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Packaging Welles

Excerpt from Michele Hilmes, Radio Voices: American Broadcasting 1922-1952. (University of Minnesota Press, 1997.), pp. 218-228. With minor edits by the author.

By 1938, Orson Welles's reputation as the boy genius of the New York stage had been secured. With his repertory company, the Mercury Theater, Welles had mounted a series of acclaimed productions, including the groundbreaking "Negro Macbeth," The Cradle Will Rock, and Dr. Faustus, directed for the WPA. Dramatist, actor, director, and producer, in his theatrical efforts Welles truly did perform all the roles that Lux's DeMille took false credit for. In addition, Welles had made his radio debut a few years earlier on CBS in the March of Time series, followed by several well-received performances on CBS's Columbia Workshop and also, in 1937, as the voice of Lamont Cranston, The Shadow. Shortly, Hollywood would call, with its extraordinary offer that resulted in Citizen Kane. Welles's personal reputation for cultural genius reached its peak in May 1938, when his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine; inside, a caption read "Marvelous Boy." (76)

On the radio front, President Roosevelt's exploration of radio's public address potential had resulted in increased controversy over the appropriate social and political role of the broadcast medium. The networks, at first trying "to please the administration by donating time for administration speeches and supporting the New Deal recovery efforts" (77) and allocating extensive network coverage to the president's Fireside Chars and activities of the executive branch, found themselves once again under fire as custodians of the national voice, particularly because many of their affiliates were owned by newspaper interests deeply opposed to Roosevelt's New Deal policies. In return, Roosevelt made the cross-ownership of radio stations by newspapers an issue of personal concern and closely supervised appointments to the FCC and the station licensing process. By 1938, it was clear that Roosevelt would support the reopening of the commercial network monopoly question, as indeed happened in 1940. Once again the networks sought to divert attention from radio's political pitfalls by emphasizing its important cultural function. CBS was the first to recognize the confluence of its own need for cultural standing and the value of the persona "Orson Welles" as a cultural commodity.

In the summer of 1938, CBS contracted with Welles for a weekly dramatic series to begin in July. Hailed in network press releases as "one of the youngest and ablest of this generation's actor-directors" and acknowledged as the leader of the Mercury Theater, "the most virile and exciting of the new theater movements," Welles, with his troupe, would present nine hour-length broadcasts on Monday nights at 9:00 beginning on July 11 (replacing The Lux Radio Theatre for the summer). According to the network:

Welles has been given carte blanche to choose his own medium and his own subjects, and stated he will reveal the precise nature of the presentations within the near future. The programs are to have the general title of "First Person Singular" and, besides being their star actor, Welles will write, cast, direct and produce the series. The entire Mercury Theater company will be at Welles' disposal and he will have a free hand in the selection of material and technique.

To dispel any lingering doubts that the author of this series would be Orson Welles and no other, the network went on to promise: "No Columbia director will be assigned to the broadcasts, but Davidson Taylor of the CBS program department is to act as general supervisor to coordinate the resources which will be placed at Welles' command." (78) And lest the cultural mission of this enterprise be at all suspect, a second press release reassured:

For what is believed to be the first time in radio history an entire series of programs will be devoted to the great stories of classic and contemporary literature written in the first person singular and enacted as the experience of an individual. ... Although Welles has not yet revealed what classics he will select, he expects to explore fields of literature heretofore untouched by radio and bring to that medium the same spirit of adventure which he brought to the theater last season. (79)

This repetition of the words "classics" and "literature" sought to distinguish this dramatic program from the stuff of everyday original radio drama and comedy, and to bestow on it the same aura of cultural legitimacy that Welles's authorial presence sought to guarantee.

