THE FUTURE PROJECTED

Here’s everyday life in the near future, according to the 1912-1913 Santa Rosa newspapers: Someone in your family might go to the theater after supper to catch the latest blockbuster, but the rest of you will probably watch a movie or something in the living room. As a special treat there may be an occasional trip to San Francisco to see a much-hyped film only playing in certain theaters because it required special movie equipment, which made the audience feel the movie was almost real.

That may not seem much different from today, except: The movie at the local theater would be black and white but have sound synchronized from a recorded cylinder. Being watched at home would be a silent, flickering image shown by a hand-cranked machine. And what made the movie in San Francisco worth the trip was it being in color, made possible by the theater having a special color projector.

There were several methods of adding color or sound to movies in the early 1900s, but this isn’t cinema technology history 101; the topic here is limited to what was mentioned in the local papers, and in the spring of 1912 the excitement in Santa Rosa was the opportunity to see movies in “natural color.”

(Your obl. Believe-it-or-Not! factoid: 1912 was also the year when the word “movie” first appeared in the papers, and it was almost always used in quotes to show it was slang. The origin of the word is unclear, but the first use I can find is in a 1911 Central Valley newspaper where it was mentioned as being coined by “a bright El Centro youngster.”)

“Kinemacolor” movies were quite the rage that season; the Cort theater in San Francisco sold out for a month (including most matinees) with a three hour Kinemacolor spectacular showing the pageantry of the coronation of King Edward VII as emperor of India. The film itself was 150 minutes – the longest movie produced up to then – with the show padded out with a live speaker and “orchestra rendering Oriental melodies” (a fragment can be seen here). Also produced were Kinemacolor travelogues along with hundreds of short comedies and melodramas with titles like, “Dandy Dick of Bishopsgate” and “Detective Henry and the Paris Apaches.” In New York J. P. Morgan’s daughter threw herself a party showing Kinemacolor home movies of the hostess colorfully prancing around the family’s Italian villa. Editors at both Santa Rosa papers were clearly excited such a high-falutin’ event was coming to town – and it would be free admission, too!

The Kinemacolor films were shown in the Native Sons of the Golden West ballroom (that impressive red brick building which still stands at 404 Mendocino Avenue). The big Columbia theater in town couldn’t be used because a special Kinemacolor projector was required. The film – which ran through the projector at twice the speed as normal – was still black and white, but alternating frames were captured through a red or green filter and the projector had a synchronized red and green color wheel. More about the process is explained in a BBC documentary (the five minute section on Kinemacolor begins at 13:23) and in a video showing how the frames were merged. The result is awful; when there is any movement onscreen red or green fringing follows like a ghost. How anyone could watch such a thing for more than a couple of minutes without suffering a ripping headache is a mystery, as is why Kinemacolor was widely praised for its “natural color.”

But even if the color effect was far from perfect (far, far, far away) at least it was a free evening at the movies; perhaps there would be scenes from exotic lands or an exciting yarn about those “Paris Apaches.”

“There were pictures, true to life in color, of aeroplane flights, of automobiles busy about the factory,” promised an ad disguised as a Press Democrat news item. “Views showed the process of molding brass castings. The lighted furnaces and the men pouring the metal made the scenes seem real. They showed improved machinery turning out its products. Then there were views of the men and women at work, and leaving the factory.” As exciting as it might be to watch factory workers shuffling home at the end of their shift, the movie was actually an industrial film produced by a company to sell cash registers. “All the residents of Santa Rosa, especially the business men, are invited,” chirped the advertisement.

Okay, so maybe color movies with actual entertainment weren’t in Santa Rosa’s immediate future – at least there would soon be sound movies in the theaters and films to watch at home…right?

The movie projectors mentioned for home and local theater were versions of Edison “Kinetophones,” which were also called Phonokinetoscopes and Kinetoscopes, the latter also being Edison’s name for the peep show cabinet he had introduced twenty years earlier (old Thomas Edison may have been a maniac for inventing things, but he certainly fizzled when it came to naming them).

