John Blancher Sr. knew more about brokering crawfish than bowling when he took over New Orleans’ Mid-City Bowling Lanes in 1988, but he had a real pro for a partner in the Blessed Virgin Mary.
On a pilgrimage earlier that year to Medjugorje, site of reported Marian apparitions, Blancher had petitioned Mary for help in finding a business that would enable him to better provide for his family. A week after his return to New Orleans, a friend asked if he wanted to buy a bowling alley.
“I said, ‘A bowling alley!?’ I had bowled, but never in a league. I didn’t know anything about bowling.”
Nor did he know that soon he would be transforming the struggling business into the Rock’n’Bowl, now one of New Orleans’ most popular night spots.
Help from above
Blancher, a member of Legatus’ New Orleans Chapter with his wife Deborah, took over the bowling alley on All Saints Day in 1988, thinking it might make a good party venue or a sports bar. “I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I really just went on faith and said, ‘If this is it, let me know.’”
He hung a picture of Our Lady of Medjugorje over the staircase and painted the place what he calls “Blessed Mother Blue.” Only Deborah knew that Mary had inspired the acquisition. Everyone else, he said, thought he was crazy.
“If I had told them the Blessed Mother wants me to do this, they really would have thought I was nuts.”
Deborah believed otherwise. “I knew that Mary was very powerful, and if he thought that Mary told him to buy this bowling alley, I was all behind it.”
More than a month later on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, Blancher’s application for a business loan was rejected. He went straight to Mary. “Blessed Mother,” he said, “this was not my idea. I only did it because I thought it was what you wanted me to do.”
Blancher says he somehow managed to keep things going. Deborah taught school during the day and helped at the bowling alley a few nights per week and on Sundays. A newspaper story generated more customers, and then the theater crowd discovered Mid-City as a place to dance to juke box music and bowl on Saturday nights.
“That was the first influx of fun-loving, celebrating people,” Blancher recalled. More stories appeared about people hanging out at a retro bowling alley. After adding live music on Friday nights, Blancher renamed Mid-City the Rock‘n’Bowl. “It was suddenly a sensation — almost the hottest music club in town.”
The club’s growth didn’t stop, and neither did Blancher. With his prayers for his family answered, he was now thinking about the family’s future. His son Johnny and son-in-law Jimmy Hankins were working with him, but he knew the Rock‘n’Bowl wasn’t enough to sustain everyone long-term. When he heard that the owners of Ye Olde College Inn down the street wanted to sell, Blancher offered to buy the restaurant with plans to have his son and son-in-law run and eventually own it.
After the sale, in keeping with his devotion to Mary, Blancher searched for an image of her to hang in the restaurant, but could only find a depiction of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When one of the former owners saw it, he told Blancher that he and his wife had made a novena to the Sacred Heart, asking for a buyer for their property. “On the ninth day of the novena is when you called,” he said.
Both businesses have since been consecrated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary with the help of Legatus chaplain Fr. Jim Wehner and the seminarians at Notre Dame Seminary. Father Wehner is rector of the seminary, which is across South Carrollton Avenue from the College Inn and Rock‘n’Bowl.
Although the College Inn has always been on South Carrollton, it wasn’t until four years after Hurricane Katrina that Rock‘n’Bowl moved there. The business had survived Katrina and was the first in its neighborhood to reopen at the original location after the storm. But as property became available near the College Inn in the wake of the hurricane, the Blanchers decided to relocate Rock‘n’Bowl to a site behind the restaurant. The College Inn, meanwhile, moved to another building on the property after the storm destroyed its original building.
“Now, we’re all on the same footprint across from the seminary, the archbishop’s home and archdiocesan headquarters,” said son Johnny Blancher, also a member of Legatus’ New Orleans Chapter. “It’s sort of a Catholic corridor down here. We couldn’t have planned it if we’d tried.”
“It may be coincidental,” added his father, “but when the Lord has a plan, you don’t always see the plan while it’s happening. When it’s all over, you recognize all the things that went into it.”
John Blancher said his faith in God’s providence extends to promoting the business. “In some kind of way, the magazines, the articles, they just come. I’m just a tool that the Blessed Mother uses occasionally to get her message out.”
In 1995, for example, a 19-page National Geographic article on New Orleans included an entire page about Blancher, his trip to Medjugorje and Mary’s influence on his business, spawning stories by other national media, including USA Today, Rolling Stone and the Today Show.
“All of a sudden, [Rock’n’Bowl] wasn’t a local phenomenon, but a national phenomenon and tourists started coming,” he said.
Even better, Blancher said, “Every story mentions the Blessed Mother. There’s no way it’s a coincidence. I’m trying to make this be a testament to her love and her power. I really don’t go out pursuing it. It just comes.”
Blancher, 63, also believes Mary and her Son saw him through a health crisis earlier this year. Despite what he called “almost legendary” endurance that was regularly demonstrated on the Rock‘n’Bowl dance floor, he began noticing a change in his heartbeat during exertion.
Knowing his father had had a heart attack and bypass surgery, he requested a cardiac evaluation, which revealed three major blockages. On June 1, the start of the month dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, Blancher had triple-bypass surgery.
Johnny Blancher, who shares his father’s devotion to Mary and Jesus, said, “The Blessed Mother’s been good to our whole family. She’s kept us safe and healthy and, in some kind of way, we always end up through our trials and tribulations better than we were before. I attribute that to her and her Son.”
The Blanchers’ faith is evident in the way their business gives back to the Church. They often make Rock‘n’Bowl available for Catholic fundraisers, and on designated nights, give 20% of net College Inn sales to Catholic schools and other groups.
Father Wehner said Rock‘n’Bowl also is host for an evening of bowling and food for the incoming class of Notre Dame seminarians each year as well as for Legatus events. In addition, the Blanchers sponsor a nativity scene on the seminary campus each Christmas and have turned a piece of adjoining property owned by the Archdiocese of New Orleans into a spiritual greenspace where they maintain a vegetable garden for the restaurant and have placed Divine Mercy and Marian images, as well as the stations of the cross.
“I think what’s most important,” Fr. Wehner said, “is that as business leaders, they’re successful, but their faith is an inspiration for their success.”
JUDY ROBERTS is a Legatus magazine staff writer.