Sunday, 19 September 2010

The Accident

Anyone even mildly acquainted with the stellar and incomparable career of Mel Blanc knows it almost ended—along with his life—in a car accident in 1961. Mel told the story over and over again on TV talk shows. A full chapter and the introduction of his autobiography are devoted to it.

All of this was long after the fact. In a moment, you’ll get to read what was reported in the press at the time it happened. And it happened at a pretty inopportune time.

Mel was very busy as 1960 became 1961. Not only was he still doing voices for Warner Bros. cartoons and appearing occasionally on Jack Benny’s TV show, he was a co-star on Hanna-Barbera’s smash hit The Flintstones. As the studio expanded beyond its seven-minute shorts to half-hour shows, it expanded its voice talent beyond reliance on Daws Butler and Don Messick. Neither were given major roles on Hanna-Barbera’s biggest show to date. Mel explained in his book:


I received a call from Joe Barbera about playing Barney Rubble, one of the four leads.
“What is he supposed to sound like?” I asked.
“A pre-historic Art Carney.”
“Interesting,” I said, “but I don’t think so. I don’t believe in impersonating others.”
“Let me try to change your mind.” Barbera supplied some more details about Barney: that he was an easy-going kind of Cro-Magnon and the ideal counterpoint to Fred Flintstone, who had a big mouth as well as a propensity for putting his unshod foot in it.
The pairing sounded full of comic potential. It also sounded an awful lot like Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Cramden and Carney’s Ed Norton from TV’s “The Honeymooners.”
“Listen, Mel, you don’t have to copy Carney. Tell me: How do you think Barney Rubble would talk?”
“Well, I dink he’d talk like dis, Joe, with a silly hiccup of a laugh.” And I broke into “A-hee-hee, a hee-hee-hee.”
“Love it. The part’s yours if you want it,” said Joe.
I wanted it.


Mel’s story could very well be true, but it’s also true that there were auditions for the part. A mystery Barney voice can be heard on the short “pilot” film that sold the show—I keep reading it’s Daws Butler but it doesn’t sound like Daws to me—then Hal Smith had the part for five shows before Barbera decided to recast the two male leads and scrapped the soundtracks. And writer Tim Hollis states that Jerry Hausner was Barney opposite Bill Thompson’s Fred at one point. And, given Mel’s complaints that he was underpaid for years at Warner Bros., I’m sure he didn’t just instantly accept a deal over the phone; Mel’s agent would have set up some meetings to make sure his client got the money he wanted.

The Ultimate Flintstones Site reveals recording sessions for the first season started on from April 1, 1960. The last one was January 23, 1961—one day before The Accident.

Here is how the two major wire services handled the story the next day. And, yes, there were some newspapers where it was front-page news.


Mel Blanc, of Thousand Voices, Seriously Hurt in Auto
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 25 (AP) — Mel Blanc, the man with a thousand voices known to millions, was in critical condition today, suffering from multiple injuries resulting from a head-on collision that demolished his car.
Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and Woody Woodpecker, received compound fractures of both legs and head lacerations Tuesday night when his hardtop sports car collided with an auto driven by a college student.
Attendants at the UCLA Medical Center said he would undergo leg surgery.
Blanc, 51, was pinned in his car and had to be freed by police and ambulance attendants.
The accident occurred on Sunset Boulevard, not far from the UCLA campus.
ARTHUR ROLSTON, 18, driver of the other car, suffered only minor knee injuries. He is a student at Menlo College on the San Francisco Peninsula.
Police said Rolston’s car went out of control on a curve and hit Blanc’s after crossing the center line. There were six fatal accidents on the same curve last year.
Blanc’s vocal creations have ranged from the impertinent “What's up, doc?” of Bugs, the roguish rabbit, to the wheezing and hacking of Jack Benny’s ancient Maxwell car.
Blanc has been associated with Benny more than 20 years and has played many featured roles on the comedian’s radio and television shows.
His voice has been dubbed into scores of Warner Brothers cartoons. He has estimated his voice has been used in more than 1,000 films.