Like many papers nationwide, the Press Democrat in January 1913 ran a front page story on Edison’s announcement that he was about to revolutionize the entertainment industry. Where there had been earlier gizmos which played music on a phonograph while a movie was shown (including some of Edison’s peep-show boxes), his Kinetophone “delivers at the exact instant of occurrence on the film any sound made at the moment such action took place. Every word uttered by the actors is recorded and delivered in time with the action,” Edison boasted. A segment of the short sound film made to introduce the system can be viewed on YouTube and it’s still impressive to watch, once you keep in mind it is over a century old.

Edison should have ended the press conference with the demo; regrettably, he went on to say that thanks to his Kinetophone, performers would no longer have to tour – they could make “talkies” at the studios, which would probably be located in New York. “Entire operas will be rendered,” Edison told reporters. “Small towns, whose yearly taxes would not pay for three performances of the Metropolitan Opera company, can see and hear the greatest stars in the world for 10 cents.” The press twisted those egalitarian visions into a doomsday prophecy. “EDISON SEE FINISH FOR STAGE” was the PD headline, and the San Francisco Call warned the Kinetophone “Will End ‘Legitimate’ Careers.”

“Legitimate” performers soon discovered they had nothing to fear (although you gotta love how the SF Call put the word between cynical quotes). It may have worked flawlessly with engineers back in the lab, but real projectionists in real theaters struggled to keep the record and film in synchronization and often failed. Having never seen such a screwup before, audiences howled. Remember the end of “Singing in the Rain”?

But even at its best, Edison’s Kinetophone was a not-ready-for-primetime invention. Sound was recorded on large Edison cylinders which offered six minutes of playback (instead of the usual four) so forget the option of watching those entire operas Edison promised – most of the Kinetophone productions were of vaudeville acts. As the amplified loudspeaker was still years away, sound came out of a big metal horn behind the screen, making dialog hard to hear in all but the smallest theaters; one of the most popular Edison films was a comedy where two characters thought the other was deaf, causing the pair to continually shout at each other.

The Kinetophone wasn’t the only half-baked Edison invention Santa Rosa learned about in 1913. Just a few days before the Kinetophone announcement, the front page of the Press Democrat displayed the ad at right for the “Edison Home Kinetoscope.” It had no sound because there was no ability for it to synch with a phonograph, but it could show a film nearly twice as long as a Kinetophone, thanks to the bizarre, non-standard film it required.

Although the arc lamp was electric, the person standing in the silhouette was turning a crank which advanced film containing three streams of images side-by-side. The person acting as the, um, designated cranker, turned it one direction until the film stopped after about six minutes; the film gate was then shifted to the middle position and the projectionist cranked backwards – the images on the middle strip of film were printed in reverse. After another six minutes the film stopped again and the film gate was shifted to its final position, with the machine to be cranked forward. A photo of this ingenious layout can be seen here.

The ad proclaimed it was “not a toy,” but despite the high price (it cost up to $100, or about $2,500 in today’s dollars) it really couldn’t be taken seriously, either. Each image on the film was merely about 6mm wide so resolution wasn’t nearly as good as a 35mm film shown in a theater; nor was there pin registration to pause the film for a fraction of a second while it is being projected, resulting in vertical “motion blur.” And although the owner’s manual claimed it could throw an image thirty feet and a promotional photo shows a bright, clear image at about half that distance, the low resolution images and teensy arc lamp (with no reflector, either) meant that 3-4 feet was probably all that was practical.

As the Press Democrat ad noted, Home Kinetoscope owners could watch the same movies as were being shown in theaters – limited, of course, to titles produced by Edison’s studio. About 250 were listed (amazingly, copies of most still survive) and sold at prices from $2.50 to $20. A service was available to exchange your boring old films for others by mail, using pre-paid coupons purchased from dealerships such as the one on Fourth street.