John Houseman's memoirs make it clear that this construction of Welles as author supreme rested at least partially on the same kind of fiction as DeMille's direction of Lux. At first Welles, fascinated with this new medium, exerted his authorial control over all aspects of production, from writing to sound effects. Houseman describes the process of selecting and condensing the initial First Person Singular broadcast. Having first selected the classic Treasure Island, Welles left it to Houseman-- who was totally unfamiliar with radio-- to educate himself in the art of radio script writing and streamline the story into something resembling fifty minutes. However, less than a week before the broadcast, Welles determined that a much more impressive debut could be had with Dracula -- from the original by Bram Stoker. By late afternoon two days before the first scheduled rehearsal, Welles and Houseman had barricaded themselves behind a pile of cut-and-pasted excerpts at nearby Reuben's delicatessen, emerging triumphantly the next day with a completed script only hours before rehearsal: "Then, just before nine, as a few early birds appeared for breakfast and the streets outside came to life, we nailed down the Count, with a burnt stake through his heart, and rose from our table. Three days later Dracula went on the air as the opener of what was to become a legendary radio series." (80)

From the beginning, Welles had sought to draw on his association with the culturally legitimate to open up a sphere of aesthetics and performance unique to radio-- to use his cultural credentials to create a new kind of form and, as we shall see, a new kind of authorship. Initial press releases quote him as saying:

I think it is time ... that radio came to realize the fact that no matter how wonderful a play may be for the stage it cannot be as wonderful for the air. The Mercury Theater has no intention of producing its stage repertoire in these broadcasts. Instead, we plan to bring to radio the experimental techniques which have proved so successful in another medium and to treat radio itself with the intelligence and respect such a beautiful and powerful medium deserves. (81)

Later, on the occasion of the first broadcast of the program under Campbell Soup sponsorship, Welles responded to the announcer's invitation to "give us a word or two about the play" by making the distinction clear: "Gladly, Mr. Hill, but if you'll pardon me it's not a play, it's a story. You see, I think that radio broadcasting is different from motion pictures and the theater and I'd like to keep it that way. The Campbell Playhouse is situated in a regular studio, not a theater. There's only one illusion I'd like to create: the illusion of the story." (82 )

An even greater illusion was that of authorship itself in this new medium, as Welles would soon learn, but meantime the Mercury Theater company experimented with forms of narrative and ways of framing both dramatic storytelling and audience positioning that truly did create a unique voice in radio. For the initial production of Dracula, Welles, Houseman, et al. told the story in the form of diary excerpts, both read and enacted, in which Welles played the roles of both doctor and narrator. In closing, Welles replaced the usual interview or commercial plug, usually done in first person and addressed to the audience in second person, with a twist of the narrative frame. First reassuring listeners that this is just a fiction and need not worry them, Welles tells them that they can turn off the radio and go to bed. But then a wolf howls, and he goes on: "That's alright, you can rest peacefully, that's just sound effects .... There! Over there in the shadows-- see? It's nothing ... nothing at all. ... But remember, ladies and gentlemen [and here Welles falls into his Count Dracula accent], there are wolves ... there are vampires ... such things do exist." (83) This mixture of self-conscious showmanship, direct address, and fictional frame were rarely attempted and virtually never achieved as successfully as by Welles.

For the next broadcast, an adaptation of John Buchan's The Thirty­-Nine Steps, the production eschewed the typical first-person narrative introduction and plunged directly into straight dramatic action. Only twenty minutes into the show did Welles turn to the microphone as combination narrator/character, saying, "This is the fellow speaking ... the fellow with the brown paper parcel and the cut across his knuckles. This is what he [Hannay, the main character] said .... " (84) At this point, the narration switched to Hannay's voice, though it was performed by Welles in both cases. Here the Mercury program created a complex type of address to the audience that at once played with standard radio narrational and formal codes and used them to create an even tighter illusion of dramatic reality.

By the end of September, Welles's time and attention were far more taken up with the impending disaster of his theatrical production Danton's Death. Houseman continued to supervise most of the radio series's writing and editing, making selections of material with Welles's approval: "The material was chosen by Welles and myself on the basis of contrast and personal preference with occasional suggestions from the outside. In each case we would discuss the tone and mood of the production and then I would go off and write it." (85) Howard Koch had been hired as additional scriptwriter, assisted by Ann Froelich, with Paul Stewart as associate producer and working director. Already Welles, though participating at some points in selection and writing, and with all decisions subject to his approval, was fully participating in the production of the program only at the final dress rehearsal and in the actual performance. Here, however, his contributions were essential and truly characteristic:

Sundays, at eight, we went on the air. Beginning in the early afternoon ... two simultaneous dramas were unfolded each week in the stale, tense air of CBS Studio One: The minor drama of the current show and the major drama of Orson's titanic struggle to get it on. Sweating, howling, disheveled, and singlehanded he wrestled with chaos and time-- always conveying an effect of being alone, traduced by his collaborators, surrounded by treachery, ignorance, sloth, indifference, incompetence and-- more often than not-- downright sabotage. Every Sunday it was touch and go. As the hands of the clock moved relentlessly toward air time the crisis grew more extreme .... Scripts and scores flew through the air, doors were slammed, batons smashed. Scheduled for six-- but usually nearer seven-- there was a dress rehearsal, a thing of wild improvisations and irrevocable catastrophes.

