Archive for September, 2014

A Short History of Evil Ventriloquists in the Movies

Posted in Hollywood (History), Horror (Mostly Gothic), Indie Theatre, ME, Movies, My Shows, Silent Film, Television, Ventriloquism & Puppetry with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2014 by travsd

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Ah! The emotionally troubled ventriloquist and his scary dummy!

There are enough movies, plays and tv shows about this ancient schizoid character that it constitutes a minor subgenre all its own. It’s not surprising that terror is an offshoot of this ancient discipline. Its roots, like the roots of all theatre, go back to caveman times, and no doubt the supernatural was part of the original dodge. Like clowns, ventriloquists and their dummies are uncanny — they seem to be acting out some dream. If you’ll check out the ventriloquism section of this blog, you will find biographies of all the major vents going back to the mid 19th century . Some of their photos, especially in the early days are quite disturbing indeed. Moreover, there is something about having a little “mini-me” that psychologically encourages the ventriloquist to pour his negative energy into it. The dummy has permission to say all the things that a person would usually censor himself from saying. Even relatively light comedy acts like Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy had that feature. Charlie says all the wicked, lecherous, rude things — and Edgar’s role is to scold him and apologize to the audience. Meanwhile, it’s been Bergen who’s really been saying those nasty things all along! It’s downright diabolical!

And we are far from the first to notice. So here are some notable evil vent stories of stage and screen from the past century. Just in time for Halloween.

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The Unholy Three (1925 and 1930): But of COURSE Tod Browning and Lon Chaney inaugurate the genre…except they almost don’t.  Based on a novel by Tod Robbins (the same guy who wrote the story which Freaks is based onThe Unholy Three does indeed cast Chaney as a criminal ventriloquist (whose best job is making pet-shop parrots seem to talk), but he also goes around in drag, and is in cahoots with a midget (Harry Earles) who pretends to be a baby, a strong man (Victor McLaglen) and a sexy vamp (Mae Busch). So the vent stuff gets tamped down a little, it’s not the main focus. Still, it counts! I give two dates above because there was both a silent version (1925) and a talkie remake (1930).

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The Great Gabbo (1929): I saw this one for the first time the other night — what sheer unadulterated delight. Based on a short story by Ben Hecht called “The Rival Dummy” and directed by James Cruze (best known for his silent epic The Covered Wagon) , the film stars Erich Von Stroheim as a cruel, fascistic ventriloquist who browbeats his lover and assistant (Betty Compson) and is only able to demonstrate tenderness through his dummy. After she leaves him, he is only able to relate to his dummy…and that’s a little weird. Towards the end, when they meet again, he mistakes the girl’s kindness for a rapprochement. When it proves illusory, he goes completely insane, and that my friends is worth watching. As are the very bizarre comedy routines with Stroheim’s German accent in falsetto telling the jokes, and the eerie silences that follow them (this being one of the earliest sound films). The movie is also a strange hybrid…at least 50% musical comedy, fairly unrelated to the plot.

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Dead of Night (1945): One of the terrifying classics of the horror anthology genre, Dead of Night tells six stories, one of which casts Michael Redgrave as an insane ventriloquist named Maxwell whose dummy Hugo gets him into some very bad trouble. In the end, Max does what must be done. Here’s the famous, chilling climax:

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The Twilight Zone: Episode: “The Dummy” (1962):   Cliff Roberston is a down and out ventriloquist. His fear of his dummy has caused him to develop a drinking problem. Determined to fight, he decides to replace the current dummy with a sillier one. But Willy (the current one) tricks him and torments him. In the end, they have traded places. Willy is now the ventriloquist and Robertson’s character is the dummy….

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The Twilight Zone : Episode: “Caesar and Me” (1964):  Jackie Cooper plays an Irish ventriloquist who is having a tough time making a go of it. His fully sentient dummy convinces him to commit robberies. When he does so and gets caught, and tries to demonstrate that the dummy put him up to it, the dummy falls silent. He is led away in handcuffs.

