Bowl®. It was a wonderful, magical night!
It wasn’t over yet.
Rock’n‘Bowl® was open but Ye Olde College Inn was not. My biggest liability was the debt owed on the restaurant and its property. I had no insurance and no way to pay the debt unless I got the restaurant back in operation. The actual restaurant was beyond repair but the building next door which was originally planned to be a Thai restaurant would be my best bet to get back in operation. The decision was to drop the Thai concept and re-open Ye Olde College Inn in the building. On November 11, 2005, the day after Rock’n‘Bowl® opened, my son turned all attention to re-opening the restaurant. It was very difficult to find laborers at this time but my son, Johnny Blancher drove straight there the next morning without telling a soul. Waiting outside, none other than Ronnie Taylor knowing that Johnny would be there. Johnny, Ronnie and my son-in-law, Jimmy Hankins, managed to make steady progress. We set a goal to have the bar open on January 6th, 2006, the first day of Mardi Gras season, and we did. We then set a goal of getting the restaurant kitchen open on February 7th and the guys pulled it off. There are few things that cannot be accomplished if multiple, healthy, like-minded individuals get together, pray and will it. When we re-opened Ye Olde College Inn, there were only 4 businesses opened on the South Carrollton Avenue corridor from Claiborne to the lake and we had two of them. Honestly, had it not been for the Invisible Hand of God, moving us, unbeknownst to us, in that direction before the storm, it could not have been accomplished.
Rock’n‘Bowl® steadily improved and we were doing as well as ever. Ye Olde College Inn decided to shutter lunch and open for dinner only 5 nights a week because there were not enough employees to fill all the shifts. After a year, however, we were pleasantly surprised to be doing as more business in our shortened week as what we had done before the storm with our 7 day and night schedule.
However, as there always are, challenges never cease. Two years had passed and Rock’n‘Bowl® was still the only tenant in the shopping center. The trust department running the center decided to put it up for bid and sell it. I contemplated buying the center but for many reasons, decided the cost would be too prohibitive for such an aging property.
It was a bit disconcerting when I’d read in the paper that the partnership placing the winning bid was four individuals who named their partnership, 4 Pins Standing,LLC. I felt a strong suggestion that I was to be the odd man out and my days were numbered at the center. Though at the time, I had a little over seven years left on my lease, I had better start making plans to leave. As expected, I was pretty much under attack from the get go, and I started to investigate other locations.
It seemed to me that I needed to be in close proximity to where I had been and it would be helpful if I were somewhere that would be convenient for tourists to find me. The former Rock’n‘Bowl® was 16,000 square feet, so I felt I needed at least that much and preferably more. I also felt it was much better to be on the first floor.
Finding the size property I needed was no easy task, and as the landlord pressure mounted, it seemed my only reasonable option was to build a second floor bowling alley in my parking lot next to Ye Olde College Inn. It wouldn’t be ideal but being next door to my restaurant was attractive. There was a problem though. In order to handle parking and traffic flow, I needed a forty-five foot lot adjacent to my parking lot to gain access to the back street in my square. I had my agent put a feeler out but the people adjacent to me expressed no interest in selling. I hung a statue of St. Joseph on the wall of the property and asked my agent to call a week later. The owner came back with a price 80% above the appraised value but I needed the property to move forward and I agreed.
At the act of sale, the owner said it was the first time he had ever sold a piece of property in his life. His father told him to never sell. He explained that he had always wanted to buy the building next door but that those owners said they’d never sell. When I left the act of sale, I went to the property next door and walked off the dimensions. I had completely misjudged the size of the building. It was 20,000 square feet. I took the St. Joseph statue off the building that I had just purchased and placed it on the building next door. One week later, I had my agent call the owners, and they told him they had just had a meeting of the owners and they were wanting to sell. Better yet, it was for the appraised value. I had my new Rock’n‘Bowl® property.
Through a lot of hard work and enormous effort by my son, Johnny Blancher, the Rock’n‘Bowl®, next to Ye Olde College Inn, opened on April 15, 2009, one week before Jazz Fest. It was immediately met with great crowds and acceptance and is now doing double the business of the former location. It’s now been over thirty years that the Rock’n‘Bowl® initiated efforts on S Carrollton Avenue and it’s been through the tireless and loyal support of family, friends, and customers that it has enjoyed so much success – and, of course, that invisible hand of God.
Chapters to the story continue to develop. My family and I have now returned to Lafayette, to the place and people that welcomed us when we were most vulnerable after Katrina. Rock'n'Bowl® de Lafayette is now underway... God works in mysterious ways... Rock'n'Bowl® will never die...