The Religious Affiliation of
Fred Astaire great American actor and dancer
Fred Astaire's father was Catholic; his mother was Lutheran. Fred Astaire was, from a young age, an Episcopalian.
From: Bob Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, St. Martin's Press: New York City (1984), page 72:
During his youth in New York, Fred had become acquainted with Rev. Randolph Ray, who introduced him to the Episcopal faith. Fred was confirmed at the Church of the Transfiguration, known to show people as "The Little Church Around the Corner," and he has remained an Episcopalian ever since.
In his autobiography, Fred Astaire recalls the Episcopal church near where he practiced dancing while he and his family lived in New York City. He also identifies the church in which he was confirmed. He is describing a time when he was about 12 years old, so apparently he was confirmed in his pre-teen or early teen years. From: Fred Astaire, Fred Astaire: Steps in Time: An Autobiography, Cooper Square Press: New York City (2000; first published 1959), pages 33-34:
We stayed on Forty-fifth Street for one year, then moved to West Fifty-seventh Street and lived at the Calmu Hotel between Eighth and Ninth avenues. I liked the neighborhood. It was a wide street, pleasant and residential when we were there.
We practiced our dancing constantly and I began to grow out of the awkward age. There was a YMCA at the Eight Avenue corner where I attended gym classes... The Calmut was a residential hotel next door to the church of Zion and St. Timothy where I met the Rev. Randolph Ray, then the curate. He was transferred later to the Church of the Transfiguration (the Little Church Around the Corner) [an Episcopal church] at Twenty-ninth and Fifth Avenue, where I was confirmed.
More information about the church where Fred Astaire was confirmed, from: R. William Franklin, "What is the Church of the Transfiguration?" on the official website of The Church of the Transfiguration (URL: http://www.littlechurch.org/whatis.html; viewed 26 June 2005):
The Church of the Transfiguration is one of the most famous parishes of the Episcopal Church in the United States, itself a part of the worldwide family of churches in communion with the Archbishop of Canterbury. Transfiguration is known throughout the country as "The Little Church Around the Corner," and for one hundred and fifty years it has been a very visible worshiping community in an urban setting that has welcomed all classes, all races, and particularly all those marginalized by society for whatever reason, as were actors and actresses, who had theretofore been on the fringes of both society and the Episcopal Church.
Alessandra Garofalo has conducted primary research into the European background and history of Fred Astaire's father, Fritz Austerlitz. This research is the basis for some of the information on the "Porges families Home page" website and Hyde Flipp's article, cited below.
Webpage: "Family of Ester Porges (1804-1869) [and descendant] Fred Astaire (Frederick Austerlitz)" on the "Porges families Home page" website (http://www.porges.net/FamilyTreesBiographies/EsterPorges18041859.html; viewed 29 June 2005):
Austerlitz (b. Prague ca 1830, d. ?): The claim that one branch of the Austerlitz family lived here on the Unterbergsgasse in the old Jewish quarter of Eisenstadt, Austria seems to be a myth. Astaire's grandfather was said to have once lived here, but Fred Astaire's parents were Catholic and Lutheran and he was an Episcopalian all of his adult life.
...Fred and his sister were born with the last name Austerlitz and their roots go back to Austria and Alsace... [photo caption:] Fred Astaire's Austrian father was baptized as Friedrich Emanuel Austerlitz in this Catholic church near Linz in 1868. [end caption] ...After his arrival in New York... Fritz Austerlitz made his way west to Omaha, Nebraska. There he met... Johanna (Ann) Geilus. Johanna had been born in Omaha, but her parents... were German-speaking, Lutheran immigrants from East Prussia and Alsace. The 25-year-old Fritz and 16-year-old Johanna were married at the First German Lutheran Church in Omaha on Nov. 17, 1894... Fritz and Ann Austerlitz's first child was a daughter, Adele, born in 1896. On May 10, 1899 Adele's brother Fred came into the world. The two children were destined to be an entertainment team for many years until Adele tired of the show business routine and got married.
