The show always goes on: A look into the past of Detroit Lakes’ award-winning, historic Holmes Theatre
As the Historic Holmes Theatre prepares to open the doors on its 16th season next week, with a concert by The Revolution (see related story), Becker County Museum patrons were invited inside the theater last week for a little behind-the-scenes look at its history — and future.
Though the Holmes Theatre and its adjacent partner, the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center, have only been in business a little over a decade and a half now, the building inside which it sits is actually much older than that, which is why the word "Historic" was added to its title, explained the theater's executive director, Amy Stoller Stearns, during last Wednesday's "Brown Bag Lunch" presentation.
What's in a name?
"The Holmes Theatre is named for E.G. Holmes," Stearns said, noting that Holmes was a New York native who, after serving in the Civil War, made his way to Minnesota, and in 1870, settled in Becker County, making his home in what was then known as the village of Detroit with his wife, Lucy.
Holmes went on to open the community's first general store, build its first electric power plant, open its first bank, and much more, as well as serving as both a Becker County commissioner and Minnesota state senator.
As such a prominent figure in the community's early years, it's no surprise that Holmes' name can be found on several of its buildings — and one of its streets as well.
The theater that bears his name, Stearns noted, was originally part of the Holmes School, which was built in 1895 at the corner of Summit and Front streets in Detroit Lakes.
"It was built of stone taken from are lakes, and horse drawn wagons were sent out ot pick up the children as school transportation," she told the museum group.
"Over the years, two sections were added to the school. One addition was built in 1909, and the third section, which is now the Historic Holmes Theatre, was added in 1931," Stearns continued. "It included this stage and auditorium, and was constructed in an Art Deco style. For decades, the Holmes School was the school for local students, serving as a grade school, senior high school and junior high school (at various times). The last year the Holmes served as a school was the 1977-78 school year. After that, junior high students attended what is now our middle school."
The building then sat empty for a couple of years, until a fire on Sept. 20, 1980 destroyed the 1909 addition and a portion of the original 1895 structure.
"Workmen had been cutting pipe in the basement of the 1909 building — which had been scheduled to be demolished — and sparks are believed to have ignited the old wood or insulation in the building," Stearns said. "Firefighters battled the flames for hours. The school bell fell down into the basement. Officials had to shut down the water treatment filtering system in order to have access to water quickly enough to put out the fire. Approximately one million gallons of water were thought to have been used.
"Unfortunately, the 1895 building, which was to become the home to the Becker County Historical Society, suffered too much damage and was torn down along with the 1909 building," she continued, adding, "Isn't it kind of cool that now, in 2018, we're planning to attach the new museum onto this theater?"
The 1931 addition, meanwhile, was relatively unscathed, with minor damages caused mainly by smoke. This building was subsequently cleaned up and became home to the community's Senior Nutrition Center, Playhouse 412 community theater and Becker County Food Pantry, while the old gymnasium was rented out.
The 1931 Holmes School building remained under-utilized, however — until someone came up with the idea of making it into a theater as part of plans to build a new community center.
"Finally, after many failed attempts to reopen the building as a community center, the Holmes got a new lease on life," Stearns said. "In 2002, it reopened as the Historic Holmes Theatre."
The theater renovation was part of a $9.25 million community project, which also included building an adjoining, state-of-the-art fitness facility that became the BTD Aquatics & Fitness Center. Together, the theater arts and fitness facilities became known as the Detroit Lakes Community & Cultural Center, or DLCCC.
Some of the more visible changes to the Holmes building's structure were the addition of a new theater entrance, with an enlarged lobby, the addition of a new elevator and restrooms on the second floor, plus the refurbishing of the theater's original seats, including the addition of padding. The lighting, rigging and sound systems inside the auditorium itself were also upgraded. Some of the theater's original fixtures, such as the ceiling chandeliers and art-deco trim on the ceilings, were retained — along with one iconic artifact.
"The school bell, which was obviously rescued, now sits outside our theater entrance," Stearns said, noting that the bell had been dedicated by E.G. Holmes himself, back in 1909. (Another bit of little-known trivia: The bell was actually constructed by the C.S. Bell Company of Hillsboro, Ohio — which was better known for building bells for U.S. Navy ships.)