After that, with only a few minutes to go, there was a final frenzy of correction and reparation, of utter confusion and absolute horror, aggravated by the gobbling of sandwiches and the bolting of oversized milkshakes. By now it was less than a minute to air time.

At that instant, quite regularly week after week, with not a second to spare, the buffoonery stopped. Suddenly out of chaos, the show emerged--­ delicately poised, meticulously executed, precise as clockwork, smooth as satin. And above us all, like a rainbow over storm clouds, stood Orson on his podium, sonorous and heroic, a leader of men surrounded by his band of loyal followers; a giant in action, serene and radiant with the joy of a hard battle bravely fought, a great victory snatched from the jaws of disaster. (86)

Other properties selected for treatment the first season included the postponed Treasure Island, A Tale of Two Cities, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Count of Monte Cristo, and G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday. (87)

The shows's ratings, though respectable, climbed to rival Lux only after the famous War of the Worlds broadcast on October 30, 1938. Welles and Houseman had selected the property and Howard Koch and Ann Froelich did the condensing and scripting, with Houseman's assistance. The Thursday before the broadcast, a recording was made of the first rehearsal, and the writing team plus director Paul Stewart made further changes: "We all agreed that its only chance of coming off lay in emphasizing its newscast style-- its simultaneous, eyewitness quality." (88) Welles arrived from the theater after the Saturday rehearsal had ended, and so confronted the material for the first time on the night of the broadcast. Houseman credits Welles with the direction, pacing, and vocal emphasis that led to the very marked impact of the show. "His sense of tempo, that night, was infallible .... The broadcast ... had its own reality, the reality of emotionally felt time and space." (89)  This reality was attested to by the panic reaction that soon came crashing down on the heads of the Mercury Theater troupe, resolving into days of publicity, several lawsuits against the network, and, for Orson Welles, a landmark offer from RKO to direct a film in Hollywood with as much freedom and reliance on the Welles reputation as CBS had promised.

Also as a result of the War of the Worlds phenomenon, in December CBS managed to attract a sponsor for the program-- almost simultaneously with the closing of the Mercury Theater, defeated by overly elaborate productions, poor reviews, and Welles's increasing absence. After an obligatory visit to the Camden, New Jersey, soup plant, Welles and his remaining troupe now became the spokesmen for the Campbell's Soup Company, no longer under CBS's arms-length control but supervised by Ward Wheelock, president of Campbell's ad agency. The Mercury Theater of the Air had become the Campbell Playhouse. Now the meetings to decide upcoming productions included not only Welles and Houseman but also Wheelock and other agency executives. Not only did commercials have to be worked into each week's program, Welles and guest stars were required to make product plugs along the same lines as those done on the Lux program. And pressure to popularize the program's literary selections began to be felt.  Wheelock had performed a survey for Campbell prior to proposing sponsorship; according to its findings, members of the public surveyed preferred more movie adaptations featuring film stars, less use of the first-person narrative, and less Welles. (90)

The new series debuted on December 9, 1938, with an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's best-selling novel Rebecca. Campbell and Wheelock clearly had set out to walk that delicate cultural line between the popular and the authorized. The program opened with a full biography of Orson Welles, dwelling on his artistry and genius and making good use of his War of the Worlds fame. To emphasize further the show's cultural claims, the show's announcer-- not Welles, but a commercial spokesman-- made this appeal:

You know the manufacturers of Campbell's soup don't believe in all this talk about the radio audience having the average intelligence mentality of an eight year old child. They think the radio listeners are the same people who go to the pictures and to the theater and who read books. They reason that even the most popular radio entertainment should be addressed to the adult population citizenry of America. (91)