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Devil Doll (1964)

This may be my favorite in the genre now for many reasons. One is that it takes the ancient idea of the “Uncanny” all the way back to its primitive origins. The Great Vorelli (Bryant Haliday), a magician, had gone off to the mystic East to study the secrets of the swamis. When he returns he succeeds in imprisoning the soul of one of his partners inside the ventriloquist dummy. His dummy can not only think and talk on its own, but it can walk by itself…and that is a mighty creepy sight indeed. Tod Browning also made a film by this name (originally called The Witch of Timbuktu), which while not a ventriloquist film, plays similarly with this ancient folk terror of the dollikin or manikin…the tiny evil imp who will sneak up on you in your sleep. In the end, Vorelli goes too far and his dummy Hugo (his name no doubt a nod to Dead of Night) turns the table on him. Look for more on star Bryant Haliday here in future. He grew up in a monastery in Rhode Island, did art theatre in the Boston area, and made several British horror films in the 60s. His is a most interesting profile.

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Soap (1977-1981) On this ABC sit-com soap opera parody Jay Johnson played a guy named Chuck who was never without his wooden friend Bob. This was probably the first major, mainstream ear-pulling of the evil ventriloquist genre. Though it was a comedy, Bob WAS evil. He said and did things far worse than your Charlie McCarthys and your Jerry Mahoneys. Bob drew blood, and Chuck couldn’t control him.

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The Ventriloquists Wife (1978) The great comic playwright and actor Charles Ludlam had an off-Broadway hit in 1978 with this play about a murderous ventriloquist dummy and the toll he takes on the life of his hapless partner. This script plays with the evil ventriloquist genre on its own terms (by being dark) but unlike all the classic movies and Twilight Zone episodes up until that time — the comedy routines are actually funny. This makes it unique within the entire genre. The gorgeous Black-Eyed Susan was the titular wife.

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Magic (1978) This may well be the best known evil ventriloquist movie of all, and it’s a strange one. Anthony Hopkins plays true to type as a very ill-at-ease young man who finally manages to break out of his shell by augmenting his magic act with ventriloquism. The dummy “Fats” is crude and makes a lot of dick jokes, which passes for humor in the film in a way I don’t find creditable. (Hopkins characterization is interesting to me — reminds me a bit of Jay Johnson’s in Soap. Young, longish hair, and that nerd look, sweaters, sneakers, shirt tails hanging out…did he base the character on Jay? Or Chuck, rather?). Anyway, Hopkins’ character proves to be about as stable as Norman Bates. There’s no hint of the supernatural in this film; he’s  just a natural psycho. Oddly he does very little actual killing in the film by horror movie standards, making the film a bit of a head scratcher. What is it? A character portrait of no one who ever existed? But it sticks in the craw.

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Tales from the Crypt: Episode : “The Ventriloquist’s Dummy” (1990): SPOILER ALERT!  yes, this one proves not so much to be an evil ventriloquist dummy movie as an evil parasitic twin movie, which is an even better act! Bobcat Goldthwait plays a young ventriloquist; Don Rickles, the older one with a…secret.

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Cradle Will Rock (1999) Bill Murray is a down and out ventriloquist now out of work because of the death of vaudeville. He has a secret which gives him a breakdown. This is a subplot in Tim Robbins’ larger movie about Orson Welles’ rocky attempt to mount the Marc Blitzstein musical of the same name. 

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Dead Silence (2007) I was shocked at how much I enjoyed this film, and how original it is. I was expecting a retread of a story we’ve seen many times. Directed by James Wan, and written by Leigh Whannel, Dead Silence takes place entirely in a fairy tale realm, the ghost story space…the only realistic beats are in the film’s first five minutes. A box containing a ventriloquist dummy shows up unexpectedly at a young couple’s house….leading to a journey to an entire town where the leading citizens are murdered by the ghost of a ventriloquist. It is (so far) the only movie in which there’s not just ONE, but over ONE HUNDRED evil ventriloquist dummies  on the loose! In a haunted old theatre! Boo!

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VentriloquistTwo plays by Rick Mitchell (2012): I wrote the introduction to this book! You can buy it here.  http://www.bookdepository.com/Ventriloquist-Two-Plays-Rick-Mitchell/9780983925590

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The Plight of Cecil Sinclair (2014):  My old pal “rock and roll ventriloquist” Carla Rhodes just launched her exciting and hilarious and creepy new web series. Watch it here.

