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Penny project rolls forward at historic Detroit Lakes theater

More than 500,000 pennies are being glued to the floor of the Historic Holmes Theatre hallway. Volunteers helped put some of them down Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2013. Brian Basham/DL Newspapers1 / 2
The pennies are simply being glued to the floor. Grout will be put between the pennies.2 / 2

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. -- Since the first 1-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 theater's arts outreach and event coordinator. She's also coordinating the penny project. "We probably have about 60,000 pennies down so far."

But while the momentum has been impressive, they still have a way to go to lay more than 500,000 penies. Mitchell said donated pennies and volunteers are still needed.

"So many different folks from the community have been in here" to help lay pennies, theater director Amy Stoller Stearns said last week. "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."

The community art project -- gluing the 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, but residents have embraced it.

"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."

People working on the project are "literally laying a piece of history" every time they glue a penny to the floor, Mitchell said. And then there are all the past and present residents who have brought coins to the theater or left them in donation boxes around town.

Stearns' daughter, Kate, said 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.

Mitchell said former Detroit Lakes resident Eleanor Zurn Johnson, now living in Holland, Mich., stays in touch and reads the local newspaper.

When she saw the original article about the project, Johnson, who turned 97 in September, sent a check to the theater for $33, in recognition of her graduation from Detroit Lakes High School in 1933, and asked the theater staff to exchange the money for pennies to be used in the floor.

Another local couple, Tom and Pam Mortenson, brought in a small money barrel filled with 10,408 pennies -- the same amount 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.

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

Mitchell and Stearns hope the pennies will all be in place 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 for that to happen, "we still need pennies, and we still need people," Mitchell said. "Lots and lots of people."

To donate or volunteer

Anyone who would like to donate pennies or help lay the floor is invited to come to the Historic Holmes Theatre at 826 Summit Ave. in Detroit Lakes, Minn., anytime between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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

For more information about the penny floor project, or other improvements planned at the theater, call the theater at (218) 844-7469.