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Need uplift this holiday season? Give thanks for these rare happy stories from the pandemic

Che Zhao Sheng at the Chinese Garden of the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens
The journey of Che Zhao Sheng from penniless immigrant to penjing pro at the Huntington’s newly expanded Chinese garden is a truly uplifting American story. The bonus: This Thanksgiving weekend, the penjing sculpture garden (penjing is a precursor to bonsai) is open for viewing.
(Josie Norris / Los Angeles Times)
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In a year when theaters and concert halls went dark, when museum workers lost their jobs, when our connection to the arts and fellow arts lovers often got flattened into the world of Zoom and Facebook Live, we very well might tell the optimist among us to take his silver linings and shove them up his pumpkin pie hole.

However.

That optimist might have a point. Several of them, actually. Look back at the Arts team’s coverage since March 12, the first day we all started working from home, and truth be told, you will find some things for which to be grateful this holiday weekend. For those who could use some happy stories to carry you onward, here are 11 products of the pandemic for which we’re thankful.

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1. The drive-by party

In May, staff writer Makeda Easter reported on the 100th birthday drive-by celebration for Joan Bayley, who danced alongside the likes of Judy Garland and Bing Crosby before moving on to a 30-year career teaching at Westside School of Ballet in Santa Monica. Former students turned out to honk and wave as Bayley blew kisses from her yard.

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An update: Ex-students saw The Times article and asked Bayley if she would resume teaching during the pandemic, so she’s back to teaching a class about once a month on Zoom. We give thanks for that.

Joan Bayley waves to a drive-by parade of relatives and friends celebrating her 100th birthday.
Joan Bayley waves to a drive-by parade of relatives and friends celebrating her 100th birthday at her home in Los Angeles.
(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times)

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2. The porch concert

Concert halls were silenced, but the music carried on — sung from balconies, bowed from porches in Pasadena, strummed from the backs of boats to audiences on paddleboards. Back in April staff writer Jessica Gelt had the story of lawyer Beong-Soo Kim and portfolio manager Bonnie Wongtrakool, a couple who played cello and piano with the simple hope of bringing a measure of calm to the jangled nerves of their neighbors. Turns out Los Angeles Philharmonic musicians Cathy and Jonathan Karoly live nearby and started front-yard concerts of their own, captured in an L.A. Times video.

Beong-Soo Kim plays cello on the porch of his home in Pasadena.
(Christina House/Los Angeles Times)

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3. The sidewalk art gallery

Whether in the Hollywood Hills or the flats of Highland Park, ad hoc art galleries on the sidewalks of L.A. gave residents under stay-at-home orders some necessary distraction during daily walk-breaks from Zoom. The Museum of Quarantine became a crowdsourced collection of ephemera reflecting life in the age of the coronavirus, while one self-described eccentric art lady’s fence paintings brought a form of healing even she did not expect.

Artist Olivia Arthur with her paintings in Highland Park.
Artist Olivia Arthur with her paintings in Highland Park.
(Myung J. Chun/Los Angeles Times)

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4. ‘Hamilton,’ streaming

Live theater’s loss was our streaming gain.

Lin-Manuel Miranda, left, and Phillipa Soo in "Hamilton" on Disney+.
Lin-Manuel Miranda, left, and Phillipa Soo in “Hamilton” on Disney+.
(Disney+)

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5. Magic

COVID closures hit theaters fast and hard, depriving casts and crews of work, and hurling companies toward existential crises. It’s been devastating. That’s partly what made Helder Guimarães’ “The Present,” a mix of magic and storytelling, such a stunning, inspiring success. Guimarães logged 271 sold-out shows and the Geffen Playhouse grossed more than $700,000 — all for a one-man Zoom show performed in a corner of his apartment with his girlfriend as the camera operator. Others, including illusionist Scott Silven, have followed. But it was Guimarães who showed how the right concept and a convincing performance can make successful theater, even when you have no theater.

Helder Guimarães
Helder Guimarães, photographed in double exposure at Griffith Park
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

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6. Devotion

In April, staff writer Deborah Vankin told the amazing story of Ben Barcelona, quite possibly L.A.'s most devoted museumgoer, who at age 81 spent every Monday at the Museum of Contemporary Art, every Tuesday at the Broad, every Wednesday at the Hammer, every Thursday at LACMA and every Friday at the Getty. The routine never wavered — until COVID. When museums closed, Barcelona got creative himself, finding his art not in galleries but on the street, in the abstract graffiti on the side of an auto-body shop, perhaps, or in the Chicken Bucket Modern architecture style of his local KFC.

Ben Barcelona zips his jacket to take a walk on his 81st birthday.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

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7. Generosity

Arts organizations that rely heavily on ticket sales were in financial freefall starting in spring. A Times survey of 18 venues found that even amid unprecedented uncertainty, many ticket buyers wanted to do their part to help companies survive. Refund requests were a given, but many patrons were willing to carry a credit until whenever the show could indeed go on. Upward of 70% of ticket holders for some companies simply turned what they had paid into a donation. After Deaf West automatically refunded the full price of all tickets, about 30% to 40% of the company’s patrons took the money and donated it back to the company. Thank you, audiences.

David Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West Theatre.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

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8. Bravery

The sheer courage demonstrated by 13-year-old Brayden Harrington in just two minutes — what Times theater critic Charles McNulty called the most gripping theatrical moment of a four-day Democratic National Convention — was a reminder that our shared humanity and a resiliency of spirit can come from places we may not have expected. Thank you, Brayden.

Brayden Harrington
13-year-old Brayden Harrington spoke bravely at this year’s Democratic National Convention.

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9. A renaissance for roller skating

A reporter set out to learn how to skate and came away with a new appreciation of, and connection to, L.A.'s Black culture. Thank you, roller skates!

While roller skating has been popular for decades, it has recently gained popularity on social media.

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10. A rediscovery of garden sculpture

Are you at the point in Thanksgiving weekend where the pants feel tight and you need to walk off the pumpkin pie or the other pie (and the other other pie)? We have ideas. Times art critic Christopher Knight, closed off from his museum haunts, took a walk through UCLA’s remarkable Franklin D. Murphy Sculpture Garden, where 70 works by the likes of Matisse, Rodin and Serra provided artistic inspiration along with the fresh air. At the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens’ newly expanded Chinese Garden, some of the sculpture came in living form: penjing, the Chinese precursor to bonsai. We’re thankful for the Chinese-born keeper of the Huntington’s penjing and his truly uplifting American story.

Miniature penjing gets watered at the Huntington.
Miniature penjing gets watered at the Huntington.
(Josie Norris/Los Angeles Times)

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11. Finally, this

If resilient seniors and intrepid children and neighborly neighbors and Zoom magic isn’t enough to lift your spirits, well, try that pie again. Or double down on the surreal insanity of our pandemic moment with this quarantine-themed musical composition by the satirical duo Las Cardachians. The original Instagram post embedded in Times columnist Carolina Miranda’s post is no longer available, but you can view the masterpiece here. Turn up the volume to 10 and sing along. It’s good for a smile every time!

A still from "Quarantine" by the Colombian satirists Las Cardachians, the duo of Camilo Pulgarin (here) and Juan Gonzalez.
(Still by Carolina A. Miranda / Los Angeles Times)

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