In the 27 years since he opened the original Rock ’n’ Bowl, proprietor John Blancher has taken off only two Friday nights, four Thursday nights and four Saturday nights.
He’s about to miss several more, though not for reasons of his choosing.
Blancher, 63, underwent triple bypass surgery Wednesday in Houston. He won’t resume his regular Rock ’n’ Bowl routine for weeks.
“I’m sure it hasn’t hit me yet,” he said Tuesday, hours before checking into the hospital. “I know it has to be done, so I’ve resigned myself. I don’t have any fear. I just know I’ll be in a lot of discomfort.”
After he emerged from surgery late Wednesday afternoon, his wife, Deborah, said doctors were pleased with the way the procedure went.
For patrons, staffers and musicians, not interacting with Blancher on a nightly basis will be an adjustment. He is as synonymous with the iconic New Orleans institution at South Carrollton Avenue and Earhart Boulevard as bowling balls.
He is the omnipresent, ever-enthusiastic host and an active participant in the festivities. His nightly routine involves having a few drinks, glad-handing guests, dancing and maybe joining bands onstage to sing or do splits.
But over the past few months, he found himself “not participating with the crowd as much as I normally did. Not necessarily drinking less, but dancing less and singing less.
“I wonder if subconsciously I was taking it easy, realizing I had to slow down. But ‘slowing down’ is still being there every night.”
During Rock ’n’ Bowl’s weekly Zydeco Night on Thursdays, Blancher always has danced two or three songs at full throttle. Lately, though, he’d been getting winded after just one.
“I was getting out of breath faster. I thought, ‘It’s probably nothing, just getting older, but I ought to go check and see.’ ”
Last week, an echocardiogram and a stress test revealed an abnormality in an artery nicknamed the “widow maker.” A follow-up angiogram revealed three blocked arteries, including near-total blockage of two.
His father had a heart attack and bypass in his 40s, but Blancher was not an obvious candidate to suffer the same fate. A baseball player in college, he has stayed fit. At 63, he still knocked out 300 push-ups a day until his diagnosis.
“I don’t feel a heckuva lot different than normal,” he said Tuesday. “I didn’t have any pain. The fact that I was in pretty good shape helped. I’ve never even tried a cigarette.
“But the cardiologist and the other doctors were very concerned. They thought I should have bypass surgery as soon as possible.”
If Blancher’s recovery proceeds as expected, he will remain in a hospital in Houston for four or five days, then return to New Orleans. After two to three weeks, he hopes to be able to spend “a couple hours” a day at Rock ’n’ Bowl. He won’t return to work full time for at least a month.
His son Johnny Blancher and son-in-law Jimmy Hankins help manage Rock ’n’ Bowl and Ye Olde College Inn, the neighboring restaurant Blancher bought in 2003. They will run the businesses in his absence.
It’s a big void to fill.
Every Wednesday through Saturday, Blancher typically arrived at Rock ’n’ Bowl around 6 p.m. and stayed until the show was over between midnight and 2 a.m. He also “popped in” to parties and events on other nights.
The day before his surgery, he conceded that “it’s possible” his grueling schedule contributed to his heart problems. “But it’s not like I didn’t enjoy it. I enjoy being there.”
Even after receiving the bad news late last week, he still showed up at the bowling alley on Friday and Saturday. But he didn’t stay as long as usual, and he kept his diagnosis to himself until posting about it on Facebook on the eve of the surgery.
He and Deborah celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary on June 7 with a renewal of vows and a party at Rock ’n’ Bowl. Their 41st anniversary, falling six days after John’s bypass, will be more low-key.
Guitarist Tab Benoit, a Rock ’n’ Bowl favorite, is booked there June 17. “I won’t be doing splits on the stage on the 17th,” Blancher said.
He views life through the lens of his devout Roman Catholic faith. June, he noted, is the Month of the Sacred Heart. With his surgery falling on the first day of June, “maybe I’m getting a heart sign,” he said.
Was this, then, the proverbial wake-up call?
“I really don’t know. I do believe that the good Lord has a purpose for everything. Maybe he could be redirecting me. Maybe he wants me someplace else.”
Scaling back his involvement with Rock ’n’ Bowl and Ye Olde College Inn would not be easy. Business at both is booming. Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Harry Connick Jr. each endorsed the restaurant in recent interviews; Connick cited Ye Olde College Inn’s soft-shell crab po-boy with fried green tomatoes as a favorite.
Blancher also has been exploring the possibility of opening a satellite Rock ’n’ Bowl in Lafayette. But for now, he’s focused on fixing his heart.
“I guess I can look at this as telling me to slow down, or telling me, ‘You’ve got to get well and start speeding up,’ ” he said.
“At this point, I want to get the surgery done and get moving.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.