Shales on TV Live: Jerry Lewis telethon, more

Tom Shales
Washington Post TV Columnist
Wednesday, September 8, 2010; 12:00 PM

Washington Post Style columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Tom Shales was online Wednesday, Sept. 8, at Noon ET to discuss television, its cultural impact and his columns.

Today's column: As Jerry Lewis and his telethon age, the antics and drama also grow (Post, Sept. 8)

Shales, The Washington Post's chief television critic for 30 years, is the author of several books, including "On the Air," "Legends" and "Live From New York." His column, "Shales on TV," appears in the paper every Tuesday.

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Tom Shales: Hello sorry to be a little late. Of eighty comments this morning on my Jerry Lewis piece, many accused me of attacking this dear old man. PLEASE! I am one of the few journalists in the country who has never attacked him, at least not in modern times. Three years ago he called me and asked me to come and watch the telethon and process all the way through, for a few days, in Vegas, but I couldn't go. Once he read one of my reviews on the air. He likes me. I like him. I am worried to see him old and to see the battle scars a little more prominent. One reader wrote hatefully, get this, that not even my mother will shed a tear when I die. Jeez, people can be rough on a guy! Onward, fearlessly and without being too discouraged.........

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Columbia, Md.: I can remember growing up in the 60s the telethon was a must- see. And since it was on for 24 hours you watched a lot of it on and off. I haven't seen any of it in years and I wonder if today's young people even know who Jerry Lewis is?

Tom Shales: Maybe they know that Eddie Murphy remade one of Jerry's movies, "The Nutty Professor" (and made a lot more money doing it) with Jerry's permission and, supposedly help, though it's hard to imagine the two of them at a rewrite meeting together. Such different generations. I love Jerry Lewis largely for the TV shows he did in the '50s, when he was the original wild and crazy guy. In one old clip, he makes fun of himself as a "temperamental artiste," physically assaulting one of the show's writers -- shaking him up, giving him mock-slaps, leaving him totally disheveled. The writer: Norman Lear.

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Mac: If you have trouble using a Macintosh computer you must really have a hard time with a PC. Macs are so much easier. And it is Mac not MAC. And guess what, they work.

Tom Shales: Sorry I just had to give up on that insane monstrous and VERY BOSSY MAC, I mean Mac. One of the most inferior but attractive machines I ever met. All styling and no substance. Utterly illogical commands and controls. I hated that thing more than I hate - uhhhh -- broccoli.

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Philadelphia, Pa.: Hi Tom, I always enjoy your columns and this one was no exception. With regard to Jerry Lewis, I know he has raised like 3 billion and God bless him, but I couldn't help but notice how obnoxious he was to his technical crew and staff on camera. I cannot imagine how overbearing and obnoxious he was when he was at the height of his fame and influence. I am not sure his age and the crankiness that comes with it played a part here-it seems to me he always was like that. Do you have any knowledge or insight to this aspect of his character?

Tom Shales: There are SCORES of stories about Jerry being mean to staff, to subordinates, even to the children themselves. And his style of dealing with children who have some form of neuro-muscular disease -- making them objects of pity -- has been widely criticized in recent years. I think he has toned down the maudlin shmaltz though. His sequences with the kids are now mostly upbeat. Of course if he gives the impression everything is dandy, nobody will send any money. Jerry and the Telethon have weather innumerable charges over the years, but, unapologetically, he keeps on keeping on, for which I admire him.... thanks for the question/comment

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Floris, Va.: Begging for dollars doesn't cut it for me and is why a national health-care plan is on its way.

Tom Shales: It's kind of slowly on its way, isn't it? In the days when Lewis started, there were many telethons for various diseases, I think most of them based on the success that Lewis had. Steve Allen, a witty satirist and comic, finally got sick of all the overkill and staged a mock-telethon for "Prickly-Heat," designed to rid humanity of his ghastly scourge. Who knows though but that there may be a bed bug telethon right around the corner.......

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Las Vegas, Nev.: Do you see another younger celebrity ready to take over for Jerry when he finally leaves the MD Telethon? Seems like a perfect opportunity for the network - -a talent show that raises money for a cause instead of those that just raise money for the network. Whaddya think?

Tom Shales: Honestly, no, because that "Love Network" is not what it used to be. In a more competitive era, stations are less inclined to give Jerry those 21.5 hours of their air time - even tho Labor Day Weekend is traditionally a low-viewing period. Who could sustain a show that long and raise money? I don't think MDA would even be interested. They would drop the telethon and rely on other methods of fund-raising, especially since what someone called "begging for money" rubs so many people the wrong way. Public TV has sort of disgraced the telethon idea with its insufferable pledge drives...........

