Story by Sarah Naron
PALESTINE – In 1882, a new church was constructed in the portion of Palestine that is presently referred to as Old Town. Formally dubbed the Avenue Baptist Church, it was most frequently referred to as the Nickel Church because, as Palestine resident John Lamb explained, “they raised a nickel per brick to build it.”
The church flourished until New Year’s Eve 1910, when tragedy struck. According to Lamb, the building “burned to a hollow shell of itself,” and instead of erecting a new church in the same spot, the decision was made to sell the ruins to Edwin Williamson, “who remodeled it into a grocery store on the street level and his family’s residence above with the basement serving as storage.”
The building remained in the possession of the Williams family until her death in 2007. Shortly after, Lamb and his wife entered the picture.
“A little over 10 years ago, we purchased the building from her estate and began the slow process of rebuilding,” he said. “We moved in upstairs three years ago and opened the lower Great Hall for business.”
In addition to Lamb’s residence, the former church now serves as a venue for both private events and public affairs which Lamb hosts in an effort to provide unique entertainment opportunities to the city and the surrounding area. Among the programs are radio theater productions.
“It’s a long and short story all at the same time,” Lamb said when asked what sparked his interest in radio theater. “I actually got started doing acting when I was only nine years old. I got started as a radio disc jockey in high school and did that for a while at a rock and roll station.”
Lamb began doing radio theater productions in Palestine several years ago, “but not in any really organized way.
“We sort of did one here and there, and it was just for fun,” he explained. “We would record it and put it on the radio or go live over the radio, depending on what we could do at the time. It was kind of scattered.”
In 2019, Lamb decided to take on a more dedicated approach to his radio theater passion.
“I said, ‘Let’s go ahead and organize this and really get this rolling,’” he recalled. “So, I had auditions and put together a repertory company, and our first show was the weekend before Halloween. We did an adaptation of ‘The War of the Worlds.’”
The event, Lamb said, drew an impressive audience, garnered sponsorship from various businesses, and “was a lot of fun.
“We did have a technical glitch, though, and our webcast didn’t work,” he said. “But it did go live over the radio on 93.5, which has since moved out of town.”
Since then, Lamb said, Nickel Manor has hosted four radio shows per year.
“Basically, we do one per season,” he said. “We do a spring show, which is done on one of the weekends of Dogwood Trails. It will always be Western-themed or country-themed – what in the old days of Hollywood was called a Hick Show.”
The summer shows – this year’s which will take place in June – typically utilize “classic 1930s and 40s radio comedy,” Lamb said.
A Halloween show is done either the weekend prior to Halloween or on the day itself, as is the case for this year’s event.
“That will always be science fiction, horror, spooky tales, suspenseful stuff – you know, tales of the not normal; Halloween-y stuff,” Lamb said. “Then, our winter show is always a New Year’s Eve murder mystery show.”
The script for the murder mystery is typically penned by Lamb; the rest of the shows are either co-written or solely written by him.
“We’ve got great sources for the original scripts that we do,” he said.
Many of the shows consist of the same cast members.
“As we lose cast members, of course, we have auditions again to replace them and stuff,” Lamb said. “But we just use the same people. They audition for their flexibility of voice and that sort of thing. We have a couple that we’re sort of bringing along and trying to train them up in voice theater.”
Much of the sound effects are completed live.
“There’s a couple of them that you just can’t really do live, and we have those recorded,” Lamb said.
Currently, the shows have no broadcast radio station which to call home, but performances are presented live on the Internet.
“We webcast it over three different platforms,” Lamb explained. “It goes to the Nick Manor Youtube channel. We’re on my Facebook page. In order to reach a completely different audience, we’re also on Twitch, which is primarily for gamers and that sort of thing. Our username on there is PART_501.”
In the event that another radio station comes along, Lamb said, productions will once again be broadcast over the airwaves.
For those interested in being in the audience of one of the performances, Lamb has a B.Y.O.E. Policy.