The announcer then brought out Orson Welles, not to comment on soup or radio itself, but to introduce the evening's dramatic selection. But at the end of the broadcast, after a commercial for Campbell's soup made by the announcer, Welles introduced Margaret Sullavan, the star of the production, and with Daphne du Maurier herself contributing by shortwave connection, they discussed not only the upcoming Selznick film production of Rebecca, but the sponsor's product. Sullavan herself was required to deliver the plug, "You know, two things I like very much are good stories and good soup. And when I tell you my idea of a great soup-- that's Campbell's chicken soup­-- that, Mr. Welles, is no story." Welles replied, "I'm glad you feel that way. Nice of you to say so." Now, as John Houseman put it:

Welles, in addition to being "producer, writer, director, star and narrator" of the Campbell Playhouse now became its leading salesman: he assumed the role of a sophisticated world traveler who, having savored all the greatest broths and potages of the civilized world, still returned with joy and appreciation to Campbell's delicious chicken-and-rice, tomato and pea. (92)

It was a role from which Welles would increasingly distance himself.

Campbell, however, was pleased enough with the critical and ratings success its venture enjoyed that it renewed at the end of the spring season. Among the selections discussed for possible broadcast from June to December 1939 were Wuthering Heights, The Philadelphia Story, The Little Foxes, and Make Way for Tomorrow-- an interesting list in that all were based on original novels or plays, but their marketability to audiences depended on their publicity as films recently released or currently in production in Hollywood. Yet this connection was played down in press releases announcing the new series, and its cultural legitimacy emphasized with such phrases as "the list of its broadcasts reads like a library of the world's best books" and "bringing to the microphone the great books as well as the most famous stage plays of the world."

Meantime, Howard Koch and Ann Froelich had left the program with offers from Hollywood, and Houseman and Paul Stewart resumed primary responsibility for broadcasts, with Welles appearing only on the night of the live program, now Fridays at 9:00. In June, Welles received his stunning offer from RKO and departed for the coast. Campbell's resisted the suggestion that the show's production shift to Los Angeles as well, so for most of the fall season of 1939 Houseman produced the program in New York while Welles flew in once a week for the broadcast. Not until November did Campbell's "relent" and allow the show to move West. But in December, Welles and Houseman had a dramatic and long-in-the-making falling out that resulted in Houseman's withdrawal from the program. By February 1940, despite Welles's efforts to keep the show going-- and to preserve the only regular income he now had, in the wake of his now-legendary filmic difficulties-- Campbell's resigned from sponsorship and Welles was off the air. His peculiar compromise between high culture and commercialism, bound up in the authorial persona, would soon come back to haunt him.

In late 1939 sociologist Hadley Cantril embarked on a detailed study of the War of the Worlds broadcast and its impact, under the aegis of the Princeton Office of Radio Research. Along with the results of his surveys and analysis of the panic's causes and effects, Cantril wished to publish a complete version of the radio script. As it was eventually published, the table of contents of Cantril's study contains, under its heading "The Broadcast," the attribution "Script by Howard Koch." In his introduction, Cantril mentions that "Howard Koch has kindly permitted us to publish for the first time his brilliant adaptation of the War of the Worlds" and further chips away at Welles's facade of authorship with this seemingly innocuous introductory narrative: "At eight p.m. eastern standard time on the evening of October 30, 1938, Orson Welles with an innocent little group of actors took his place before the microphone in a New York studio of the Columbia Broadcasting System. He carried with him Howard Koch's freely adapted version of H. G. Wells's imaginative novel, War of the Worlds. "' (93) Using the traditional means of ascribing authorship-- and ignoring all that radio's unique circumstances added to the complexity of this culturally weighted definition-- Cantril came down clearly on the side of Koch, reducing Welles to mere bearer of the script. When Cantril in April 1940 applied for permission to publish in this form, Welles objected vehemently to this cultural intervention, calling it "an error so grave, and in my opinion so detrimental to my own reputation that I cannot in all fairness speak well of it until some reparation is made" and "something worse than merely untrue." Cantril offered several emendations, including "Script ideas and development by Orson Welles assisted by John Houseman and Mercury Theatre staff and written by Howard Koch under the direction of Mr. Welles." This was too elaborate and still incorrect, according to Welles; after an urgent exchange of telegrams he declared bluntly: "Can see no conceivable reason for your steadfast refusal to believe The War of the Worlds was not only my conception but also, properly and exactly speaking, my creation. Once again, finally, and I promise for the last time, Howard Koch did not write The War of the Worlds. Any statement to this effect is untrue and immeasurably detrimental to me." (94) Cantril, with ample evidence to the contrary (as far as the traditional evidence of "writing" was concerned) from Houseman's secretary and the other contributors, held his ground; the attribution stood and in the end very little fallout occurred-- because by the time the book achieved circulation, Welles's reputation-saving masterpiece Citizen Kane made good on all the postponed promise of genius. Here again, however, the problem of authorship would later rear its head. (95)