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Washington, D.C.: Why has the week after Labor Day turned into "bash Jerry Lewis week?"

I know the guy doesn't really come into the public eye aside from this one occassion, but the guy puts himself out there in good faith to perform a good deed, and the media spends more time pointing out his flubs, gaffes and washed-uptitude than the results that he gets from his annual telethon. Half of the stories that appear this week could have been written a decade ago, but they just keep appearing. A similar thing is starting to happen on the week after New Year's Eve as everyone takes their shots at Dick Clark.

It's one thing to criticize the programs from an entertainment perspective, but is it really necessary to recycle the same story every year about these guys?

I really thought you were better than this Tom.

Tom Shales: Oh what are you talking about - "bashing". For years now I have been writing pro-Jerry pieces and this was another one. One commenter said I didn't even have the decency to state how much money was raised this year. IT WAS RIGHT THERE IN THE STORY, including how much money he raised last year. Maybe I really AM getting old if I write what I think is a touching tribute and people go bananas thinking it's a vicious attack. One or two commenters to the Post seemed to understand, and God bless 'em. I think people just see "Jerry Lewis" in print and ASSUME he is being attacked! I probably wouldn't have written this year except for his very unusual pre-telethon comments re Lindsay Lohan and the fact that Jerry seems finally to be showing his age. A little. OK, more than a little -- but I'm not BLAMING him for that, for God's sakes. I am taking note of it.......

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Arlington, Va.: I know that the Jerry Lewis telethon is a tradition, but how does it compare with the more spontaneous telethons that pop up after a major disaster? I can't say I bother to watch either, but it does seem that a one time event is able to draw more support than the older, unsolved problems.

Tom Shales: Many examples have popped up in recent years. Of course you always have to wonder how much of the money will really go to the charity. MDA has been criticized in years past for spending too much of what's raised on, I don't know, potted plants for the office or lunches for corporate sponsors or whatever. But there are horror stories, too, about government programs designed to aid people in need and you find out 10 per cent of the money got to the needy and the rest, who knows......

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JL opposed to ADA?: I can't verify something I read, that Jerry Lewis opposed the Americans with Disabilities act. Is this true? There are plenty of people with MD (including some former "Jerry's Kids" featured on the telethon) who deplore his approach to disabilities. That itself does not concern me overmuch. If you do anything at all, someone won't like it. But opposing the ADA is a real problem for me. Thanks.

Tom Shales: This I have not heard. But I have a feeling Emily Yahr, executive vice president and Chief Operating Office of the TV Team Inc. (well we haven't quite Inc.'d it yet) may be Googling this right now - or not, since the inter-office version of this thing doesn't work. Oh well - I try, people.

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Montgomery Village, Md.: Mr Shales I, too, remember the telethon during the 60s when it was on one of only three or four stations in a given viewing area. Not much else to watch, especially if it rained on Labor Day weekend. He also featured people who were popular at the time or at least had heard of. I understand in those days, most if not all stations gave him the 18-20 hours of air time free. That began to change and he went to weaker/smaller stations to keep costs down. Does he get any free air now? Also, much of the total donations are raised months in advance from cause related marketing. Those are the big guys, Burger King, Budweiser, etc., who get the most air time to present their checks. Finally, I stopped giving and watching when one year he bagan threatening to tell stories about some of the big casino owners who weren't sufficiently -- in his mind -- ponying up with big checks. What kind of ratings does he get now with so many viewing options?

Tom Shales: Ratings are kind of irrelevant since the telethon runs through several of what Nielsen calls "dayparts" -- i.e., morning, early-morning, prime time, prime access, etc. I haven't seen a figure on viewers in years but then it's the dollar count that, well, counts. Yes the corporate things make me a little queasy too, and the way they are dragged out: "Jerry, here is our third and final check..." when it could all have been included in one. Then again, the volunteer work of groups like the firefighters is very touching and deserves more than a single mention, don't you think? I just don't think we have the resources right here to investigate the many moral issues involved in the mere concept of a telethon, much less the specifics of this one.

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Jerry's Maudlin Shmaltz: I can't see Jerry Lewis without remembering Martin Short's wicked impersonation of him on SCTV. Did the telethon use to start the night before and run overnight? The 3 am Jerry Lewis rants were the best.

And "Jerry's Maudlin Shmaltz" is a great name for a rock band.