Charlie Chaplin in “The Bond”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedians, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , on September 29, 2014 by travsd

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September 29, 1918 was the release date for Charlie Chaplin’s World War One propaganda film The Bond. The shabby way this country treated Chaplin in the late 1940s and early 1950s can be seen as especially unjust in light of the fact that Chaplin raised millions of dollars to fund the First World War, by making a publicity tour, along with releasing this interesting little gem. It’s easily Chaplin’s most experimental film, employing straight-up didactic allegory in pantomime to teach us that there are  “many kinds of bonds”….bond of friendship, bond of love, the marriage bond…Most important is the LIBERTY Bond—Charlie hits the Kaiser (Syd Chaplin) on the head with a sledgehammer marked “Liberty Bonds.”

The simple painted studio sets are unlike anything else in the Chaplin canon. The film seems to point the way both towards the self-consciousness of Sunnyside (1919), and his exhortations at the end of The Great Dictator (1940) and Monsieur Verdoux (1947) — calls to action. Also in the film are Edna Purviance and Albert Austin, with the entire cast uncredited.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Buster Keaton in “The Sidewalks of New York”

Posted in Buster Keaton, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 26, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of the Buster Keaton talking feature Sidewalks of New York (1931), co-directed by Jules White and Zion Myers.

This movie was Keaton’s own least favorite of his MGM features. The plot is very similar to Lloyd’s For Heaven’s Sake and casts Keaton as a millionaire slumlord who falls for a poor girl (Anita Page). To win her heart he spends his time and resources improving the neighborhood, and trying to straighten out a gang of roughneck boys who brawl and get in trouble all day. This kind of sentimental fare worked for Spencer Tracy, James Cagney or Bing Crosby. Keaton was a fish out of water. His sidekick in the film, as in many of his pre-Durante features, was Cliff Edwards.

There’s nothing wrong per se with this bit with Keaton having a hard time carving a duck, but it does illustrate the clashing styles of director Jules White and Keaton that would emerge in a more sustained way when Keaton spent some time at Columbia in the late 30s and early 40s. The bird carving business would have been a terrific bit for Curly Howard, who would have increasingly gotten more frustrated, made faces, slapped his forehead, whined and grunted as the duck became more and more intractable. Keaton’s thing however is that he is unflappable. Most of the carving business doesn’t really work, no matter how fine a physical comedian Keaton is. It’s just wrong for him. The ultimate solution, when Keaton merely hands the bird over to a visiting policeman, seems much more characteristic.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Trav in the Media (Again)

Posted in Comedy, ME, My Shows, Silent Film with tags , , , on September 25, 2014 by travsd
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Earlier this summer I was interviewed by Barry Mitchell of CUNY-TV’s  Arts in the City at the Coney Island Museum. We talked about Coney, my most recent book Chain of Fools, silent comedy, and my upcoming show Dead End Dummy.  We were also joined by colleague Erika Iverson for a spontaneous yet calculated bit of silliness. There are many times and ways to catch it:
·      Friday, September 26 – 10:00am, 3:00pm, 8:30pm
·      Sunday, September 28 – 12:00pm
Cablecast on
Ch. 75 (Time Warner and Cablevision/Optimum Brooklyn),
Ch. 77 (RCN) and
Ch. 30 (Verizon).
It is also available on over-the-air digital Channel 25.3.
The full program is also viewable online at  http://www.cuny.tv/show/artsinthecity and CUNY-TV’s YouTube page.
Here’s a short out-take from the interview –I think it’s actually better than the segment that airs:
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Also, I was recently interviewed by Natalie Pompilio  for Legacy.com about Cliff Arquette (grandfather of Patricia, Rosanna and David) who used to perform as “Charley Weaver”. That interview is here: http://www.legacy.com/news/legends-and-legacies/cliff-arquettes-alter-ego/2687/

Charlie Chaplin in “The Idle Class”

Posted in Charlie Chaplin, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , on September 25, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date one of Charlie Chaplin’s last comedy shorts The Idle Class (1921).