Mel Blanc, 52, Critically Hurt In Head-on Crash
WEST LOS ANGELES, Jan. 25 (UPI)—Comedian Mel Blanc, creator of the “what’s up, doc?” voice of Bugs Bunny and many other cartoon characters, was in critical condition today at UCLA Medical Center from injuries received a head-on car crash on Sunset Boulevard.
Blanc, 52, a frequent guest star on the Jack Benny show and called the “man of a thousand voices” because of his extraordinary mimic talents, sustained compound fractures of both legs, a broken left arm, a head injury and internal injuries.
His wife, Estelle, and their son Noel, 22, arrived at the hospital Tuesday night after the crash and tearfully listened to Dr. Tracy Putnam tell them they should pray for Blanc. The physician said the injuries were so severe that it would be several days before he could predict whether Blanc would survive.
Blanc was driving his sports car on a winding section of Sunset Boulevard when Arthur Rolston, 18, a Menlo College student, failed to guide his auto around a curve and smashed head-on into Blanc’s car, police reported. Both drivers were alone in their autos. Blanc was driving to a studio to do a commercial.
Rolston received minor injuries. He told police the wheels of his auto failed to turn with the steering wheel.
Blanc was a veteran performer on radio, TV and in the movies but he was probably best known for the estimated 1,000 cartoons for which he supplied comic voices but never appeared personally.
Sometimes Blanc made all the voices for Warner Bros. cartoons speaking the parts of five or so characters.

Remarkably, neither story mentions that Mel was in a coma so I can only presume that information had not been made public.

The wires pumped out little progress reports on Mel every once in awhile. Here are a few of them:


Badly Injured Comedian Mel Blanc Improves
HOLLYWOOD, Jan. 26 (AP) — Comedian Mel Blanc, seriously injured in a headon auto collision Tuesday night, is showing definite improvement although he remains in critical condition.
A spokesman at the UCLA Medical Center said Blanc was not fully conscious but his heartbeat was strong and he was breathing regularly. Wednesday morning, the spokesman said, doctors “did not give him a chance.”
Blanc, 52, the voice of such cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig, suffered head injuries and fractures of both legs and the pelvis when his sports car collided with another auto on Sunset Boulevard near the UCLA campus. The other driver was not seriously hurt.

Mel Blanc Improving; Hurt in Auto Crash
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 1 — (AP)— Attendants at the UCLA Medical Center say comedian Mel Blanc is progressing satisfactorily and “gradually regaining orientation.”
Blanc, 52, is widely known as the voice of Bugs Bunny and other cartoon characters. He suffered multiple fractures, head and internal injuries in a two-car collision Jan. 24.

Mel Blanc No Longer on the 'Serious List'
LOS ANGELES — Feb. 15 (AP)— Comedian Mel Blanc, the voice of Bugs Bunny and other cartoon characters, has been taken off the serious list at the UCLA Medical Center. Hospital attendants, announcing this Wednesday, said he was making a satisfactory recovery from head injuries and multiple fractures received in an auto accident Jan. 24.

Blanc Out of Hospital
HOLLYWOOD, Fri. Mar. 17 (AP) — Mel Blanc, the voice of “Bugs Bunny” and other comic characters, is home after six weeks in the hospital.
When his ambulance rolled up to the house in nearby Pacific Palisades, escorted by two motorcycle policemen, Blanc found 150 friends waiting to welcome him Friday.
Blanc had been hospitalized since Jan. 24, when he suffered grave injuries in an automobile accident.

