By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
Pam Delker was preparing to leave her Manvel pizza restaurant last month, when she caught sight of an intruder on her roof. He shouted down that he was sent to dismantle her sign.
Delker cautioned him against carting all of it away.
"I've been paid to take this fucking sign down," she quoted him as yelling back. "I've been warned that you're crazy -- a lunatic. You ain't gonna stop me."
He was right. Delker called police. They stopped him with a threat to arrest him for trespassing. The man climbed down and, with the cops looking on, apologized to Delker and said he wasn't coming back.
So for now, the big red barnlike auditorium adjacent to her cafe still carries the bright yellow and black "Manvel Opry" sign. And the new brick entertainment place down the road sports a fresh sign: "Manvel Opry."
The courts and the citizenry didn't need the rooftop confrontation to remind them that, these days, the great battle of the country music halls has begun in tiny Manvel.
The town sits on the straight stretch of the southern Texas 6 near Alvin. Manvel is a rural hamlet just a few ranchettes away from Houston's urban scene. The corridor holds a hotbed of blue-collar fundamentalist Christians, rice farmers and ranchers. It is a land of pickup trucks and chickens and churchgoers.
That makes the place a natural for country and gospel music. That's where the Manvel Opry comes in. It started in 1989 as a nonprofit dedicated to giving aspiring musicians a place to play, sing, be seen and perhaps even be discovered. Profits from the admission charges were given to charity.
Performers play for free and range from the minimal to the talented, although one of the big draws is that this is a dry establishment. Houston and the other places can have the honky-tonks -- these fans want none of that rowdiness.
"Some of our people are a little below mediocre, but this is the purpose of the opry," says Dorinda Nunnery, who handles the bookings. "It gives them a place to perform in a family environment. We don't think children should be around beer and stuff."
"The public themselves may not want to go into an alcohol environment," explains one of the entertainers, singer Tish Lowery-Koch. "These churchgoing folks may not want to go to one of those places, but they still like to talk and dance and mingle and listen to country music." she says. "At the opry, they can."
For years, the Opry held forth in Pearland, Texas City, Alvin and the Manvel Auditorium. Three years ago it moved to the auditoriumlike add-on next to Pam's Restaurant in Manvel. All was peaceful until late last year. Most of the nonprofit board members were elderly; they encouraged a younger slate of officers to step forward, Delker says.
The new president became Siro Scopel, who Delker says was a former Manvel city councilman. While other communities in the area also had their forms of a country music opry, this one was a genuine success story, drawing crowds of up to 200 -- many from Houston -- for the weekend performances.
Delker negotiated with her landlord to double the size of the hall. She tried to get the new board members to sign a lease, but they wouldn't. That didn't bother Delker, because the cafe makes money serving the crowd dinners, which can range from chicken-fried steak to calzones on its eclectic menu. She and her husband put their names on the three-year lease for the group.
What did bother Delker and the other diehards was the discovery that the new board had secretly incorporated as a for-profit business. As tension mounted, she says Scopel staged a walkout of the primary band that plays backup for the performers.
"What are you going to do without a band this weekend?" she says Scopel asked her. He could not be reached for comment for this story. His wife, Pat Scopel, is quoted in The Facts newspaper of Brazoria as saying that it was Delker who triggered the turmoil by firing the band.
Delker strongly disagrees, saying she locked them out only after they'd quit and when she learned they had incorporated and taken the Manvel Opry name.
"They stole our name, they stole everything. There were a lot of unethical, unlawful things they did," alleges Nunnery, who talked of the way the town was torn by the trouble. "A lot of them I used to think were my best friends; we took vacations together. The next thing I knew was that I was getting cards saying that I was evil and that evil spirits were around me."
A justice of the peace heard the suit filed by Scopel's group to regain the furnishings and other amenities, including the sign. The ruling also recognized the incorporation, giving Scopel's organization the legal use of the Manvel Opry name.
That court case hardly cooled the dustup, though. Delker says Scopel and his followers have spread rumors that her restaurant will be closing and that the adjacent music hall -- now known as the Original Opry -- will be gone.
She proudly displays messages of support, including a handwritten note: "No back stabbing, no lies, real Christians." On July 1 the new Manvel Opry opened up down the highway. And the Original Opry still drew about 100 patrons, convincing Delker that her group will succeed in the country music-hall wars.