Though a straight up slapstick comedy, The Idle Class is also one of the more eloquent films regarding Chaplin’s psychology. In it, he plays two versions of the Little Fellow: a tramp who arrives at a wealthy summer resort on the undercarriage of a train, and a drunken millionaire who happens to look just like him. The wealthy man’s booze problem is driving his wife (Edna Purviance) away. By coincidence, the Tramp has seen Edna from a distance and fallen in love with her. When they meet at a costume party (he has run in off the street fleeing a policeman) he is sweet to her, and she confuses him by being affectionate in return. When the real husband shows up, pandemonium ensues, until the truth sorts itself out, the husband is restored to his rightful place, and the Tramp is on his way back down the road.

This theme of doubling is hardly an original one with Chaplin. It is as old as Menander, was a favorite tactic of Shakespeare’s, and had a notable American antecedent in Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (1881). Larry Semon had used it in Romans and Rascals (1918) and Harold Lloyd in His Royal Slyness (1920). And it is a recurring motif in Chaplin: we find it in A Night in the Show and The Floorwalker and he would exhume it again The Great Dictator. Furthermore he did several related films in which the Little Fellow masquerades as an aristocrat: Caught in a Cabaret, A Jitney Elopement, and The Count. I find the fact that he keeps returning to this theme psychologically instructive. How does one deal with having once been among the poorest of the earth, and now among the richest and most powerful? Just how can one be BOTH people? How does one not on occasion feel like an imposter? He had begun to deal with his real identity in The Kid. It seems to me he is also dealing with it here on some level, even if it is just a silly comedy. It’s beneath the surface.

Thankfully, some might say, Chaplin refuses to make it too heavy. At the one moment in the film when it looks as though he might “go there”, he diverts it beautifully at the last second. Millionaire Charlie, just informed by a note that his wife has left him, seems to be heaving great sobs with his back to us. But when he turns around we see that he is just mixing himself a drink in a cocktail shaker (which is doubly amusing because his wife has also instructed him to quit drinking). Similarly, at another potential opportunity for sentiment in the film, when Mack Swain as Edna’s father comes out to apologize to the Tramp for tossing him out, Charlie responds by giving Swain an old fashioned Sennett-era kick in the tuchus before taking his leave.

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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Why Your Friend Might Have to Blow a Certain Popcycle Stand Real Soon

Posted in ME with tags , on September 24, 2014 by travsd

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I don’t know if you’ve caught wind of this, but a certain social media website upon which many or most of have come to rely for online communication has recently announced that they will begin to enforce an official policy of “Real Names Only”, i.e. a policy that only legal names will be permitted as identifying handles on personal pages. So far I’ve sort of kept my head down on the subject, not wanting to call attention to myself and get yanked all of a suddy [sic — it’s a Lennonism]. But it’s bound to happen sooner or later, and anyway I’m pretty pissed off. For all sorts of reasons.

Fundamental….FUNDAMENTAL is that I take issue with this 2010 quote from Mark Zuckerberg (alright, it’s Facebook, but you knew that): “You have one identity… Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

The facetiousness of this shallow billionaire’s flip statement makes my blood boil with rage. It’s simply not true. Simply NOT true. You have one set of fingerprints on your body, and that, my friend, is IT for the singularity. You are one person to your mommy, and another person to your boss, and another person to your lover, and another person to the guy who’s picking a fight with you at the bar, and another person to the old lady you’re holding the door for, and another person to your children, and another person to the telephone operator. We are playing roles every moment of our lives, subtly adjusting ourselves in calibration to every other human being we come in contact with. They’re all facets of ourselves, whichever facet we are choosing to reveal at any given moment, and they’re all equally real. We cease to use profanity when we visit Grandma. We amp it up in the locker room. Right? Or are we going to be hypocrites about it? And if we are going to start to probe into which of those identities, which of those personae is a lie, Mr. Zuckerberg, where do we stop? The White House? The mass media? The door to your office?