Hyde Flippo, author of the Fred Astaire page on The German-Hollywood Connection website, wrote to us (17 May 2005) and pointed out that Fred Astaire (Austerlitz) is "a descendent of an Austrian/Bohemian German-speaking Jewish family originally from Prague. His European relatives were all born Jewish, although Fred's father and the rest of his immediate family converted to Catholicism when they were living in Linz, Austria (where Fred's father, Fritz Austerlitz, was born and baptized)."
From: P.J. Thum, "Biography: Youth" web page on "FredAstaire.net" website (http://www.fredastaire.net/biography/youth.htm; v. 11 May 2005):
Fred Astaire's father Fritz E. Austerlitz (1869-1924) was born Friedrich Emanuel Austerlitz in Linz on September 8, 1868 into a Roman Catholic family... in Vienna, Austria... In Nebraska, he met and became infatuated with Johanna Geilus (1878-1975), a seventeen-year-old girl of Alsatian parentage [who would become Fred Astaire's mother]... While her parents were against the marriage -- especially since he was almost ten years older, Johanna's pregnancy forced them to accept Fritz. Fritz and Johanna were married on Nov. 17, 1894 at the Erste Lutheran Kirche in Omaha by Rev. Freese.
From: Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, pages 11-13:
According to family legend, Frederick Austerlitz [Fred Astaire's father] left Austria as a result of a dispute with his older brother Ernest. Both were officers in the Emperor's army... He arrived in New York in 1895, remaining only briefly after his release from Ellis Island. Friends in Vienna had arranged a job for him in the leather trade in Omaha, Nebraska...
Austerlitz became a popular figure at parties among Omaha's young people. One night he met a pretty girl of Alsatian [a region in France adjacent to Germany] parentage named Ann Gelius, only recently graduated from a Catholic high school. Although there was ten years' difference in their ages, they fell in love and married within a few months. They moved into a wood frame house on North Nineteenth Street, a short distance from downtown Omaha. Their daughter Adele was born September 10, 1897. On May 10, 1899, Ann Austerlitz gave birth to a son, named after his father... [That second child was Fred Astaire.]
[page 13] In 1904, the God-fearing citizens of Nebraska were convinced by their pastors and temperance zealots to ban alcoholic beverages from the state. They put the Storz brewery out of business and Frederick Austerlitz out of work. He and his wife had long, late-night discussions about their future. They finally decided that Adele's talent [as a dancer] deserved better training than she could get in Omaha. Ann would take the two children to New York City; Frederick would stay in Omaha to earn money and support them.
Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, page 16:
Through their career together, Fred and [his sister] Adele seemed content in their relationship, avoiding the competitiveness that has afflicted and often destroyed show-business teams... "It's funny," Fred said, "but there was a time--I was six and Adele was seven--when I used to think of her with contempt. She couldn't play ball, or chin herself, or whistle through her teeth. She couldn't even spit! I used to pray at night for God to turn her into a brother. Why, one day she even tied a pink ribbon in my hair... Then... when we had the first contest at dancing school...the judges gave us the first prize, with special mention for Adele. Then it began to dawn on my that she had her way of getting results and I had mine..."
From "Did You Know?" page on Episcopal Actors' Guild website (http://www.eaguild.homestead.com/files/p-didyouknow.html; v. 11 May 2005):
The Episcopal Actors' Guild was founded in 1923. It was incorporated in 1926... The Guild's George Holland Society grew from 38 members when it was established in 1998, to 87 members in 2004. They include Fred Astaire, Father Walter Bentley, Minnie Maddern Fiske, Joan Fontaine, Margaret Hamilton, Barnard Hughes, Sir Laurence Olivier, Mrs. Richard Mansfield, and Sam Waterston... Through the years, a surprising number of present and former Guild members have been winners or nominees for Oscars, Tonys, Emmys, Obies and several other major awards. They Include George Arliss, Fred Astaire, Zoe Caldwell, Joan Fontaine, Charlton Heston, Celeste Holm, Barnard Hughes, Richard Kiley, Jason Robards, Cliff Robertson, Jean Stapleton and Helen Stenborg, to name just a few.
From "More About the Episcopal Actors' Guild" page on Episcopal Actors' Guild website, written November 2004 (URL: http://www.eaguild.homestead.com/files/p-home.html; viewed 26 June 2005):
"The Stage has, beyond any other profession, been ever the handmaiden of charity. Does a disaster occur, has a suffering to be healed, has a charity to be lifted up, the eye of the suppliant first looks to the stage, and never looks there in vain."