The Home Kinetoscope was a flop, with only about 500 sold in the U.S. Nor did the sound Kinetophone system last very long; Edison and his staff continued tinkering with it for the next two years and in 1914 a magazine wrote, “Mr. Edison is at work now on some vital problem dealing with the synchronism effect and has promised that the day is near when the world’s greatest singers will be heard in grand opera scenes, with voice and action concretely reproduced.” But when a fire later that year swept through Edison’s West Orange, New Jersey complex and destroyed all Kinetophone negatives, Edison created no further talkies. Shortly after that he also discontinued making motion picture equipment of any kind, despite having ads running for a new, top-end theatrical “Super Kinetoscope.”

And at about the same time, the last Kinemacolor film was made. Public interest in the odd system still remained high; they were starting to produce feature films and much-desired footage of early WWI battlefields and armaments. But their undoing was their constant drumbeat about displaying “natural color.” A competitor challenged this on their patent claim and Kinemacolor lost, because it could not, in fact, display any form of the color blue.

MOVING SCENES IN NATURAL COLOR
Unique Entertainment Will Be Given Here on Monday Afternoon and Evening

Much interest is taken in the public moving picture entertainment that will be given at Native Sons’ Hall next Monday afternoon and night. The pictures will show the famous Kinemacolor process.

Kinemacolor, the new motion picture process in nature’s colors, is an English invention and was developed in all its details by an American. The process is fairly simple and somewhat similar to the three-color process in printing.

The camera taking the subject resembles the ordinary moving-picture camera, save that it operates at double the speed and interposes alternate red and green colored filters by means of a rapidly revolving wheel operated by a very nicely timed mechanical device, 1-32 or a second is devoted to the production of each picture, of which there are sixteen to the foot of film. This film is remarkably sensitive to the colors of nature, is produced by an American concern.

The films are developed in absolute [illegible microfilm]  reproduction of the colors on the screen, the picture made through the red filter is projected through a similar red filter, and the green picture through a green filter. These appear upon the screen 32 to the second, too rapidly for the eye to detect the color changes that take place. As a consequence, the colors blend harmoniously, giving the remarkable effects which you are about to witness.

120 feet of film moves through the delicately adjusted apparatus starting and stopping 1920 times in one minute. You can readily see from these figures that it would be absolutely impossible to hand color or tint this enormous quantity of film with such gorgeous hues as are shown by this marvelous process, Kinemacolor.

– Press Democrat, March 8, 1912
Rare Treat for Santa Rosans
Wonderful Moving Pictures Are Shown in Natural Colors At Business Show
THE FIRST TAKEN IN AMERICA

Scientists and photographers have worked for years on processes for photographing in Nature’s own colors. The solution of their problem has been found.

By the Kinemacolor process, moving pictures are now taken in colors and thrown on the screen with the motion and tints of actual life. The Kinemacolor film differs from other moving picture films in that it is not colored by hand nor by chemicals.

The first Kinemacolor pictures made in America were taken at the plant of the National Cash Register Company, Dayton, Ohio.

While A. J. Strayer, the local representative of that concern, was attending a business efficiency convention at the N. C. R. plant, he saw these pictures.

There were pictures, true to life in color, of aeroplane flights, of automobiles busy about the factory, of scenes at the N. C. R. Country Club, where baseball, tennis, running races, horseback riding and games are enjoyed Saturday afternoons during the summer.

Views showed the process of molding brass castings. The lighted furnaces and the men pouring the metal made the scenes seem real.

They showed improved machinery turning out its products.

Then there were views of the men and women at work, and leaving the factory.

Fireless locomotives drew their loads to and from the receiving and shipping platforms.

The green grass, the shrubbery and the vines clinging to the walls, made pictures in color which no artist could equal.

Mr. Strayer asked that the film be shown in this city at the earliest opportunity. His request was granted.

These beautiful pictures in natural colors will be shown in the Native Sons’ Hall, March 11th at 2:30 p.m. and 8:00 p. m.

All the residents of Santa Rosa, especially the business men, are invited to see these Kinemacolor views.

Admission free.