Now that Mel was home, he wanted to do two things—recover and work. Not necessarily in that order. Here’s the first of two columns:

Mel Blanc Scorns Injuries
By VERNON SCOTT
HOLLYWOOD, Mar. 27 (UPI) — Mel Blanc, in a cast from his chest to his toes, will be immobilized for another 90 days at home but he still is talking for Bugs Bunny.
Unable to leave his bed, the whispy [sic] haired Blanc is doing sound tracks for the screwball rabbit at home.
“I broke just about everything a guy can break in that wreck,” he said, referring to the automobile accident which almost took his life early this year.
“I fractured bones in my spine, arm, legs, chest and even my head. One of the firemen who extricated me from the car said he could have put me in a sack. But I don’t remember much about it.
Voice Not Affected
“They kept me in the hospital 70 days. That's a long time. But I’m grateful the accident didn’t hurt my voice.”
During his long siege in the hospital Mel was visited by Jack Benny and other friends. To his surprise he received thousands of letters from fans he never knew he had.
“Most of them were from Bugs Bunny fans,” he grinned.
Famous as he is for the voice of Bugs, Mel has some 200 other voices at his command, one of which is that of Barney in the new TV hit, “The Flintstones.”
“One of the jobs that keeps me busiest is doing voices for television commercials,” he said. But I will have to slow down on my work load for a long time to come.
Break In Monotony
“In a few weeks the ‘Flintstone’ company will come out to the house while I record my part. At least that will help break the monotony.
“It’s very dull lying here. I have to stay flat on my back. But I have a nice view of Santa Monica Canyon and the ocean. So I just look at the view and read the get-well letters. There are still about 4000 letters I haven’t had a chance to read yet.”
Mel is grateful the accident has accomplished something.
“They’ve already started plans to fix ‘Dead Man’s Curve’ on Sunset Boulevard where the crash occurred,” Mel explained. “It’s one of the most dangerous stretches of road in Los Angeles.”

On April 2, Los Angeles County supervisors approved an additional $206,500 to straighten the curves on Sunset Boulevard.

Mel relates in his book about how Friz Freleng called in March to see if Mel was up to recording a scratch track so animators at Warners could have something to work from. Four days after returning home, two semis from the studio unloaded sound equipment and Mel recorded a track, lying on his back, in a studio set up by his son Noel.

In the meantime, work had already begun on the second season of The Flintstones. Daws Butler had been brought in to do Barney and voiced five episodes: “The Hit Song Writers”, “Droop-Along Flintstone”, “Fred Flintstone Woos Again”, “The Rock Quarry Story” and “The Little White Lie.” The sessions were on January 30, February 7 and 24 and March 23. Joe Barbera obviously got his way about Barney sounding like Ed Norton, because Daws provides a Carney-esque voice. But now, Daws was out and Mel was in. The first taping was April 9 (‘The Soft Touchables’). Mel’s book explains:


The first time we taped the show at my home, it was quite a chaotic scene. Tangles of wires were scattered all over the floor, and chairs and microphones were arranged around my hospital bed. A speaker had been mounted on the wall so that Noel and producer Joe Barbera could communicate to the actors from the makeshift control room.
Sitting to my left were [Bea] Benaderet and Vander Pyl. Jean was a pretty gal who commuted to taping sessions from her home in San Diego, two and a half hours away. Sitting to my right was [Alan] Reed, gulping down spoonfuls of honey and lemon in preparation for his trademark exclamation, “Yabba dabba doo!” Director Alan Dineheart [sic] cued us from across the room, gesturing frantically as if he were Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic.
“Hope you’re comfortable, Mel.” Barbera’s voice came cracking over the speaker, “We’re in for a long evening.” He wasn’t kidding. Every couple of hours Joe would ask if I was too tired to carry on, but I insisted on completing the show.
We recorded more than forty “Flintstones” episodes this way. Thankfully, by September my doctors allowed me to sit up a bit, elevated by way of a pulley-cable system to a semi-sitting position. It was no more than a few inches’ difference, but as I laughingly told my colleagues, “How nice is it to be able to look at your faces instead of at the damned ceiling.”