Tom Shales: Hah!! Thank you. Remember Gary Lewis & the Playboys, with one of Jerry's actual kids? I used to tune in around 3 or 4 a.m. myself 'cause that's when you'd see the awful impressionists, the wildly retro animal and magic acts -- it was like Vaudeville in the Haunted House, all these remnants of yesteryear that one might have thought had disappeared. Even Jerry disappeared sometimes in the middle of the night. The poor guy had to sleeps sometime......Oh and some stations don't start the telethon from the actual beginning, they wait until 9 or 10 p.m. the night before.....I think Jerry starts quite a bit earlier than that......

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Fort Worth, Tex.: What's the best way to see clips of Jerry Lewis from the '50s? Related question: Why do some vintage variety shows hold up ("Your Show of Shows") while others don't (Skelton, Gleason)?

Tom Shales: I am sure there's a page or two on YouTube. Just yesterday I was trying to tear myself away from a page full of Game Show Bloopers (yes, I am SO ashamed) and, on a somewhat higher plane, a bunch of Johnny Carson and a few Jack Paar clips from "The Tonight Show." One rare Johnny clip, from Dec. 63 when he was still in New York (and Skitch Henderson was his bandleader, as he'd been for Steve Allen), had Johnny doing a monologue with virtually NO topical jokes. Reason: it was barely a month after the Kennedy Assassination and the country had not returned to "normal."

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Martin and Lewis question: Not exactly related to the topic at hand, but close enough (and I've always wanted to know the answer):

Martin and Lewis were apparently huge stars on the nightclub circuit. When they did shows at a club, were they "bluer" than on TV? Did they do more risque or even raunchy material?

Tom Shales: From what I've heard and seen, it was very gay. No, I'm kidding, although actually, there was a kind of odd subtext to the whole conceit -- Dean the debonair adult male looking after Jerry the wiry nutty kid, who would jump into Dean's arms (they were both in better shape), plus much hugging, mock kissing (not as much male-male kissing as in media today, for whatever THAT's worth), corporal punishment -- let's face it, it was weird. The short answer of course is I don't know. I remember hearing that people would plunk down $100 in Vegas to hear Johnny say the F word. And there are tapes of Johnny doing bluer material than he could do on the air. Martin and Lewis were probably suggestive without being truly risque.... They were truly huge at the Paramount Theater in New york - big movie palaces had stage shows before the feature in major cities. There the audience was largely kids and I am sure Martin & Lewis were 100% clean.

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Burnt Hills, N.Y.: Hi Tom: Anyone who thought your column today was bashing Jerry Lewis wasn't really reading. The piece made me sad and nostalgic for the Lewis of my youth. This was the first year I didn't tune it for at least a few minutes, because I couldn't bear the thought of Jerry talking about Ed McMahon, as this was the first telethon since Ed died.

Tom Shales: I thought last year's was -- Emily? Emily? I feel like I am conducting a seance here. I can't really Google and run this ship at the same time. But you can Google AND contribute so if anyone can contribute definite answers, they are always very welcome. Frankly, toward the end, Ed needed a telethon himself, having lost his house to the bank and, like many of us, gone broke.

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Labor Day Telethon: Now that we have cable, does anyone still watch this? I'm sorta surprised to learn it's still on.

Tom Shales: But it's on a cable network or two! You know, a lot of cable is just broadcast TV rehashed, recycled or "re-imagined."

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Speaking of pledge-a-thons: When is PBS finally going to give up on big bands and 50s music?

Tom Shales: But wait -- they also have doo-wop and Bobby Vinton. Or something. Hey, I've been known to get sentimental and watch those things -- for 20 minutes, until the pitching begins. Then I wander off....... I think it can be touching to see the old groups reformed, though what they often don't tell you is that few if any of the original members may have survived and be up there on that stage.......

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Greencastle, Ind.: I read your JL article as respectful; one only has to see Jerry on other (rare) appearances to see that he's not aging gracefully, not that Jerry "should." In all the years and all the dollars, besides the accusations of exploitation, has his fund-raising ever been found to be unethical? Compared to how our government blows "relief aid," it's almost a model citizen.

Tom Shales: I agree. Skeptics and cynics have tried to bring down the House of Jerry, but no one to my knowledge ever made any charges stick - to use cop show dialogue. I don't even know if Jerry himself takes a salary for the work. Since he's billed as a volunteer and humanitarian, it would be kind of unseemly for him to pay himself a fee, wouldn't it? The long list of show-biz unions in the final credits each year suggests that the acts appearing work for union scale -- the showbiz equivalent of the minimum wage, meaning they are most likely not doing it for the money, but from, as the saying still goes, the kindness of their hearts. You know, like the guy who said my mom would dance on my grave, or whatever it was..........

