Blessed Mother strikes heart of Rock ‘N’ Bowl’s Blancher
It was 1988, and future Rock ‘N’ Bowl owner John Blancher wasn’t exactly down to his last dime, but it’s fair to say he didn’t exactly have a lot of change burning a hole in his pocket.
The real estate market was tanking, and Blancher was trying to make ends meet for his family, which was in “financial crisis,” by working in exotic commission sales.
“I sold crawfish, insurance, real estate, securities,” Blancher told the 20th Men’s Morning of Spirituality Feb. 28 at St. Anthony of Padua Church in New Orleans. “One particular week I sold a $6,000 real estate partnership, $6,000 in silver, 8,500 pounds of crawfish and a bottle of perfume – Estee Lauder – at D.H. Holmes. That was a lot of activity in one week but not a whole lot of money.”
Blancher’s good friend Chuck Cusimano had been to Medjugorje in 1986 to investigate the reported apparitions of the Blessed Mother in the small Croatian town, and Blancher’s wife had gone the following year.
“I believed in the apparitions, but I was very uncomfortable speaking about my faith,” Blancher said.
Open to a vision
When Blancher finally did go to Medjugorje in 1988, he was hoping to see “some type of spiritual phenomenon.” He didn’t.
“I saw no visions, I saw no supernatural incidents,” Blancher said.
On the mountain in Medjugorje, villagers erected a large concrete cross in 1933 in honor of the 1,900th anniversary of the passion and death of Jesus. The custom is for pilgrims to place petitions at the foot of the cross, and the petitions are burned every evening.
“I asked Our Lady to please help me find something to take care of my family,” Blancher said.
A week later, back in New Orleans, one of his friends asked him: “Hey, John, you’re looking for a business deal? You want to buy a bowling alley?”
“I had never bowled in my life,” Blancher said.
People thought he was crazy
Blancher thought his friend was crazy, but then he reflected about the petition he had made in Medjugorje.
“I had asked for something, and maybe this was it,” he said. “I decided to go take a look at it.”
What he saw at Mid-City Bowling Lanes, where the bowling alley run by the Knights of Columbus was tucked away on the second floor of rickety steps, was almost laughable.
“There were two little old ladies who opened it up every morning,” he said. “There were two different little old ladies who closed the place every night about 10 o’clock.”
Blancher had almost no money, so he prayed.
“I said, ‘Blessed Mother, if this is a bad idea, just stop me,’” Blancher said. “I offered $1,000 down and a $9,000 note payable over 10 years. And they said, ‘We’ll take it.’ Everybody told me I was nuts. My mom and dad said, ‘What are you doing? Are you crazy?’ And I couldn’t tell them I thought the Blessed Mother was telling me to do it. They would have really thought I was nuts.”
Anxiety of a $29 day
The day before Blancher took over, the bowling alley did $29 in gross business.
On All Saints’ Day in 1988, Blancher became the owner, and the first thing he did was hang a portrait of Our Lady of Medjugorje at the entrance above the staircase.
“I painted the place Blessed Mother blue,” he said. “I just started working all the time.”
He knew making a go of the crazy business venture would almost eliminate the time he spent with his wife and kids. He used to throw baseballs to his son every day. That following summer, he saw his son Johnny take one at-bat on his Little League team.
“The good news is my son ended up being a lot better hitter when I wasn’t around,” Blancher said.
Blancher had a vision that the wide-open spaces of the alley one day would make a great catering hall for parties and receptions. Blancher was looking for a small business loan to fulfill that vision, but he was turned down on Dec. 8. His family advised him to get out while he could.
That night, he went to St. Clement of Rome Parish’s adoration chapel.
‘This wasn’t my idea’
“I said, ‘Blessed Mother, this was not my idea. You gotta help me get out of this,’” Blancher said.
When things were looking their bleakest, a friend wrote a story for The Times-Picayune’s business section about a New Orleans character buying an old bowling alley. It ran on Jan. 17, 1989.
“The most games I had ever had on a weekend was 60 games,” Blancher said. “That weekend I had 600 games. I got a shot in the arm.”
As word spread on local TV, news media from across the world began beating down the doors to his Blessed Mother blue bowling alley. A “krewe” of local artists and musicians saw the buzz and decided to hold its party there, the first time a live band played at Rock ‘N’ Bowl.
“It grew and it grew,” Blancher said. “The greatest PR person you could ever have is the Blessed Mother. The Blessed Mother never stopped sending people to the bowling alley. This can’t be by accident.”
And then, six monks walk in
Along the way, everyone seemed drawn to the alley. Six Buddhist monks showed up one day in their saffron robes to bowl, using both hands to heave the ball down the lane.
“They tell me Buddhist monks want to experience everything at least once in their life,” Blancher said. “They had never bowled before. The guy said, ‘Look, they don’t wear shoes. They go barefoot.’ I said, ‘Hey, that’s OK.’ People all over the world climb the mountains of Nepal to ask the Buddhist monks the meaning of life, and I had six Buddhist monks climbing the steps of the Rock ‘N’ Bowl.”
A story on Rock ‘N’ Bowl appeared in National Geographic in 1995, “and all of a sudden, I’m in the international spotlight,” Blancher said. “All of a sudden, I’m a place that people from out of town want to come to. I said, ‘The Blessed Mother never stops.’”
Blancher eventually bought Ye Old College Inn in 2003. When the sale was completed, he didn’t have another portrait of the Blessed Mother at hand, so he instead placed a large picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus at the entrance.
When Ray Riecke, the previous co-owner, saw Blancher hang up the Sacred Heart picture, he told him: “I’ve been wanting to get out of this business for a number of years. I wanted to sell it. And my wife and I did a novena to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and on the ninth day is when you called.”
“God works in mysterious ways,” Blancher said. “The good Lord’s been so good to me.”
Also speaking at the morning were Jerry Christopher Jr., a guitarist with the band Bag of Donuts, and Reid Wick, a member of the Bucktown Allstars, who talked about their faith lives and their music.