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Penny project rolls forward

Penny-layers Brenda Wieland, Margery Smith, Kate Smith, Hannah Eikren and Alexis Stambach glued some of the 500,000-plus pennies onto the Holmes Theatre hallway floor Wednesday afternoon. Brian Basham/DL NEWSPAPERS

Since the first one-cent copper disc was laid in place almost two weeks ago, the penny floor project at Detroit Lakes’ Historic Holmes Theatre has been progressing at a rapid pace.

“I think we’re about one-fifth, or maybe one-fourth done already,” said Becky Mitchell, the arts outreach and event coordinator at the theater, who is also coordinating the penny project. “We probably have about 60,000 pennies down so far.”

But while the momentum has been impressive thus far, they do still have quite a long way to go, she added — and both donated pennies and volunteers to lay them are still greatly needed.

“So many different folks from the community have been in here” to help lay pennies, said Historic Holmes Theatre director Amy Stoller Stearns on Wednesday. “It’s a little overwhelming — in the good sense of that word.

“Yesterday, we had 24 bankers in here, in their suits and button-down shirts, laying pennies. Today, we had a law enforcement group in here.”

Though this community art project — gluing over half a million pennies to the floor of the theater’s main hallway, then grouting them and covering them with multiple layers of polyurethane coating — may have seemed a little off-the-wall for this traditionally conservative community, Mitchell said, it’s one that the residents have embraced wholeheartedly.

“What are people going to think when they look at this floor in 15-20 years?” she said with a smile. “They might think we were a little crazy. But the penny floor is going to become part of the history of this building — it won’t be torn out anytime soon.”

Anyone who works on this project is “literally laying a piece of history” every time they glue a penny onto the floor, Mitchell said.

And then there are all the past and present residents who, whether or not they are physically capable of laying pennies themselves, have brought in as many of the one-cent coins as they could gather and left them at the theater, or any of the donation boxes distributed around town.

Stearns’ daughter, Kate, said that her class and others at Rossman Elementary have been having a “penny wars” competition this fall, to see who can bring in the most pennies for the project.

“They either collected the pennies at home, or brought money into the bank and exchanged it (for pennies),” she said.

The “penny wars” are actually part of a sponsorship challenge issued by The Real Estate Company, a local company.

“The elementary class at each (participating) school that raises the most pennies gets their choice of a pizza, frozen yogurt or movie party,” Mitchell said, adding that all classes in grades K-5 at Lake Park-Audubon, Detroit Lakes and Frazee-Vergas public schools are participating.

The same company is also sponsoring a similar contest for middle school (grades 6-8) students in the same districts, where the student who spends the most time laying pennies will win their choice of an i-Pad Mini or Microsoft Surface tablet computer.

“One person from each school district will win,” Mitchell said. “Because of that, a lot of kids have been coming in on their own after school — they just have to make sure to check in (at the theater office) so they get credit for their time. We’ve had 6-10 kids coming in pretty much every day.”

Mitchell said there was one former Detroit Lakes resident, Eleanor Zurn Johnson, now living in Holland, Michigan, who though she hasn’t been part of the community for many years, still stays in touch and reads the local newspaper.

When she saw the original newspaper article about the penny floor project, Johnson — who celebrated her 97th birthday in September — sent a check to the theater for $33, in recognition of the fact that she had graduated from Detroit Lakes High School 80 years ago, in 1933, and asked the theater staff to exchange the money for pennies to be used for the floor project.

“A lot of people are creating their own piece of nostalgia around this project,” Mitchell said. “Some are bringing in donations as small as a handful, and others, upwards of $100 in pennies.”

She referred to another local couple, Tom and Pam Mortenson, who had brought in a small money barrel filled with 10,408 pennies — the same amount that the barrel had been filled with on their wedding night more than 45 years ago, when the wedding guests had filled it to help them pay for their honeymoon.

“They wanted to give that exact amount back (to this project),” Mitchell said, adding that they, along with their grandsons, had stayed after donating the money to lay pennies together, for about an hour.

“Some of the people who have come in to lay pennies have made little patterns in the design (their initials, geometric shapes, etc.),” Mitchell said.

“It’s not something I anticipated, but I think it’s great — it gives those people a little more sense of ownership” to be able to point out where they laid the pennies themselves, she added.

All those people who contribute pennies, or spend time laying them for this project, will have their names added to a “Penny Wall of Fame” that will be installed after the project is completed.

The Penny Wall of Fame will also include hundreds of foreign coins that some people have donated toward the project, Mitchell said, adding that all four of the Arts Midwest World Fest groups who came to the theater over the past few years have either sent coins from their native countries already, or have plans to do so.

“Yamma Ensemble (from Israel) and Tarim (from the Uyghur region of China) have both sent coins to us, and Wust el Balad (from Egypt) and Cudamani (from Bali) are also planning to do so,” she said.

Mitchell and Stearns are both hoping that the pennies will all be laid by mid-December, so the floor can be grouted and the polyurethane coating applied and allowed to set while the theater is closed, from just before Christmas until mid-January. 

But in order for that to happen, “we still need pennies, and we still need people,” Mitchell said. “Lots and lots of people.”

“I would encourage people to come out and lay a few pennies if they haven’t yet,” Stears said. “If there are any groups out there looking for a feel-good community service project, that would be great!”

No appointment to come lay pennies is necessary, Mitchell said, unless you are planning to bring a group of 15 people or more.

“We don’t want to have too many large groups working at the same time,” she explained.

Anyone who would like to come in and help, or donate pennies, is invited to come to the theater at 826 Summit Ave. anytime between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

A Community Work Day is also scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 10 from 2 to 5 p.m.

“We are so grateful for the support we have received already,” Stearns said.

“We’ve had dozens and dozens of people bring in jelly jars and baggies filled with pennies, with so much pride that it’s going to be used for this building,” said Mitchell, noting that many of the people who have brought in pennies used to go to school in the original Holmes School, of which the theater was once a part.

The penny floor is just one of several aesthetic improvements that are planned at the theater over the course of the next few months, Mitchell said.

“There are so many improvements in the visual appearance of our building that the community will see between now and May 31,” she added.

The green room in the theater’s backstage area has been repainted, and new paint jobs for the hallways, lobby and stairwells on both sides of the theater building are also planned.

The large mobile art project in the theater’s main lobby has also been re-mounted on a new copper superstructure that can be raised or lowered from the lobby’s vaulted ceiling on an electric winch, allowing the student art pieces that comprise the mobile to be replaced and repaired more easily.

“We’re also reaching out to local art classes to help design and create mosaic art for the stair risers in the stairwells on both sides of the theater, from the basement up to the third floor,” Mitchell said.

And the wall of the stairwell facing the main hallway as you’re leaving the theater’s  second floor has been painted a “Lucky Penny” color, which will offset the clear glass art piece that will eventually be suspended in the stairwell. The glass will be covered with vinyl lettering that will be used to spell out “farewell” messages in a variety of different languages.

“And we will be adding some gallery displays in the hallways and conference rooms, with better accessibility and security, both for visual artists to display their work, and for members of the community to view it.”

It is all intended to tie into the theater’s main theme, “step inside and see the world,” Mitchell added.

All of these improvements were made possible through a pair of large funding contributions, Stearns said — a grant from the Lakes Region Arts Council, and a private donation from local residents Terry and Michelle Maier.

For more information about the penny floor project, or about the other improvements planned at the theater throughout this coming winter and spring, please contact the Historic Holmes Theatre at 218-844-7469.

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454