A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANES
Bowling can be a family enterprise. Stevie Weber of the Professional Bowling Association whose family owned Arabi Bowl in St. Bernard Parish.
It is a lifetime sport for Weber. “They have pictures of me when I was 2 or 3, pushing a ball down the alley.” Weber also bowled on the team at Holy Cross High School that won the state championship three years in a row (Bowling is now a sport sanctioned by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association).
Stevie Weber’s older brother Jimmy had a professional bowling career before his death from cancer in 2003. Weber became a more dedicated bowler in the years that followed. As he explains, bowlers can become members of the PBA by having a high enough (over 210) average in a league for some years, or by bowling in regional tournaments.
If you win (“cash in”) a regional you’re a PBA member, but as an amateur you can only cash in twice a year.
Weber joined the PBA in 1988, but only became serious after 2003. By ’05 he made the PBA’s Team USA, and his career as a bowling professional has been in the fast lane ever since. For professional bowlers, “the prize level isn’t as good as golf or tennis, but with endorsements and incentives … I actually do it full-time for a living,” he says.
Bowling is how he met his wife, Beverly. “I met her in Atlanta bowling in a tournament. I bowled in Chattanooga and went back to bowl in Atlanta, and I just stayed there!” They now have a daughter, Kayla, and since rebuilding their home after Hurricane Katrina they live in Chalmette.
Bowling fans might catch Stevie Weber on ESPN on cable television, Sundays at noon during PBA tournaments. For serious local bowling, Weber himself goes to All Star Lanes in Kenner, where Alex Handbeck can supply gear and give advice at the local outlet of McCorvey’s Pro Shop. (Yes, they do offer bowling shirts – although Handbeck says the retro style is out these days.)
Handbeck’s own career is bowling-based, as the pro shop chain has grown from two to 24 outlets nationwide.
Handbeck pointed out that All Star Lanes (part of the AMF Corporation) has 64 lanes, all filled with league bowlers on weeknights. He estimates that there are 2,000 to 2,300 league bowlers currently using All Star.
Less serious bowlers, including children celebrating birthdays, might enjoy Colonial Lanes in Harahan. Besides league play, there’s a planned program for children’s parties. The nighttime party crowd is always ready to Rock-N-Bowl, which has a new location: 3016 S. Carrollton Ave., at the corner of Earhart Boulevard.
In 1988, Rock-N-Bowl owner John Blancher was at a career low, with his close family also suffering financially, when he made a pilgrimage to Medjugorje – the site in the former Yugoslavia where the Blessed Mother has reportedly appeared.
At the shrine, Blancher wrote out a petition, asking intercession for a way to take care of his family. As he tells it, “I was back one week when an accountant, Buddy Long, came to me and said ‘You want to buy a bowling alley?’ I thought about it. I had asked for something. Maybe this was it.”
The Mid-City Lanes lease and all the bowling equipment belonged to the Knights of Columbus. Given a choice of moving everything out at a cost of $50,000 or selling to Blancher for a $10,000 note, the Knights sold to him.
Blancher had little experience bowling (“my parents bowled in a league at Pelican Lanes and they just let us kids run around”) and knew little about the business. “The day before I took over the bowling alley, I was there to watch.
They did $29 gross, bowling and bar. That’s how bad it was.” The high school league bowled on Wednesday nights, there were some school physical education classes (Metairie Park Country Day School students bowled there) but there was little income.
Blancher’s luck turned. “The Rock-N-Bowl thing evolved. It started with a theater club across the street, the old Fontainebleau Motor Hotel was then the Bayou Plaza and there was a Bayou Plaza Dinner Theater. A couple of actors and actresses came over after rehearsals, and then they all came over.”
“The theater people start[ed] coming on the weekend. They would show up, the jukebox would be playing, they’d be jumping on the bar and dancing on the juke box and I had a number of attractive energetic people hanging out. And one night I jokingly said let’s ‘Rock and Bowl!’”
The next step was live music: “I decided to try a band on Friday night, Johnny J and the Hit Men. They were a hit – yeah, I had no cover charge, but I immediately had the best Friday night I ever had. After two or three months I started music on Saturday nights also.
“I think all things were aligned, there was a real need at that time for a live music place in the neighborhood. The eclectic people, the bohemians, the hipsters, a lot of the media people started coming.”
Twenty years after he took over the lease, Blancher moved the enterprise, equipment and all, to its current location. “I’m doing 60 percent more business than I was doing down the street. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.”
And that TV commercial where he holds up the cue cards, (following something he had seen singer Bob Dylan do on MTV)? “They tell me it’s the longest running commercial in the country – 18 years on the air!”
And like a rolling stone, the bowling business continues.