– advertisement in Press Democrat, March 8, 1912
NO ADMISSION TO SEE PICTURES
First Kinemacolor Entertainment Tonight

Everybody is invited to attend the lecture and exhibition of the Kinemacolor pictures at the Native Sons’ Hall this evening, and the entertainment is absolutely free. The pictures to be shown are the first to be taken by a new process of moving pictures, that show nature in all of her wonderful moods and colorings. Flowers are shown in their original tints without any hand coloring.

The lecture is delivered by H. C. Ernst, who arrived here on Monday with his operators of the moving pictures. A. H. Walker and E. C. Deveny.  included in the entertainment are many beautiful scenes of landscape gardening and suggestions for the beautification of homes, and the adornment of the exterior and interior of residences. The progress of the past twenty-five years in machinery is graphically shown, it being greater than all the progress of the ages preceding that time.

The reproduction of flowers and nature in the original colorings is the latest thing in the moving picture world and these pictures are the first to be taken and the first that have come to this city. They are interesting, educational and instructive, and should attract a crowded house to the Native Sons’ Hall this evening. No admission is charged, the expense being defrayed by the National Cash Register Company. Arthur J. Strayer is the local representative of the company, and he has arranged for the entertainment of the people of Santa Rosa by his company.

– Santa Rosa Republican, March 11, 1912

EDISON SEE FINISH FOR STAGE
Says His New Invention, the Kinetophone, Will Put the Legitimate Actor Our of Business and Reduce Prices to Minimum

New York, Jan. 6–Thomas A. Edison, in an interview today declared that he believed the legitimate stage doomed as the result of the completion of his “Kinetophone.” The success of its operation in the last few days was such as to make him believe that the $2.00 theatre must give way to the cheaper show with the better talent. He was sure that there would be no more barnstorming companies. The inventor declared that not one out of fifty had the right to spend the price of a theatre ticket. He believes that the legitimate action must leave the stage as more money is to be made acting for the new machines.

– Press Democrat, January 7, 1913
COLUMBIA WILL PRESENT EDISON’S KINETOPHONE

Morris Meyerfeld, Jr., head of the Orpheum Circuit, announced Wednesday that the Orpheum and affiliated theatres have secured the American rights for Edison’s latest invention, the kinetophone, by which talking motion pictures are presented, and that it will be put simultaneously in all the playhouses of the circuit in about three weeks. The kinetophone recently was demonstrated successfully and promises to revolutionize the career if the stage profession in some respects through its ability to transmit not only the actions, but the voice of the performer. The inventor has declared it will result in the stars leaving the legitimate stage to work for the “movies.”

Manager Crone of the Columbia Amusement Company has arranged to have the kinetophone at one of his amusement houses in the near future, which will give the lovers of “movies” a chance to see this latest invention by Edison.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 20, 1913

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SEEKING MISS EXCELSA

She is the symbol of the mysteries and misinformation surrounding the 1906 Santa Rosa earthquake. Her name is at the top of the memorial stone at the Rural Cemetery, but it is not her real name. She is buried with a child who was supposedly hers, but more likely was a girl she never saw. The only person who knew her fled without telling anyone how to contact her loved ones, leaving her remains unclaimed in a mass grave.

All we know about her with complete certainty is that she died during the April 18, 1906 earthquake in Santa Rosa, California. On the death certificate she is named Mrs. Cecile Heath. On the newspapers death lists she appeared usually as “Miss Excelsa,” which was a misspelling of her vaudeville stage name; the earthquake came the morning after her second performance at the town’s tiny theater.

I’ve been seeking more information about Miss Excelsa for over five years, off and on, combing old newspaper microfilm, theatrical playbills and official documents, always drawn back by the pathos in her story and because it is the last major untold tale of the disaster. I was also intrigued because unexpected secrets and mysteries kept coming to the surface as I dug deeper.

There are three people involved: Miss Excelsa, her husband, and her stage partner. The life of one of them (Excelsa) has an end but no origins that can be traced; we know when her husband was born but have no record of what happened to him; for her partner’s story we have a middle but no beginning nor end. Never have I encountered a personal history with so many different loose and mismatched threads.