“Forty” is an exaggeration. Only 32 episodes were shot in the second season. Daws Butler was Barney on five of them, and the last four were done starting in December when Mel was mobile. Still, it was an amazing feat for any actor—something recognised by the Associated Press TV columnist in a feature piece which ran in papers beginning November 15:

Mel Blanc Feels Saved By Miracle
By Bob Thomas
Of the Associated Press

HOLLYWOOD (AP)—“I know it is miracle that I am still alive. That's why I thank God every day for His help.”
A serious Mel Blanc—“man of a thousand voices”—was talking about the car crash that by all rights should have taken his life. His car was struck head-on by another car on Sunset Boulevard last January.
One of the firemen who cut Mel out of the wreckage said later: “We should have just put him in a sack.”
Hearing recovery at his Pacific Palisades home, Mel said, “When asked my doctor what bones I had broken, he told me: ‘If someone tells you he broke a bone, you can say you broke the same one—unless it's a left arm.’”
Leg Still In Cast
Blanc pointed to his right leg, still in a plaster cast: “This is the one that’s slow to heal—21 breaks from the knee to the foot. One of them was compound, and that’s what slowed me down.
“The knee cap was torn off my left leg, but somehow it was sewn back on. The other breaks included most of my ribs, six vertebrae, both sides of the pelvis and three skull fractures.”
Mel remembers nothing from the time he saw the oncoming car until he regained consciousness 21 days later. What did he think about first?
“My voice,” he said. “I realized my mouth and throat were undamaged and I could talk. I thanked God for that.”
Mel's voice is his fortune; without it he would have been lost. During the long, painful months of recovery, he was encouraged to use his voice—“so I would feel useful.”
Rigs Up Recorder
His son rigged up a recording studio at home so Mel could make scratch tracks—preliminary recordings to aid animators—for the two cartoon shows he does on TV. He's the voice of Bugs Bunny and Barney Rubble on “The Flintstones.”
“I was glad that the shows could keep going and nobody was put out of work,” he said.
Now he is able to get around in a wheelchair and has made some recordings in the studios. Next week he’ll make his grand return to Jack Benny’s show, taping the Christmas Eve telecast.
“Jack has been just wonderful,” Mel remarked. “He has been out to see me at least every 10 days.
“Everybody has been wonderful, in fact. On the night I was hurt, 18 of my son's fraternity brothers at UCLA came to the hospital to offer blood.
Knows Prayer Helped
“I have received 15,000 cards and letters, mostly from people I don’t even know. They offered me their prayers, and they were Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Mohammedan and even Buddhist. I am sure their prayers helped.”
Mel said that his recovery—he expects to be walking and back at active work after the first of the year—is still a wonder to the medics and to himself.
“One of them said I must have been in excellent shape,” he remarked. “Me, who never exercised in his life! I smoke a lot and I will take a drink—never miss before dinner. I’ve always worked hard, racing from one job to another.
“So how do you figure it? It’s got to be God.”

One story that Mel told over and over in later years, and it’s in his autobiography, too, is that he emerged from a coma only when his doctor addressed him as Bugs Bunny and he responded as Bugs. Yet you can see nowhere at the time does he relate this amazing piece of information to the two top wire service TV reporters. Or to Louella Parsons, who wrote about him in her column of October 11th.

Alan Reed told Mel he had thought he was a “a conceited little jerk” but the painful recording sessions changed his opinion. And Mel did much work for crippled children (he was a Shriner). So it’s unfortunate The Accident brought out the litigious side of Mel Blanc. You’ll recall Mel sued Walter Lantz because he wanted a cut of anything with the Woody Woodpecker laugh, despite claiming Lantz was a friend. As a friend, he must have known Lantz was in a precarious financial situation. By the time there was a court decision (against Blanc) in October 1949, the Lantz studio had shut down due to a lack of cash flow, and never reached anywhere near the same quality of cartoons when it eventually reopened.

So it was that Mel Blanc, the man kept alive by God, sued an 18-year-old junior college student for $350,000, claiming the young man was negligent in colliding with Blanc’s souped-up Aston Martin (the parents were sued for good measure). The suit was announced in the press the day Mel left hospital. That wasn’t enough. Seven months later, he sued the city of Los Angeles for half a million dollars, claiming it should have done something about the dangerous road earlier. The case dragged on until 1965 when it finally ended out of court (Mel settled for $120,000).