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Albany, N.Y.: Just a reminder to ask you for book recommendations.

Also, apropos of books, this past weekend I read memoirs by Nicholas Meyer and Larry McMurtry and one of them, can't remember which, called you one of the best writers about television America's ever produced.

Tom Shales: I think you have be mixed up with another chatter. You know, I'm usually here on Tuesdays at this time but then this week -- well, it's complicated. I would recommend Larry McMurtry's new book on Hollywood because Ive heard he says something very nice about me in it. YES I KNOW, IT's TERRIBLE. Well there's a little bit of Jerry Lewis in all of us. I've been stared at in "awe" too, ya know. Now I'm not sure exactly what KIND of awe (pardon the all-caps, italics are too hard to make)......

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Unemployment telethon: How about we start to plan a telethon for all of the unemployed americans. $60 Million would go a long way towards helping people facing foreclosure or other economic problems.

Tom Shales: Yes. I believe I would be a giver AND a receiver. Oh wait, I sort of have a job. Sorry. Very thoughtless of me. Boy, will my mom ever be glad when I kick the bucket........

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Baltimore, Md.: The Martin and Lewis dynamic: It was an odd presentation, because it was an old-fashioned "straight man/funny guy" set up, like Burns and Allen or Abbott and Costello. But Martin was a really good looking guy who could sing--not how you would describe Bud Abbott, for sure. I think that's why the partnership folded. Martin was tired of being Jerry's setup man.

Tom Shales: And Jerry was tired of -- what? "Carrying" the act? I mean, that might be his version. At the MDA web site, you can see the clip of Frank Sinatra re-united Lewis with Martin at the close of one of the telethons, maybe in the late or mid-90s, maybe earlier. Jerry does not look all that delighted. I do think there was some sort of almost subliminal sexual component to their act. Abbott and Costello were pure vaudeville, pure comedy (I prefer them, incidentally - it's all very subjective of course). Bud Abbott was a better straight man than Dean Martin any day of the week, partly because he didn't long to be "funny." I always found Dean Martin's attempts to be funny disgusting -- a big sloppy drunk leering at chorus girls - pathetic, not funny.

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Burnt Hills, N.Y.: You were right -- this was the second year. I skipped it for nothing.

Love him or hate him, you have to admire Jerry for his dedication to MDA, unlike today's celebrities who come together for one fund-raiser (Katrina victims, Haiti, etc), and then walk away. Jerry keeps putting MDA in the public's awareness year after year, and the money he's helped to raise has helped a lot of people. There are still neighborhoods of New Orleans that look like war zones and many Haitians are still living in tents.

Tom Shales: Thanks. I am in shock at having been right -- and appreciate the other points you make re Haiti and New Orleans. Also Nashville's flood -- does anyone still think about that? . Say hello to the burning hills for me....

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To Hear Johnny say the F word: I just saw it, on YouTube a couple of days ago! Apparently he and Ed were making a private promo for a chemical company convention and it was pretty telling: Ed trying to be the professional pitchman, and Johnny either drunk, tired, or just having fun. It was linked from some of those great Dean Martin roasts, if you're hunting.

Tom Shales: Yes, I first saw that clip 20 or more years ago. This was a piece of video not meant for public exhibition. Today I just don't think it would happen unless it was something taped SECRETLY by someone else -- because of course in the old days the public had very little access to such "privileged" material. And forgive me, members of the DAR, but it IS funny....

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When is PBS finally going to give up on big bands and 50s music?: Now that 'my' music is on PBS I fear I'm turning into a middle ager! (Saw Chris Isaak on PBS recently and was excited until I realized it meant I had entered the grey hair demographic.)

Tom Shales: Ah, so now you and PBS are both singing different tunes! I suppose there'll be a night of Bubble Gum Pop eventually. HEy, some day hip-hop will be nostalgia. Maybe it is already; the gap between now and then seems to grow ever more narrow.

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Herndon, Va.: Yes, Mr. S, the "nostalgia" PBS fund-raisers are good for about the first 20 minutes. Perhaps we need one band and singing group to cover all bases - call it the "Dead Guys and Girls Nostalgia." That should do it.

Tom Shales: Eek, I'm not sure that would bring out even the tote-bag crowd.

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Boston, Mass.: You have to say this for Jerry Lewis; unlike many stars who create a charity for a disease only after their own diagnosis with the same disease, he has supported MD for decades, knowing that advances in treatment would not benefit him personally.