Some time ago I promised myself I would wrap up the search and write a piece once I found pictures. Well, I’ve found pictures.

With the caveat that there are still more caveats in this tale than make me completely comfortable, here is the executive summary: On the day of the earthquake her name was Mrs. Excelia George (“Cecile Heath” was provided to the coroner by W. A. Douglas, the stage manager at the Oakland theater where she had performed a few weeks earlier). The whereabouts of her husband, and whether they were still married or he was indeed living, is still unknown. Her stage partner – who left Santa Rosa quickly after the quake, leaving Excelia’s identity a mystery – was her husband’s ex-wife, having obtained a divorce several years earlier after he abandoned her for Excelia.

“FRED HEATH” is at the core of our story, having married both women and introduced them to his unusual performing act. He was born Frederick P. George in 1866 or 1867 in Pittsburgh, the son of a day laborer. His appearance as a three year-old in the 1870 census is the only official document that can be found for any of them – aside for Excelia’s death certificate with the wrong name.

Years later, Fred told a magazine he began performing when he was only about twelve. In the theatrical trade papers the team called Heath and Latta can be spotted performing “gun spinning” and “drill exercises” in the early 1880s. It was essentially the same act that Fred would later perform with his two wives.

(RIGHT: “Fred Heath,” National Police Gazette, September 2, 1899)

Gun spinning was simply a kind of baton twirling using a rifle, and the gun was probably always loaded with blanks for a bang-up finish. It was called an “Arabian” or “Turkish” act because it was introduced to America by acrobatic troupes from the Middle East (usually Morocco, Syria, Algeria or Lebanon) performing in circuses, amusement parks and vaudeville programs – you can see it on YouTube in the 1899 “Arabian Gun Twirler” short film. The performance also usually included a sword fight.

Besides gun spinning, the act performed by Fred and his wives likewise included mock combat with swords and rifles with bayonets. While their performance evolved over time to include comedy, it remained identified as an “Arabian” novelty act; the Oakland Tribune used the shorthand of “Arabians” to describe Excelia and her partner just a month before the 1906 earthquake. It’s also possible they routinely darkened their skin or used makeup to appear more “Middle Eastern” in sync with American racial presumptions.

The Heath et. al. act also included a Zouave drill, which continued their military-Arabian theme. Many kinds of 19th century infantry regiments were called “Zouave,” but in the popular imagination of Fred’s day it specifically meant the Algerian Arabs who wore elaborate colorful uniforms. The Zouave drill was a high speed, high precision rifle drill – there’s a period film of Zouaves in Buffalo BIll’s Wild West Show also available on YouTube. For Fred and his partners it provided an excuse to have a great costume as they did more stunts with their firearms.

The partnership of Heath and Latta broke up in 1884, when Fred was about eighteen (nothing at all can be found about Latta’s gender or age). The new team of Lynch and Latta called themselves “Champion Zouave Drill Artists of the World” with the male-female partnership of De Rossett and Heath continuing the drill and bayonet combat routine. All four worked together for a couple of years in the touring stage spectacular “Michael Strogoff,” which was a popular adaption of a Jules Verne potboiler. A biographical sketch claimed Fred married in 1885, which is about the time he was first mentioned in the trade press along with Marie de Rossett.

MARIE DE ROSSETT was Fred’s wife and longest stage partner, but nothing can be found about her before they teamed up to twirl. If this was her introduction to showbiz, it must have seemed an appealing way of life; for the next five years they had steady work with established touring companies. After the Michael Strogoff troupe they performed with an opera company; in 1889 they even ventured to form the “Humpty Dumpty Specialty Company.”1

(RIGHT: “Marie De Rossett” Boston Sunday Post, October 27, 1907)

The next major sighting of the pair appears in “Old Slack’s” theatrical memoir, where he mentioned Heath and DeRossett were part of The Sam T. Jack Creole Company, a famously all-black burlesque show.2 Their involvement with the group seemed to be evidence one or both of them were African-American – and most likely Caribbean, because Sam T. Jack had prominent Cuban connections. But newspaper reviews mentioned there was an “Egyptian pastimes” portion of the show, where Marie and Fred were presumably wearing “Arabian” makeup on stage. (The memoir also includes a fun description of the couple using their rifles to guard the entrances to the owner’s private railway car while a hot poker game was underway.)

