When John Blancher took over Mid-City Lanes in late 1988, it was a decrepit bowling alley with little promise. He turned it into Rock ’n’ Bowl, which now resides near the intersection of South Carrollton Avenue and Earhart Boulevard (there’s also a secondary location in Lafayette). By 1989, Blancher incorporated live music into the fold and history was made.
“My initial concept was to make Rock ’n’ Bowl a great party place. I didn’t envision having bands all the time,” Blancher recalls. “I had heard of zydeco but nobody was really doing it. I booked Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas on a Saturday in November of ’92 and I was overwhelmed at the response. Four-hundred people came.”
Blancher had stumbled onto a formula that has remained fruitful for well over two decades. When Jazz Fest 1993 rolled around, he decided to try zydeco that Thursday night, since the weekend was already booked up. He called Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas back and also John Delafose & the Eunice Playboys. He also took a chance on a relative newcomer at the time by the name of Beau Jocque.
“Beau had to stop because the building was shaking so bad,” Blancher tells me. “The wine rack and the pictures at the restaurant downstairs were coming off the walls.”
After the raucous debut, it was a no-brainer: Rock ’n’ Bowl would have zydeco every Thursday night.
30 years since its opening, Rock ’n’ Bowl is considered the progenitor of a template recreated by places like Lucky Strike and Brooklyn Bowl. “I think it’s generally accepted that we were really the first bowling alley to do this boutique music performance concept,” says Blancher.
In New York City, Brooklyn Bowl is one of the pre-eminent venues in which to see jam and brass bands. Had its owner, Peter Shapiro, had his way, it would have been called Rock ’n’ Bowl. “He wanted to use the name in his place. He offered to license it from me but, at the time, I was hesitant to do something that I wasn’t completely in control of,” Blancher shares.
He recalls a conversation he had with Steve Foster, the founder of Lucky Strike, who happened into Rock ’n’ Bowl while visiting New Orleans for Jazz Fest one year and got inspired. “I visited the Lucky Strike in Chicago and when I spoke to the fellow [Steve Foster] that opened it, I told him it was the closest thing I’d seen to my business. His reply was, ‘You’re the guy who invented this.’”
On November 29, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas will perform at the New Orleans Rock ’n’ Bowl. Though not advertised as a 30th anniversary celebration, it will definitely be a party.