Mel, of course, got well. But the animation business got sick. A good indication of his career is that a tamer version of his beloved signature Jack Benny ‘Maxwell’ sound was infused into something called Speed Buggy. Millions of laughs didn’t follow. As Mel himself put it, Hardy Har Har and Yak Yak were no Bugs and Tweety. And, eventually, even his Bugs and Tweety didn’t sound right. Age and all that smoking he told Bob Thomas about caught up with him. Mel spent the last few years of his life with a tube up his nose, hauling around an oxygen tank. Emphysema and related heart disease claimed him on July 10, 1989.

Mel Blanc was the greatest cartoon voice actor who ever lived. But I’ll bet Daws Butler wouldn’t have sued a teenager.

18 comments:

  1. Mel Blanc was one of the first names I learnt when I was a child and I always wondered how he could be that man of a thousand voices. There will be nobody like him. These kind of people only show up once in history and that can't be repeated.

    But think of those who, like me, grew up with the dubbed versions! I never knew who was the Spanish voice of Bugs Bunny and sometimes there was another guy.

    Later, when I heard Mel's original voice everything changed. I couldn't stand the Spanish voices anymore. For instance, the voice of Foghorn Leghorn made by him tells you a lot about the character even if you never saw it. But in Spanish, Foghorn Leghorn sounds like someone silly, a little innocent and very light. Others were so bland, like just reading with no passion, in comparison to Mel Blanc.

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  2. Yowp, you can go to http://forum.gemm.com/item/CAPITOL--HI-d-Q--MUSIC--LIBRARY/CAPITOL--HI-d-Q--MUSIC--LIBRARY-c-LPS/GML757551074/, buy the item, so you can upload the Capitol Hi-q music cues that haven't been uploaded yet, such as Western Song by Hormel, maybe the Indian cue from Scat,Scout, Scat, EM-147 DOCUMENTARY MAIN TITLE, and some others.

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  3. Mel's original voice for Barney is pretty similar to the dumb cab driver/dumb plumber/dumb etc. he'd use on The Jack Benny Program, before it segwayed into the more familiar Rubble voice, which is closer IMHO to the Art Carney/Ed Norton in tone, as if Mel didn't want anyone to tell him to do an impersonation to start off with, but he could justify modifying the voice closer to an impersonation as time went by.

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  4. JL, I always like how I delete paragraphs for length and never post them but you comment on them anyway. It reads:

    Mel had several slow voices on the Benny radio show, depending on how dumb the character was. The one that reminds me most of Barney is in the opening show of the 1954-55 where he plays an audio engineer (Frank Nelson appears to give the great running-gag line "May I shake your hand? I've already grasped your character").

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  5. I remember the day Jack Benny passed away, Tom Snyder did a special " Tomorrow " episode with Mel Blanc, Don Wilson, and a few other friends. Mel told his favorite Jack Benny Story. After the car crash when he was back home and receiving vistors, the door bell rang.. When Estelle answered the door, Benny was standing on the porch with a beanie cap on his head, placed his hand against his cheek, and in Benny fashion said.." Can MEL...come out and play ? ". Mel said little things like that from friends did so much for his spirits at the time. You can really tell the Daws episodes of " The Flintstones ". It was an interesting cross. Not quite Yogi...not quite Ed Norton. Mel's recovery was amazing considering the extent of the crash.

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  6. Good ol', Mel. That's a little more elaborate than he told the story in 1961 in one of the clippings I didn't put up. The original version of the story was that Jack came over just after Mel got back from hospital, Estelle answered the door, and Jack simply said "Is Mel home?"

    In later years, he insisted Jack came to hospital every day. You can see here that wasn't the original story.

    He also told a story in 1961 where Jack jokingly called the hospital to say he wanted to come over and asked if Mel was still there, knowing full well he was laid up and couldn't move.