After it was refurbished, the theater held a grand opening, featuring an original production titled "Holmes Spun Theatre," which was written by local residents Lynn Hummel and the late Mary Otto.
"The show, basically a spoof on the history of Detroit Lakes, starred a local cast and crew of over 100 people," said Stearns, before noting that she, her husband Mike and their then 11-month-old son, Ben, were among them, playing an immigrant couple.
"We had just moved to Detroit Lakes in February (of 2002)," she added.
Since then, the theater has truly become "a regional hub for the performing arts," as Stearns put it during her presentation.
"We host 30 productions a year, showcasing national, regional and local artists, with audience numbers totaling around 20,000 annually," she added.
"We also host a special student series called the Discovery Series," Stearns said, noting that this series of four kid-oriented productions each year draws in upwards of 5,000 students and teachers from over 15 schools and communities in the region.
"In addition, our active community outreach program impacts 2,000 students, seniors and adults in our region each year," she said.
Beth Gilbert, the theater's community outreach director, then gave a little overview of those past programs — as well as a look at "what happens next."
Currently, she is working in collaboration with the Detroit Lakes Senior Center — which is still located in the basement of the Holmes Theatre building — to try and revitalize the space.
"This senior center used to be very vibrant," she said — but its participation numbers have been slowly dwindling, due in part to the ready availability of other dining options besides the senior nutrition program.
What they are hoping to do, she said, is to revamp the space to accommodate not only the senior nutrition program, Meals on Wheels and other senior social activities that are held there during the week, but also more visual arts-related activities, such as art classes and exhibits.
As for the museum's plans to build a new facility adjacent to the Holmes Theatre, Stearns said she was really looking forward to it, not only due to the "endless potential" for collaborating on projects, but also due to the fact that the plans include a new, joint lobby for the two facilities, with a new stairway, which she said she jokingly refers to as a "grand staircase."
Upcoming museum activities
Though the Sept. 12 event was held at the Holmes Theatre, it was actually hosted by the Becker County Museum, which will be a busy place during the month ahead:
• Saturday, Sept. 22: National Museum Day festivities will include free admission to the museum, with a printed ticket from Smithsonian Magazine Online; an all-ages book reading of "Tillie the Terrible Swede," which features a world champion women's bicycle racer from Becker County, at 12:30 p.m.; and a "Family Trees" string art activity from 11n a.m. to 2 p.m.
• Wednesday, Oct. 10: The museum's October Brown Bag Lunch offering, which starts at noon, will feature Pine Point's Mike Swan, who will speak on the topic of "Ojibwe Oral History: A Storytelling Tradition." Bring your own lunch or call the museum at 218-847-2938 to reserve a box lunch for $8. There is no admission fee at the museum during Brown Bag Lunch events.
• Thursday, Oct. 18: Pumpkin Crafts at the Museum will feature kids' craft activities from 10 a.m. to noon. Spend the morning creating crafts and exploring the museum on the kids' day off from school! Museum admission is free when you purchase a craft kit.
• Friday, Oct. 19: After Dark at the Museum activities will include flashlight tours and "frightful tales" from members of Becker County's own paranormal investigation group, Midwest Paranormal Files, featuring "the darker side of Becker County history." Tours begin at 7 and 8:30 p.m.; space is limited, however, so reserve your tickets ($10 each) in advance by stopping by the museum or calling 218-847-2938. The tours are strictly for those ages 14 and above — and all kids under 18 must be accompanied by an adult.
• Saturday, Oct. 20: Family Day at the Museum will feature a "family-friendly" flashlight tour, suitable for all ages, starting at 11 a.m. Guests will be treated to a guided tour of the museum by flashlight, where they can learn a little more about Becker County's history and the "hidden gems" inside the museum's everyday exhibits. Space is limited for this event as well, so reserve tickets ($10 for adults, $5 for children) by stopping in or calling the museum in advance. The ticket price includes museum admission for the day, so if you want to stay and explore for a little while longer, feel free!