This wonderful observation on the generosity of people of the theatre, which is taken from an 1871 New York City newspaper in our Guild Archives, most certainly applies to the members of today's ecumenical and inter-denominational Episcopal Actors' Guild.
The Guild was founded in 1923 and incorporated as a 501 (c) (3) non-profit in 1926. It is a charitable fellowship organization governed by its Constitution and By-Laws, and is the result of the youthful idealism of several extraordinary individuals.
It is the only surviving offspring of the Actors Church Alliance (1899-1923), an ecumenical organization founded by a young actor, Walter Bentley, who gave up his career to become a priest. In 1923, its members and officers then founded the Episcopal Actors' Guild, encouraged by Father Bentley and welcomed to its permanent headquarters by The Rev. Randolph Ray, the newly-seated Rector of the "Little Church Around the Corner." Father Ray, a cousin to Tallulah Bankhead, was a lifelong theatre devotee, who had a very young Fred Astaire confirmed at the Little Church, and often hosted his friends Gertrude Lawrence and Noel Coward for lunch at his Rectory.
Officially called the "Church of the Transfiguration," this place of worship already had a 50-year relationship with the New York Theatre Community. In 1870, Joseph Jefferson, famous for his portrayal of Rip Van Winkle, had requested a funeral at another church for fellow actor George Holland. Upon learning that the deceased had been an actor, the Priest refused. After some prodding by the stunned Jefferson, he suggested that "There is a little church around the corner where it might be done." Jefferson responded, with all the dignity an actor can muster, "Then I say to you, Sir, God bless the little church around the corner." And indeed, the Rev. George Hendrik Houghton, who had founded the church at age 28, accepted the funeral without question. Across the country, newspapers of the day reported the incident, and even Mark Twain editorialized vehemently upon the subject. The "Little Church" became a spiritual haven for actors, and many leading members of the theatre community adopted it, including the great Edwin Booth, who founded the Players, Harrison Grey Fiske, founder of the Actors' Fund, and Henry Montague, founder of the Lambs.
Astaire discussed how church was a comfort to him after his wife Phyllis died in 1954. From: Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, page 264:
In New York, [Fred Astaire] often sat for hours in the quiet of St. Bartholemew's Episcopal Church on Park Avenue. He explained to interviewer Bill Davidson: "I find great comfort in that magnificent church in the midst of the hurly-burly of the city. I think of everything there--my life, my work, the hidden meaning of the good and bad things that have happened to me. I come out spiritually refreshed. It often helps me to go on." In Beverly Hills, he spent long hours of contemplation in his parish church, All Saints', on Santa Monica Boulevard.
"Few Well-Known Episcopalians/Anglicans", written 6 March 2005, on official webpage of St. Martha's Episcopal Church (URL: http://www.stmarthas.net/random_thoughts/files/archive-1.html; viewed 30 June 2005):
Just a sampling [of Episcopalians], in no particular order: C.S. Lewis, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, T.S. Elliot, Jonathan Swift, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Vincent Price, Olivia de Havilland, Ethel Merman, Anne B. Davis, Laurence Olivier, Robin Williams, Judy Garland, Humphrey Bogart, Fred Astaire...
From: Bill Adler, Fred Astaire: A Wonderful Life, Carroll & Graf Publishers: New York City (1987), pages 88-89:
...the contracts were signed between RKO and Fred. He would enter motion pictures as a star... On May 27, 1933, the contracts were signed... Everything looked very rosy for the future.
Fred called up Phyllis and asked her to marry him.
"Oh, not yet!" Phyllis protested. She explained that the future of her son was still in the hands of the courts. She would have to wait until something was decided. Should she marry, she felt that the courts might be tempted to award Peter to his father.
Fred tried not to appear despondent, although he was. He had a solution. "I'll go out there and make the first picture. Then I'll come straight back here afterward. Then we'll be married."
But Phyllis spotted a fallacy. "That's no good. If you go away from me to Hollywood, you'll start running round with some of those girls out there. Whether you do or not, I'll always think you did. We'd better get married right now, as soon as possible."
...In the end, two separate events decided the issue.