Tom Shales: Good point, and thank you.

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Maryland: Good interview with Don Geronimo on his new show in Sacramento. His old show here featured a yearly dissection of the telethon, making some of the same points that you do. Do you think that many people now watch the telethon ironically like the "Real Housewives" shows, ridiculing Lewis when [he] sounds cranky and self-aggrandizing? Your point that Lewis "carries a banner for more than one show-business generation now all but extinct" is saddening, because people younger than 50 probably know little of his comedy work. It's one thing if Lewis will be remembered for helping the kids with his telethons, but it would be a shame if he will be remembered for his performances during the telethons. That would be like knowing Bob Hope only from his late-career TV specials and not from his movies.

washingtonpost.com: As Jerry Lewis and his telethon age, the antics and drama also grow (Post, Sept. 8)

Tom Shales: So true, so true. I showed my godchildren (15, 13 and 10) a Bob Hope movie, or maybe it was the Marx Brothers - anyway I sort of had to sit on them to get them to sit still for the black-and-white but eventually they were pretty well convulsed with laughter. It saddens me that they ignore so much great pop culture of the past in the pursuit of whatever is the latest thing on i-This or i-That. Some of Bob Hope's movies were tremendously clever and remain hilarious; he was perhaps the greatest loveable coward in movie-comedy history.

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Anonymous: So I have found Big Brother must have the most filler of any reality TV show, considering it takes three shows to kick someone out of the house? Am I the only one who watches the first 10 minutes and last five to see everything worth watching?

Tom Shales: Take a look at the "uncensored" live stuff on Showtime in the middle of the night some time, if you happen to waste any money on Showtime. Ugh.

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Broomhall, Pa.: Tom: Did you happen to check out of the "March of Time" 75 anniversary newsreel prodcasts on TCM this past Sunday?

I was blown away by the quality of the film as well as the interesting subject matter.

Do you think there are other recorded film gems from the past century that will make their way to the smaller screen in the future?

washingtonpost.com: 'March of Time' newsreels on Turner Classic Movies a gripping record of history (Post, Sept. 4)

Tom Shales: Thank you - I wrote about it in SATURDAY's PAPER. It's ok, my feelings are not hurt. Just don't say that my mother will give a big party to celebrate my death......

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Baltimore, Md.: Tom: I caught a bit of the March of Time block on Turner and the show business at war segments were particularly poignant. I'm not sure why, but the footage of Alfred Lunt (then the leading American actor on what was called the "legitimate" stage) cooking for merchant sailors on leave was particularly affecting. It was only a few seconds long, but it made me realize that the home front really was a front in WWII -- there was a sense that all of us were in this together. I also enjoyed the footage of Al Jolson singing Mammy, not in blackface but in what appeared to be a quasi-military uniform. And, of course, the Hollywood Canteen footage was great. The sight of Marlene Dietrich dancing with an awestruck GI almost made me wish I was old enough to remember all this. Almost, I said.

Tom Shales: I was troubled, though, by the treatment of African Americans. I mean, I know we cannot hold the past to today's standards, but the idea that Louis Armstrong and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson had to be segregated from all the other acts and presented in their own little showcase - and apparently to an all-black-troop audience -- it seemed to make a mockery of some of what they all were supposedly fighting for.

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Burnt Hills, NY: We're having a telethon to help raise money to put out the burning hills. We're hoping to get Tony Orlando to host.

Tom Shales: Tony is busy ....
for the next......
3 minutes.

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Takoma Park, Md.: Tom, I thought that your comments about Jerry Lewis were accurate, but did you have to criticize Chaplin's activity in later life? After all, the man did raise 8 children with Oona O'Neill and stayed busy composing scores for re-released versions of his earlier films, thus extending copyright protection among other things. You can see the product this weekend at the AFI Silver Theater, which will be showing "The Kid" (with Jackie "Uncle Fester" Coogan!).

Tom Shales: I adore Chaplin. I worship the man. He was cruelly mistreated by the U.S. government and virtually forced into exile -- like Paul Robeson, one of the greatest geniuses this country has ever produced. But if you ever saw "A Countess from Hong Kong" which Chaplin directed long past his prime -- well it's entirely forgivable of course and now that I think of it, oh hell, YOU're ABSOLUTELY RIGHT. I am absolutely wrong. Mommy! Mommy! Where's my mommy? More next week, same time but different day: Tuesday. Thank you for your forbearance. And thank you Windows for correcting my spelling of forbearance.

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