What made the matter so urgent in Welles's eyes? One of his biographers, Simon Callow, offers this explanation:

The note of desperation is explained by his public standing at that moment .... He was surfing on a tidal wave of publicity which threatened to engulf him, since there was nothing visible to justify it; his most recent work in the theatre had passed either unnoticed or unloved, his radio programme, though commanding solid audience figures, generated little excitement. None of his Hollywood projects had materialised. The War of the Worlds was, in effect, his only real claim to widespread fame: it was the reason that he was in Hollywood at all, the real reason that he had been able to negotiate the famous contract, the only living proof of his multi-faceted genius. The revelation that he had not actually written it would deprive his image of one of its crucial dimensions, making him look a fraud; the discovery that the whole thing had been an accident would have finished him off for good. (96)

Welles had come squarely up against the bottom-line situation of the artist as commodity: the very conditions that made his authorial persona possible worked at every moment to undercut it; his artistic viability rested on an artificial construction of singular genius, from the beginning an impossible mongrel creation of inherently oppositional circumstances. Radio's characteristic compromise between the vulgar popular and the sacralized cultural produced a hybrid constantly under attack from both sides, with Welles and the territory he had sought to carve out for himself squeezed desperately in the middle. Citizen Kane's impressive debut quieted this dilemma, but only temporarily.

Welles went on to do a substantial amount of work in radio, a chapter of his career that still has not been sufficiently examined. After a hiatus during which Citizen Kane was created, Welles returned to the air in 1941 with his new Orson Welles Almanac for Lady Esther products. This program represented the realization of an idea Welles had developed as early as 1935, with plans to distribute via transcription through Ziv productions. The 1941 version again featured Welles as showman and personality, using his persona to unite a mixed bag of stories, dramatic readings, and guest interviews. During the 1940s he made numerous appearances on other popular radio shows, including those hosted by Jack Benny, Fred Allen, Edgar Bergen, and Bob Hope. He served as guest host on Fred Allen's show in the summer of 1943. During the war years, Welles produced and starred in Ceiling Unlimited and Hello Americans, both patriotic efforts for audiences at home and abroad, respectively. Orson Welles Almanac would return to the air under different sponsors and guises twice more: once in 1944, sponsored by the Mobil Oil Company as more or less a celebrity inter­view show, and again in 1945, as a political commentary program that ran until October 1946 under the sponsorship of Lear Incorporated. Two more programs returned to the dramatic format: This Is My Best, which Welles began on in March but was fired from in April, and the Mercury Summer Theater from June to September 1946. (97)

Yet the Welles with whom most Americans became familiar was not the actor/dramatist working, however untraditionally, in drama or discussion under the aegis of his own name, but the celebrity who made guest appearances on the most popular shows. On such programs his status as recognized cultural commodity could be gently parodied, usually by Welles himself. In this appearance on The Fred Allen Show in 1942, after an elaborate setup in which various Welles underlings appear to make sure conditions are exactly right for the grand star, Allen addresses Welles's genius image:

Allen: l always pictured you as a man from another planet, a transcendentalist, a genius,  a legend in the making-- and here you are, joking and laughing with little old egg-laying me.

Welles: Fred, I wish somebody would do something about this Superman myth the public has swallowed about me. It's embarrassing. After all, I'm just an ordinary guy.