One was the action of the divorce court, awarding the custody of Peter [who became Fred Astaire's stepson] to Phyllis on July 10... the marriage of Fred Astaire and Phyllis Livingston Potter took place two days after the court action, on July 12, 1933, with Justice Selah B. Strong performing the ceremony in his chambers in Brooklyn, New York.
The Astaires had a one-day honeymoon, which they spent cruising the Hudson River on Mrs. Payne Whitney's yacht, the Captiva, by themselves.
From: Fred Astaire: Steps in Time: An Autobiography, page 5:
We [Fred and his sister and dancing partner Adele] made a habit of enjoying ourselves in private life. I don't mean that the work wasn't enjoyable, but we were fortunate enough to know how to live off stage.
My private life was No. 1 with me from the time of my marriage on. Before that, I suppose my career did come first. Everything changed when I married Phyllis in 1933.
Adler, page 143:
In Hollywood, Fred Astaire was one of the exceptional entertainers who was able to keep his personal life and his professional life completely separated rom each other as if by a thick stone wall. It might be said that his professinoal life was his personal life, but that is not quite true, either.
When he was Adele's partner, his personal life was that of a sibling rival to a talented sister. So was his professional life. When Adele left and married and Fred married Phyllis Potter, quite suddenly Fred Astaire had a double life: He was a professional on the set, and he was a human being at home.
He found it not quite so difficult as others to separate those two portions of his life. He had no need for nightlife in California; as he had said, he had already lived a full nightlife in New York and London. Besides that, although Fred never said it, there wasn't the same kind of charge to Los Angeles nightlife as there was to that of New York or London.
In California, Phyllis blossomed. Nowhere near as fragile and gentle as Fred had thought she was when he met her, she put down her roots and began to run the family the way she knew it should be run. In her own quiet way, she was as practical and strongwilled as Fred's mother...
Hermes Pan once said of her, "Phyllis was just what Fred needed. She became his buffer against the unpleasant things of the world. Fred worshiped and respected her. He phoned her from the studio every day at lunchtime."
Between pictures Fred and Phyllis explored Southern California. Both of them loved to play golf and tennis. Fred could usually beat his wife at golf; but she could take him at tennis. She was also an excellent shot; Fred and she found a wonderful spot to go qual and duck shooting just outside Mexicali--a long drive from L.A. down to Baja California.
Adler's biography of Fred Astaire contains many more details about the very down-to-earth and wealthy but generally non-celebrity style of homelife of the Astairs, not excerpted here.
Adler, pages 150-151:
[Fred Astaire's beloved wife Phyllis] died on September 13, 1954. It was lung cancer.
Things were neve the same again for Fred Astaire.
At the time of this ordeal, Fred was just about to start a motion picture for Sam Engel at Twentieth Century-Fox. It was Daddy Long Legs.
The day after Phyllis's funeral, Fred sent for me. He was in a bad way--sort of in a daze. The week before, we had had a talk in which he said he couldn't go on with the picture. He then made me an offer that was unheard of in Hollywood. He wanted to pay all the expenses of the production out of his own pocket. I told him to forget it--that maybe God would intervene and Phyllis would pull through.
Well, I showed up at Fred's house the day after the funeral. He said, "Sam, what I told you last week still goes. The kids are shattered and I'm shattered. The worst thing is taht Phyllis wanted me to do this picture. But I can't. The prospect of going to the studio and smiling is just impossible." I said, "Don't worry about it, Fred. If you feel the way you do, that's it. However, I think you'll be making the greatest mstake of yor life if you don't go to work right now." Fred shook his head and said, "Sam, I just can't." So I said goodbye and left.
About eleven o'clock the next morning, as Engel was gloomily sitting in his office, Fred walked in. "I don't know if I can make it, Sam, but I'll try. I'm reporting for work."
It was a frightful ordeal for the poor man. He'd be dancing as if nothing had happened, and then he'd come over in a corner and talk to me. He'd say, "I don't know if Old Dad can make it," and tears would come to his eyes. I'd say, "It's okay. It's all right to cry." He'd say, "It's rough, Sam, real rough. Especially going home and she's not there." Then he'd talk about how Phyllis wanted him to make this picture, and he'd go back to work. When Daddy Long Legs was finally released, Fred was so good in it that I'm sure the audience never guessed his heart was breaking. His class emerged when he wrote me a letter saying, "Thanks for standing by Old Dad." It should have been the other way around.
