Rock ’n’ Bowl owner John Blancher has been hit up for gigs in many unexpected places — perhaps none more so than his cardiologist’s office.
Minutes after confirming that Blancher needed immediate triple-bypass surgery this spring, Dr. Gary Menszer also mentioned that he and several colleagues at East Jefferson General Hospital had a band.
And they’d love to play at Rock ’n’ Bowl.
“I thought, ‘He must be optimistic that I’m going to come through this thing,’” Blancher recalled recently.
Menszer’s faith was well-founded. Blancher, who had previously missed only two Friday nights in the 27 years since he opened the popular bowling alley and music venue, underwent successful bypass surgery June 1. He’s now back at the helm of Rock ’n’ Bowl.
On Saturday, he’ll be there when Menszer straps on a guitar as a member of the 11-piece rock/soul cover band New Orleans Arrhythmia. Blancher gave New Orleans Arrhythmia a gig opening for local Americana/Tex-Mex/rhythm & blues band the Iguanas.
For Menszer, it’s a big deal. “It’s a great opportunity,” he said. “I can’t think of a more fun place to play. You really can’t go there and have a bad time.”
He started playing guitar and writing songs as a teenager, and has kept at it throughout his medical career. He co-founded New Orleans Arrhythmia — "arrhythmia" is a medical term for an irregular heartbeat — in 2014 as a jazz band. Their repertoire is now more dance floor friendly: Bruce Springsteen’s “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” Joe Cocker’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On,” the Doors’ “Touch Me,” Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together,” Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” and “Back to Black.”
They also throw in such original Menszer compositions as “What’s the Point of Living If You Can’t Have Fun” and “Double Dose of Sass.”
Band members include two cardiovascular doctors, a nurse, a cardiovascular technologist and a pharmacist, plus professional musicians Steve Tulino on drums and Darryl Jacob on trombone.
Saxophonist/pharmacist Ricky Howe is a Rock ’n’ Bowl regular. He had previously tried to talk Blancher into booking New Orleans Arrhythmia, to no avail. “He contacted me,” Blancher said, “but I didn’t know anything about them.”
He does now, thanks to his errant ticker.
His father had suffered a heart attack in his 40s, but Blancher, a baseball player in college, had always stayed fit. At 63, he routinely knocked out 10 sets of 30 push-ups a day.
This spring, he started getting fatigued on the dance floor more quickly than usual. During Rock ’n’ Bowl’s weekly Zydeco Night on Thursdays, he normally danced three fast songs in a row, but “after one song, my heart was beating hard. Something wasn’t right.”
An echocardiogram and stress test revealed heart abnormalities. His doctor immediately referred him to a cardiologist.
That cardiologist turned out to be Menszer. An angiogram confirmed that three of Blancher’s arteries, including the infamous “widowmaker,” were blocked, two of them almost completely.
Menszer credits Blancher with devising a new diagnostic tool: “When I see my other patients, I should ask, ‘How many zydeco dances can you do?’”
Blancher had bypass surgery in Houston on June 1, and was back home in New Orleans a few days later. On June 17, he showed up at Rock ’n’ Bowl to introduce guitarist Tab Benoit. He posed for a picture alongside Benoit with his shirt open, showing off his surgical scar, then went home early. His son-in-law, Jimmy Hankins, danced onstage shirtless during Benoit’s last song, which is traditionally how Blancher ends the night.
Hanging around the bowling alley post-surgery, he's discovered, can be hazardous.
“People see me and go, ‘You look great, I can’t believe it!’ – and then they hit me right in the chest. They know I had open heart surgery, but people in New Orleans like to slap you on the back or hit you in the chest.”
He hasn’t cut a rug at Zydeco Night since the surgery, preferring to slow dance with his wife of 41 years, Deborah.
“I feel good. Any routine activity, I can do with no problem. But I haven’t been in Superman mode yet. The doctors have said, ‘Don’t over push yourself,’ so I haven’t. I haven’t jumped off the stage yet.
“I have done a couple splits and taken my shirt off a couple of times, but it’s been very brief performances.”
And he’s been doing only 100 push-ups a day, instead of 300. He’s also cut back on his alcohol intake. He mostly limits himself to two glasses of wine a night, but cops to having a couple more than that during honky-tonk singer Dale Watson's Aug. 27 show.
He was on a treadmill at East Jefferson’s cardiac rehab center recently when Menszer stopped by for a consultation. After the doctor left, another patient said, “You must be important, for the cardiologist to check on you personally.”
Blancher laughed: The “consultation” was about Rock ’n’ Bowl’s sound system.
Should anyone collapse on the Rock ’n’ Bowl dance floor during New Orleans Arrhythmia's set on Saturday, the medical musicians will spring into action, Menszer promises, with one caveat: “We’d finish the song first, of course.”