“That means Bring Your Own Everything,” he said. “You can bring your own food and whatever beverages you want. I have tables and chairs; I’ve got ice and cups and things like that, and I’ll even sell you some sodas, but bring your own stuff. That way, I don’t have to worry about a food license or beverage license or anything like that. If you want to bring peanut butter sandwiches and a glass of milk, that’s fine. If you want to bring beer and pizza, that’s also fine.”
Security is posted at the door during all events, Lamb added.
“I have to do that because we don’t want people walking in in the middle of the show going, ‘Hey, what’s going on in here?’” he explained. “We just have a good time.”
Tickets for each show are $10 per person at the door. Advance tickets may be purchased on the Nickel Manor Facebook page.
“If you want to tune in and listen, that’s free,” Lamb said.
Sponsors for the spring show were Brute Force & Ignorance Ironwerks of Fairfield, Bluebonnet Remodeling Co. of Alrington, Pint & Barrel Drafthouse of Palestine, Landmark Realty of Palestine, and Jeffrey Burkholder – First Command Financial Services of Dallas/Ft. Worth.
In addition to radio theater, Lamb hosts a different event each month with the goal of bringing a variety of entertainment to Palestine.
“Things that nobody else in town is doing is what I do here,” he said. “I try to bring the different things in. There’s a lot of country here in town, there’s a lot of rock and roll in town. I don’t need to bring that in. There’s hip-hop and Tejano music and all kinds of stuff, and I don’t have to bring that in. So, jazz and blues, chamber music, spoken word, open mic nights – that’s the kind of things I do.”
Throughout the year, Lamb said, other events will feature “authors, as well as poets and people telling jokes and insult humor.
“We’re gonna have all kinds of crazy stuff,” he said. “We’re just trying to bring everything in.”
Nickel Manor is also available to host private gatherings.
“We’ve had weddings and baby showers and bridal showers and bachelor and bachelorette parties,” Lamb said. “We’ve had memorial services and retirement parties and senior lock-ins for the high school – just all kinds of stuff.”
For simple events in which the host is looking for “just a place to put tables and chairs and do your thing and leave,” Lamb said, the cost of renting the facility is $175.
“If you’re gonna be here and need all day, that’s only $250,” he said. “I have a $300 cleaning deposit so you don’t destroy things, but what you can also do instead of making a deposit is say you want me to clean up your event and just give me the $300, and I’ll do that.”
While features such as tables, chairs, and a sound system are included in the price of the rental, Lamb said there are also “extras” available for an additional fee.
“One of the things that I’ve set up in here is, I can put curtains all the way around the perimeter of the main hall,” he said. “So, if you want a change of color scheme to match your party, I can do that.”
For those throwing soirees in Nickel Manor, the possibilities are wide open.
“I don’t have very many limitations on what you can do here,” Lamb said. “You’ve gotta go outside to smoke, obviously; that’s a city ordinance. Other than that, you’ve got to be out by 6 a.m. the next morning.”
Even in spite of he and his wife residing in the upper portion of the building, even the most raucous bunches are invited to utilize the Great Hall.
“My wife could sleep through a hurricane, so the party downstairs doesn’t bother her at all,” Lamb said. “So, it’s no big deal. The latest party we had here was over at 4:30 in the morning. That was a rocking party, believe me.”
In addition to Nickel Manor, Old Town Palestine is home to several other unique locations.
“We share a back fence with Pint & Barrel Drafthouse,” Lamb said. “Right across the creek from us is Shelton Gin, which is a honky-tonk sort of place. We’ve got Cajun food, a bakery, and a coffee shop. It’s a happening place here.”
The basement of Nickel Manor serves as Lamb’s workshop, while during times in which no events are taking place, the Great Hall serves as his wife’s art studio and Living Arts Yoga.
“We’re busy, busy people,” Lamb said, describing himself as “a sucker for keeping busy.
“This is something that I’ve wanted to do for most of my life,” he said. “And so, here I am, living the dream.”
For more information, visit the Nickel Manor Facebook page or call Lamb at (903)-391-4367.