Randolph Scott remembered those days:
After Daddy Long Legs was finished, Fred used to go to the cemetery and sit at Phyllis's grave for hours at a time. Like Sam Engel, we all felt that work was the best thing for him, and we talked him into doing Funny Face and Silk Stockings as soon as possible.
No, it was never really the same again for him.
Such was his devotion to Phyllis that Fred Astaire did not remarry again many years later. From Adler, pages 173-175:
...Fred marred Robyn [Smith] on June 24, 1980, at his home in Beverly Hills. She was thirty-seven; he was eight-one. This shook up a lot of people: obviously the woman was nothing more than a gold digger after the old man's millions. And yet they were wrong.
..."Robyn proved all the gossips and critics wrong--she proved to be a devoted and loving wife, constantly attentive to Fred," [Fred's longtime friend Hermes] Pan said...
On June 12, 1987, Robyn decided that Fred was not getting over a cold rapidly enough, and she had him admitted to Century City Hospital...
A dozen times a day she would kiss him on the cheek ans whisper, "I love you."
There was a tube in his throat; he was unable to answer her. But he would smile as if telling her, "I love you, too."
When he fell asleep, she would whisper, "Dear God, I love him so much. Don't let him leave me."
Ten days after his admission he died.
"I just put my arms around him and he died."
One member of Fred's family summed up those last years:
Robyn and Fred were vey happy over the past seven years. No one ever thought the marriage would last, but they proved everyone wrong. If it hadn't been for Robyn, Fred would never have held on as long as he did. He died a very happy man.
He died a very happy man who had made millions of other people happy during his lifetime. And for that reason, and for the fact that he was a man of integrity, of goodwill, and of compassion for others, he lived a wonderful life of his own himself.
Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, 70:
Most actors made a show of their charity appearances. Not Fred. Once he attended a meeting at which he volunteered to perform with Adele for a worthy cause. He was asked to meeti with reporters and photographers to announce the event. Fred declined: "We're not giving our services to get our names in the papers. We're doing it to help."
Adler, page 159:
The Belle of New York, another M-G-M picture, is about a free-living bachelor who woos a Salvation Army girl--as in Guys and Dolls--and wins her. Vera-Ellen costarred [with Fred Astaire].
Adler, pages 163-165:
Fred [Astaire]'s dramatic acting career really started in 1957 when Stanley Kramer read a novel by Nevil Shute entitled On the Beach about the annihilation of mankind in a nuclear war... Serious stuff. Lines that must be delivered by a seasoned actor. Somone who could convince an audience.
The story goes that Kramer's wife was watching a late show one night on television with him and suddenly pointed to the screen where Fred Astaire was performing:
"There's your scientist."
Kramer was unamused. Then he took another hard look at the screen. He watched. Finally, he said, "By God, you're right!"
Fred was curious when Kramer came to him and asked him to join the cast. "Why me? You've got a world of talent to choose from."
"You've got something most actors don't have, Fred. Integrity. It shines out of you."
...Bosley Crowther thought Fred's performance was "amazing" and said the he felt Fred "conveyed in his self-effacing manner a piercing sense of the irony of his trade."
"Astaire's work is not only reminscent of but cmopares favorably to an Alec Guiness performance," wrote Arthur Knight.
Newsweek: "Astaire has never performed better."
Once the die was cast, the field of straight film drama was opened up for him...
From: Fred Astaire: Steps in Time: An Autobiography, page 55:
This tour coming up (1915-16), which I didn't realize was to be our last in vaudeville, was carefully planned. I combed the song market for special material and went into the musical-comedy field for my final choices. One was "They Didn't Believe Me" by Jerome Kern from The Girl from Utah and the other a Cole Porter song, "I've a Shooting Box in Scotland"...