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  7. Thanks for going into this part of Mel's life in more detail than exists elewhere. It appears to have been far worse than polite company wants to hear.

    I can't understand how you can have 21 breaks in your bone from an accident that lasts only a half second in duration...You get just one bash in the front and that's all if you figure that.

    And that's just the leg bone. That accident is almost a triumph of human endurance beyond that fact that Mel represented 200 characters.

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  8. I wonder if "Operation Barney," a Season 2 episode in which Barney ends up in the hospital faking illness after Fred's scheme to take off work to go to the ballgame, was inspired by Mel's condition. Whether it was or not, it's interesting to envision a laid-up Mel Blanc voicing Barney for an episode in which Barney is stuck in a hospital bed for much of the action. I only thought of it after reading the blog post, but you can at least imagine Mel relating to Barney's desire to get out of the hospital bed. (It's also the only episode in Season 2 credited to writer Tony Benedict, whose only episode in Season 3 was similarly Barney-centric, that time about a real ailment, Barney's toothache)

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  9. I thought Mel's book might have revealed if the car rolled or bashed against a post (which would have been in the police report). No. It says his car ended up facing the other way on the road because of the impact.
    The book says the college student was in his dad's Olds 98. Mel was in a small sports car. It was no contest. I think only Lincoln and Cadillac made bigger cars than the 98 but they were all tanks.

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  10. I remember how find the old French dubs of Looney Tunes very comparable to the Mel Blanc works. But when they changed the dub for a more official version, i was disappointed to the mess they made. They trying too hard to be like Mel Blanc but resulted as a awkward imitation of him, Daws Butler, June Foray and anyone who voicing this characters. The only credit i will give is keep intact the cultural references of the Animation golden age in their cartoons dubbed which was ignored by other studio dubs who want local references or hip references in old materials films.

    I know the story about Mel's accident. I have just watching the documentary they made from one of the Looney Tunes DVD's and he was very lucky to staying alive and have supports. But i do hope they do also for peoples who do something important for their country like soldiers by example...

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  11. Wow. This is awesome (and scary, I know exactly where that curve is on Sunset. That whole canyon is really dangerous). My favorite story about Mel Blanc is over at Metafilter, it's a definitive account of whether Mel was saying "Beep-beep" or "Meep-meep" as the Roadrunner. You can read it here:

    http://ask.metafilter.com/112923/Its-Meep-Meep-dammit#1623148

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  12. Well, Mel wasn't saying either. Paul Julian was the Roadrunner. He was Friz' background guy before going to UPA.
    Evidently, Chuck Jones must have thought it was "beep" because he used the word in the titles of his cartoons, including 'Beep Beep' and 'Beep Prepared.' But we're getting off-topic.
    I can only imagine what the roadway looked like before it was straightened a bit.

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  13. Gee, thanks Yowp... for ruining the image of my childhood hero.

    Seriously, though, it's sad that Mel felt that he needed to keep suing people - especially the college student. Like Mel needed the money.

    And my image of Mel was also previously tarnished by another cartoon voice acting veteran whose name I won't mention here who shared something about Mel in confidence that I'll also not repeat here. There's just no need to bring it up some 20+ years after Mel's death.

    But thanks for such a detailed article, Yowp. It was a very informative read.

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  14. I can't believe the suggestion that he was wrong to sue the kid that nearly killed him, and brought him so much agony.....why should he have let him off the hook for his crappy driving??

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    1. "I can't believe the suggestion that he was wrong to sue the kid that nearly killed him.." - well I'll try to give you a logic lesson mate. If Mel thought that the city was sufficiently at fault to sue them he obviously acknowlwedged that the road condtion was a major contributing factor. Can you not extrapolate that to the point that neither driver was at fault? $350K was a bloody fortune in '61. Blanc was an arse to sue that kid and his parents.

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  15. I have it from a person I trust, who had personal contact with Mel that he was kind. I will hold that.

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  16. I wonder what kind of sports car Mel Blanc was driving.

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    1. Second to last paragraph of the story says "souped-up Aston Martin."

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