We in show business and the theatre know this law of human behavior more than others, because it is our job. And some, such as the people in the drag and burlesque communities know it still better because they have incorporated theatre to an even higher degree into their lives. I obviously live somewhere on that continuum, closer to drag and burlesque artists than most. I use a professional name, and for many of the same reasons many of them do. I chose this identity because I wish to be this, I prefer to be this rather than the unhappy child I left behind. It is the name under which I am trying to enjoy my vaunted “Pursuit of Happiness”, and if you get between me and that name I am going to be very, VERY unhappy indeed. Further, it is the name by which I happen to be known — a much realer identity in fact than the name on my ID card.  When the doctor calls me by real name because that’s what it says on my chart it sounds unfamiliar to me. I feel like saying “Who’s that?” That’s not ME. I get to say who I am. Not you. “Show me your papers” is the very definition of Fascism. I am not going to let your popular play-toy tell me who I AM.

Now, obviously, Facebook is a voluntary association. One I may have to leave. I may be kicked off. That would be a drag, I’ll confess it. I like talking to my friends, but I also use this instrument to communicate with a wider circle of people, to share my writings, and to share information about my shows and public appearances, all of which are conducted under my preferred name. I do not wish to share this stuff under my legal name. The real name? That’s the guy who goes to the dentist appointments, so I have a very good reason for not wanting to be that guy. Not to compare us (except as vaudevillians) but Cary Grant does not conduct his business as Archibald Leach. Are we going to kick the big stars off?

Now I do have a fan page, which Facebook reminds us is an option . It is much clunkier and ineffective to use, unless you can pour tens of thousands worth of advertising dollars into it. Is that their real agenda? Perhaps. But every week or so I receive phony sounding friend requests from suspicious looking pages under Middle Eastern sounding names, which I can only image is some sort of Homeland Security bait. So I can imagine there’s pressure from the government to lock down the rules on this powerful communication tool. And I also remember the bad old days of Myspace, which was over-run by prostitutes. I also get a weekly friend request from those ladies too, politely declined. I can see trying to maintain a little order and civilization in this virtual universe, lest it become the Wild West.

But I ain’t hurting anybody. In fact….um… I promote the work of a lot of artists, and spread a lot of information about history in my own fallible way. I think I’m rather a good citizen in this regard.

But the system won’t even let me strike a compromise. I just tried. I make no secret of my legal name, so I can illustrate what it won’t let me do. It will not allow me to be, for example:

Travis “Trav S.D.” Stewart

or

Travis Stewart (Trav S.D.)

Can’t even do THAT!

Long story short, my presence at the very least may well soon be drastically and suddenly reduced.

But that’s my story.

My friends in the drag and burlesque communities have their own, very good reasons (beyond the existential one we share) for keeping their legal and public personalities separate. My old friend Dottie Lux has articulated those reasons very well here: http://21stcenturyburlesque.com/facebook-real-name-policy-meeting-drag-queens-performers-dottie-lux/

Here’s another good piece on the subject: http://www.towleroad.com/2014/09/facebook-begins-enforcing-real-name-policy-disproportionately-affecting-glbt-performers.html

Here’s the actual policy that’s going to be enforced.

And here is the inevitable petition to sign. 

I obviously won’t disappear completely online even if my personal page gets trashed. You can subscribe here at Travalanche (as I hope you already have)! And I also reach out and can be reached via other social media: Twitter, Google +, etc. And there’s the FB Fan Page, such as it is. But don’t go lookin’ for no “Travis Stewart” Facebook page. That shit ain’t happenin’. And anyway…my real first name is Donald – – and that’ll be a cold day in hell.

Buster Keaton in “The Three Ages”

Posted in Buster Keaton, Comedy, Hollywood (History), Movies, Silent Film with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2014 by travsd

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Today is the anniversary of the release date of Buster Keaton’s first feature length film The Three Ages (1923).

Keaton cleverly designed it as a parody of D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance, which had told four stories from as many historical time periods, highlighting the similarities between human struggles across the centuries. In The Three Ages Keaton plays a “young man in love” in prehistoric times, during the Roman Empire, and the present day (1923). Keaton was hedging his bets in this manner; if the feature didn’t sell he could always break it up into three shorts and sell those. The heavy in all three sections was Wallace Beery, and the love interest a young lady named Margaret Leahy, who’d become a film actress by winning a contest. (This was her only film.)

To learn more about comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Mediaalso available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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To learn about the history of vaudevilleconsult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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