From: Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, page 120:
Fred's shyness was often mistaken for aloofness... Even in social situations, his conversation was fragmentary and surface, partly because he abhorred controversy. "I don't get drawn into arguments very easily," he admitted, "because I refuse to discuss politics, religion, dancing, movies, et cetera. There is only one subject on which I could talk for hours and hours, and that's a certain sport." [golf]
From: Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, pages 150-152:
"Being a father is the best thing that ever happened to me in my life," Fred Astaire told a reporter with uncharacteristic lack of reserve. "It kind of makes any success I have on the stage or screen very unimportant by comparison."
Fred was a devoted father. He gave young Fred swimming lessons, took him along on fishing trips. Every evening when he returned from the studio, Fred devoted time to playing with the boy. Fred's home life was everything that he could desire.
He never ceased to be delighted and astonished by Phyllis. He was amazed when she assumed total responsibility for their dream house, buying four acres of hilltop property on Summit Drive, between Pickfair and Charlie Chaplin's house. She studied blueprints with architects, conferred with the contractor, planned the swimming pool and tennis court, kept ledgers of expenses.
Phyllis also took charge of all financial matters. That pleased Fred, who had an appreciation of money but detested the boredom of managing it...
While Fred deferred to Phyllis in most matters, he could not be pushed too far. Hermes Pan recalled vsiting the Astaires at their ranch in the San Fernando valley, where Phyllis performed the chores of cooking and cleaning up. One evening after dinner, she told Fred, "You do the dishes." He said "Okay," and disappeared into the kitchen.
"A moment later, we heard a terrible clatter," Pan related. "We rushed into the kitchen and found Fred breaking the dishes, one at a time. He said, 'Never ask me to do dishes again.' Ninety-nine wives out of a hundred would have blown their tops over that, but Phyllis just burst out laughing. Then she pitched in and helped break the rest of the dishes."
Some time after Fred Astaire's sister Adele was widowed, she remarried. From: Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, page 201:
...Adele had met an officer who was chief of intelligence in the Eighth Air Force, Kingman Douglass. The acquaintance was renewed in New York, where he worked as an investment banker. On April 28, 1947, Douglass, fifty-one, married [Adele] in the Presbyterian church of Warrentown, Virginia.
From: Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, page 289:
If Adele [Fred Astaire's sister] never changed, the times did. During the 1960s and 1970s both America and England underwent social upheavals that changed forever the kind of world that Adele had known. Although she herself had always been totally frank, she railed at the new freedom. "All this sex stuff nowadays, it's so phony," she told a young friend. "I'd just love to see everyone get impotent. I think it would be great fun."
Fred Astaire's second wife - Robyn Smith - moved to Hollywood after graduating from high school. The acting career she had sought never really took off, bu she ended up becoming a jockey, one of the first successful women jockeys in professional horse racing. From: Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, page 294:
Who is Robyn Smith and where did she come from?
...She was born August 14, 1944, in San Francisco to a woman who allowed the baby to be adopted by a wealthy Oregon lumberman, Orville Smith and his wife. As Robin Smith, she had a happy childhood until the age of five, when her mother regained custody on the grounds that the girl wasn't being raised in the religion she was born into--Catholicism. Soon, the mother later said, she was unable to care for her daughter because of ill health. Like Marilyn Monroe, Robin grew up in a series of foster homes, some of them pleasant, some miserable.
Astaire said his guest appearance on "Battlestar Galactica" was his favorite role. The science fiction series, created by Latter-day Saint TV producer Glen A. Larson, was based partially on Larson's own Mormon background and beliefs. From: P.J. Thum, "Biography: Conquering New Fields" web page on "FredAstaire.net" website (http://www.fredastaire.net/biography/conquer.htm; v. 11 May 2005):
He continued TV work with a 1979 appearance in Battlestar Galactica, a highly successful space opera which he did to please his grandchildren. Later asked what his favourite role was, the man who had appeared in so many movies with countless stars answered that his appearance in Battlestar Galactica was his favourite role because his little grandson had been so impressed with it.
From: Thomas, Astaire: The Man, The Dancer, page 301:
When I telephoned Fred on the eve of his eightieth birthday, May 10, 1979... He had recently played a role in "Battlestar Galactica," a space television series. It was a curious booking for Fred Astaire, but he explained, "I did it for my grandchildren." (Frd, Jr., has three children, Peter has three, and Ava has two stepsons.) He found it a tough show because of special effects that caused three days of overtime, and because of the space language, which he didn't understand.
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