A summary of Welles's "ordinary" childhood and early career follows, which reveals him entering Northwestern University at the age of five, majoring in Esperanto, graduating at age seven, magna cum laude, hanging around with Einstein until they fell out over the theory of relativity, then resigning from the Smithsonian Institute at the age of twelve and going into the theater. Now, at last, he is looking for a partner for his new radio program and has settled on Fred Allen. Their first production will be Les Miserables, which Allen agrees to run through on his program. The play is introduced:

Orchestra (Heavy dramatic music ... Fades)

Welles: (Dramatic) Les Miserables! Victor Hugo's immortal story of a soul transfigured and redeemed, through suffering. This is an Orson Welles production.

Announcer: Radio version of Les Miserables prepared by--­

Welles: Orson Welles!

Announcer: Directed by--

Welles: Orson Welles!

Announcer: Starring--

Welles: Orson Welles! During Orson Welles' presentation of Les Miserables, Mr. Welles will be assisted by that sterling dramatic actor of stage, screen, and radio, Mr.--

Orchestra: (Heavy dramatic music ... Fades quickly)

Not only is his name omitted, but as the skit progresses Allen's contributions prove to amount to a knock on the door, the blowing of a whistle, and a gurgle, while Welles carries the production. (98)

However, by 1941, pressing issues other than artistic integrity or definitions of high culture had begun to preoccupy the radio industry, and indeed the American public. These issues would not be forgotten, nor would the conflicted realm of gender, racial, and ethnic distinctions that radio so precariously controlled during its first two decades be simply set aside. Rather, the nationalizing and unifying capacities of this now established medium would be put to a new test, with higher stakes than ever before. As the war in Europe rumbled ominously on the margins of radio practice, definitions of American identity and lines of difference-- not only between groups of Americans but between the United States and its enemies abroad-- began to place a new set of demands on the industry, its regulators, program practices, and the listening public, now a citizenry unified by war but deeply divided by the very cultural categories and exclusions that radio itself had promoted and sustained.



76. Time, May 6, 1938.

77. Betty Houchin Winfield, FDR and the News Media (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994 ), 109.

78. Columbia Broadcasting System, "Orson Welles, Mercury Theater to Present Nine 1-Hour CBS Broadcasts, "June 9, 1938, box 7, folder 22, Welles.

79. CBS, "Welles to Dramatize Great First Person Stories in CBS Series," June 15, 1938, box 7, folder 22, Welles.

80. John Houseman, Run Through (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 364.

81. Columbia Broadcasting System, "Orson Welles."

82. Rebecca, Campbell Playhouse broadcast, December 9, 1938, tape 11-1, Welles.

83. Dracula, Mercury Theater of the Air broadcast, July 11, 1938, tape 1-1, Welles.

84. The Thirty-Nine Steps (rehearsal), Mercury Theater of the Air broadcast, August 1, 1938, tape 3-1, Welles.

85. Houseman, Run Through, 368.

86. Ibid., 392.

87. Ibid., 368.

88. Ibid., 393.

89. Ibid., 402.

90. Report on survey, Campbell Playhouse 1939-40. box 7, folder 24, Welles. Previously, the Mercury Theater had tried to distance itself from movie adaptations; it was careful to declare the broadcast of The Thirty-Nine Steps as "from the book itself and solely for radio presentation." Box 7, folder 22, Welles.

91. Rebecca, Campbell Playhouse broadcast.

92. Houseman, Run Through, 413.

93. Hadley Cantril, The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1947), 3.

94. Quoted in Simon Callow, Orson Welles: The Road to Xanadu (London: Jona­than Cape, 1995), 490,491.

95. A similar conflict arose over Welles's collaboration with Herman J. Mankiewicz and the Citizen Kane script. See Pauline Kael, The Citizen Kane Book: Raising Kane (Boston: Little, Brown, 1971).

96. Callow, Orson Welles, 491-92.

97. One biographer attributes Welles's precipitous departure from This Is My Best to a "personality conflict" with an agency executive who accused Welles of conflict of interest in selecting properties to adapt with an eye to future film projects "and not be­cause it was 'good radio."' Frank Brady, Citizen Welles (New York: Scribner's, 1989), 381. By far the best source of information on Welles's radio career is the Museum of Broadcasting's Orson Welles on the Air: The Radio Years (New York: Museum of Broad­casting, 1988).

98. Allen, Treadmill to Oblivion, 135-51.




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