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Joy, tears and Billie Eilish: Essential workers revel in Hollywood Bowl return

KC Cortez  and husband Allen Cortez sit in Hollywood Bowl box seats before the concert, with the empty stage behind them.
KC Cortez sits with her husband, Allen Cortez, an ICU nurse, before the Hollywood Bowl reopening concert on Saturday. The L.A. Phil honored frontline workers with free tickets.
(Dustin Downing / Los Angeles Philharmonic)

It had been a long time since Allen Cortez and his wife had a date night. As a Kaiser Permanente ICU nurse in a COVID-19 ward, Cortez spent the last 13 months on the frontlines of the pandemic, taking one tragic day at a time as his team worked to understand the novel coronavirus and how to deal with its baffling array of symptoms.

“People say it takes a certain kind of person to be dealing with that type of stress, but we weren’t alone, we had each other,” Cortez said of the doctors, nurses, respiratory therapists and others who showed up day in and day out while COVID-19 burned its way through the region.

On Saturday, Cortez blinked in the fading sunshine of a near-perfect Southern California day. There was no mask covering his shy smile as he unpacked his picnic supper and looked at his wife, KC, and the two friends he brought to the Hollywood Bowl.

Timeline of a comeback: historic cancellation of an entire season, painful layoffs, transformation into a recording studio, a whirlwind race to reopen.

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The group sat in the box seats not far from the stage awaiting the first public Bowl show in 18 months. The performance by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic was meant to honor Cortez and 4,000 other frontline and essential workers invited to partake in one of five free shows preceding the Bowl’s regular season opening on July 3.

Cortez said he lucked out by getting such perfect seats, but his plum spot wasn’t a good break. It was assigned out of gratitude by the L.A. Phil — a thank you to those who made it possible to perform live music again.

“We are here because of you. Because of your generosity, your courage,” Dudamel said amid roaring applause after being introduced by a surprise special guest, Billie Eilish.

Singer Billie Eilish onstage at the Hollywood Bowl.
Singer Billie Eilish introduces Gustavo Dudamel and the L.A. Phil.
(Dustin Downing / Los Angeles Philharmonic)

“I want you guys to just have a good time and be hopeful, and I don’t know — let’s just smile, you know,” Eilish said as she stood beaming onstage, recalling having been in a similar spot as part of a children’s choir and thinking that it was the coolest place in the world.

And on this magical day in May, it certainly felt that way. The audience streaming in before the show was absolutely giddy. Giddy to be out in public. Giddy to be seeing a live performance. Giddy to be with family and friends after so long keeping their distance. Giddy to be in this place, pondering the possible end of the pandemic.

Michelle Hilborne, a special education aide from Huntington Beach who has been in the classroom five days a week since September, was near tears as she entered the Bowl with friends. Hilborne said she was an avid Bowl fan who in a normal season would come to upward of a dozen shows.

Michelle Hilborne, a special education aide from Huntington Beach, at the L.A. Phil's reopening of the Hollywood Bowl.
Michelle Hilborne, a special education aide from Huntington Beach, was among the pandemic workers attending the L.A. Phil’s free reopening concert Saturday at the Hollywood Bowl.
(Dustin Downing/LA Phil)

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“This is like payoff,” she said, her voice cracking and her hands fanning welling eyes. “I’m gonna start crying. This is like payoff for keeping myself safe for a year.”

Emergency room worker Lorraine Flores, who spent the pandemic registering and checking in patients, was simply happy to be out in a crowd — one that was still mindful of masks and social distancing.

“It just feels good to be out with people, while still being precautionary, because people still need to be precautionary,” she said, adding that her hospital, Torrance Memorial Medical Center, is still treating COVID-19 patients.

A view of the Hollywood Bowl hatch shell
The Hollywood Bowl hatch shell glows over the heads of socially distanced musicians onstage.
(Dustin Downing / Los Angeles Philharmonic)

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Alex Kaufman, who delivers meals to seriously ill people through the organization Project Angel Food, was excited to be back in a place that held many memories for him. His birthday is in the summer, so the Bowl is the keeper of a kind of happiness that he said feels cracked open again.

Musicians and singers in programs associated with the L.A. Phil also were in the crowd, including 17-year-old twins Juan Pablo Sanchez and Jose Miguel Sanchez. The percussionists are graduating this year from the Youth Orchestra Los Angeles, better known as YOLA.

“Seeing music reopening — it gives us the soul we really didn’t get during the pandemic,” Juan said.

Added Jose: “You don’t feel the connection as much with music if you don’t see it live.”

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Bass baritone Davone Tines and Jonathan Hepfer, the artistic director of Monday Evening Concerts.
Bass baritone Davone Tines, left, and Jonathan Hepfer, the artistic director of the Monday Evening Concerts series at the Colburn School.
(Dustin Downing / Los Angeles Philharmonic)

Davone Tines, a bass baritone who sings with the L.A. Phil, arrived with Jonathan Hepfer, the artistic director of the Monday Evening Concerts new-music series at the Colburn School’s Zipper Hall. Both men said they saw the hope of new beginnings and necessary transitions in the symbolic reopening of the Hollywood Bowl.

“I think that everybody is going to be emerging much richer physically, emotionally, spiritually,” Hepfer said.

D’Shon Chandler stood behind a cash register inside a marketplace selling wine, beer and snacks. The actor has worked seasonally at the Bowl since moving to L.A. in 2016. After last year’s hiatus, Chandler is thrilled to be back.

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“I’ve been here for so long, and experienced so many memories, and now it’s a new type of memory because of COVID protocols,” Chandler said. “It’s great to see people getting back here. They are so excited. They are so happy to just be here.”

Night fell, and music swelled into the air, soaring on the chilly wind that rushed from the darkened hillsides. Jackets were shrugged on, and face masks that were taken off to eat and drink went back on once again — this time for warmth.


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