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Stumbling upon treasures

Diamonds in the rough don’t have to be hard to find.

Over the weekend, while trying really hard to not do anything productive, I decided to go to the movies. Nothing special, nothing intense — just a fun, simple, entertaining movie. We took a peek at the listings and settled on “The Muppets” (a movie I had admittedly already seen and on opening night, nonetheless) playing at the unfamiliar Riverview Theater in south Minneapolis. Unknowingly, this low-key decision became an excavation of a buried gem that didn’t require much mining and an example of what we can dig up if we’re willing to look for it.

We hopped in the car and didn’t think twice about the destination, assuming it would either be at some massive multiplex pantheon or a smaller, simpler run-of-the-mill theater. Even the drive down Hiawatha Avenue was unspectacular, lined with light-rail tracks, warehouses and gravel.

After a turn, the theater’s marquee jutted out from a standard residential intersection. Kind of cool, but we were more focused on finding a parking spot and making the movie in time. As I tried to see ticket prices while standing in line, I noticed that the theater’s interior and the mod furniture in the lobby were kitschy and unique. Whoops, it’s our turn in line. Only two bucks a person? Not bad.

By this point, we figured there was something different about the thought-to-be ordinary Riverview Theater and finally realized it when we walked into the theater itself. The long, not wide, auditorium hearkened back to the 1950s, with dozens of rows in front of a screen framed by a proscenium arch and show curtains. The house seating was lit with the glow off the sound-dampening panels on the walls. The constant but subdued clamor of moviegoers shuffling about, situating themselves before and during the film gave the sense that this showing wasn’t just one of many that we all had chosen to go to but a communal experience that we had all made an event of, even if I personally had just happened to stumble into it. All that was missing were ushers with flashlights and that catchy “Let’s All Go to the Lobby” jingle for the occasion to be a full blast from the past.

So why did I spend the first third of my column sharing a relatively pleasant but random encounter for a matinee screening of a drawn-out puppet show? No, it’s not because Riverview Theater is paying me to promote them. Rather, these sorts of inconspicuous run-ins that result in poignant appreciation for the often-overlooked moments in our lives are more frequent than we may think. Or, better said, they can be if we allow ourselves to come across them. They’re not always as forthright as a gigantic screen in a grandiose theater though — they’re usually more subtle.

For example, a few years ago at a Washington D.C. Metro station, a street musician played his violin in the middle of morning rush hour. About 1,100 people passed the performer, with only 27 giving him money and seven stopping to admire his playing. At the end of his 45-minute stint, he had a grand total of $32.17.

Unbeknownst to passersby was that this man was far from a down-and-out busker: He had sold out a Boston theater just three days before. Joshua Bell, a world-renowned violinist, was part of a Washington Post experiment, in which he played the same pieces — Bach’s most difficult, but elegant arrangements — standing at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro stop as he did on stage at Symphony Hall earlier that week. Oh, on top of that, the violin was one of the finest ever made, worth $3.5 million.

The experimenters hoped to find out if “[i]n a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” and they got an answer. Maybe not a heartening one, but they got one nonetheless. There’s a certain disappointment in such an opportunity going ignored, but how many of us can say we’re really surprised by the outcome? How many of us would have walked by too?

But performing the works of eighteenth-century Baroque German composers isn’t the only talent going unnoticed lately, at least not until recently. In New York, across the country and around the world, fans are captivated by Jeremy Lin’s unpredictably spectacular play for the Knicks. After leading his high school to a state title and failing to receive any scholarship offers then settling on Harvard and earning All-Ivy League honors before going undrafted, Lin signed with the lowly Golden State Warriors, where he hardly saw any playing time in his first season. Just before this season, he joined the Knicks, projected to be nothing more than a benchwarmer.

But in the past two weeks, the league has since come down with a severe case of Lin-fluenza, been turned on by Lin-gerie and drank too many Jeremy-mosas with Lin-gonberry juice. OK, I’ll stop. In just a handful of games, while rejuvenating the franchise with record-breaking play, Lin has gone from a no-name scrub to an international superstar. He didn’t suddenly unlock the game’s secrets; coaches just suddenly gave him a chance, and he’s proven his worth and just in the Knick of time. Consumed with traditional archetypes of what basketball players should look like or where they should come from, Lin is changing how coaches, general managers and scouts evaluate Asian and Ivy League athletes.

Part of what makes these unexpected and unforeseen instances so enjoyable is how taken aback we are when we encounter them or watch them unfold. We may never get that joy though if we don’t give ourselves a chance to take in or come across these moments. Whether it’s a passé movie theater, a world-class violinist playing incognito or an out-of-nowhere NBA star, each of these could have been, and were, easily overlooked before eventually being appreciated.

Ultimately, the combination of unsuspectingly taking a chance, stepping outside one’s self and being observant to the potential fortune that certain situations may carry creates opportunities that lead to pleasing and enriching surprises. That doesn’t mean you’ll catch them all, because they’re not always there, but it’s better to keep your eyes open for a surprise that may come than never look  for one at all.


Andrew Johnson welcomes comments at

[email protected].

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