But the easy life was coming to an end. They were hired for a few weeks to be part of “Pain’s Last Days of Pompeii,” an outdoor pyrodrama with fireworks in Harrisburg, PA (more about the spectacle here) followed by a few months as part of the Night Owls Beauty Show. That was a true burlesque show, which in that era was a cross between the American minstrel show and Parisian follies, featuring women who flashed a bit of petticoat or stocking and performed some form of can-can dance. It also included women dressing up as men – particularly as soldiers – which was popular in 1890s burlesque because it provided a reason for them to wear tights on stage; there’s a poster of a Night Owls performer in a military costume much like the kind worn by Marie and Excelia.

Thus far it was easy to chase the pair at their various engagements because they were frequently mentioned in the press, at least in passing. But in the spring of 1892 a year-long gap began. Did Marie have a baby? Was someone ill? No, a large ad the following year announced they had experienced a “grand success” in Europe. (Most vaudeville performers didn’t bother with actual continental tours and only lied about appearing before kings and queens – which if all were true, the poor royal dears would not have had time for a wink of sleep.)

The billing for 1893 was reversed: Marie was now the “first and only female soldier in the world,” and assisted by Fred. They apparently expected to make quite a splash; they were quite wrong. They appeared in New York but were listed far down on the vaudeville bills, and then toured smaller cities such as Milwaukee and Buffalo. For the next two years they disappeared again from mention in the trade press – possibly they resorted to working the Humpty Dumpty shows, or other productions that required soldiering. Then in 1895, a small classified ad appeared in the top vaudeville newspaper: “WANTED An Expert Gun Driller for Partner.” The ad was placed by Fred Heath. He never performed with his wife again.

Marie De Rossett returned to vaudeville as a solo act. From the reviews we find her doing the same stuff – Zouave drill, gun spinning and bayonet work – only now she was doing them alone. She was a member of at least two burlesque companies and may have done some chorus dancing and singing (she was called a “Soubrette” by the reporter covering the divorce). But mainly she was a two-bit performer in two-bit theaters. She had fourth billing of ten novelty acts at the Tuxedo Club in Newark. At another place she had fifth billing, below “Prof. Kreisel’s Dogs, Monkeys and Cats.” On some bills she was not featured at all, just another nobody listed down at the bottom of the ad in tiny print.

Then in 1897 a theatrical bill appeared with a name not seen before: “Excelia, gun juggler.”

EXCELIA was an unusual woman’s name, found mainly in the late 19th century with women who were French or French Canadian. We can’t be positive that was really her name because no records at all can be found, but it was the name she consistently used onstage until just a year before her death. She was supposedly born in Paris (see the Police Gazette bio) in 1876 (death cert.) but without knowing her full maiden name there’s no way to find her immigration documents; most likely the clerk didn’t know what to do with a name like hers and either shortened it to “E.” or badly misspelled it.

(RIGHT: “Mlle. Excelia,” National Police Gazette, December 23, 1899)

And like Fred and Marie, she also can’t be found in the 1900 U.S. census. Knowing the stage manager thought she was called “Cecile,” I looked under all the rocks for that name and stumbled over an assortment of nearly matching Heaths and Georges named Cecelia, Cecilie, Cealea and other variations. Considering the search was not for a John Smith-type name, there were a remarkable number of close calls – there’s even an Excelia married to a Fred at about the right time, but he was a Massachusetts leather cutter and she lived to a ripe old age.

According to the newspaper story about Marie’s divorce, Fred and Excelia began living together in 1897, the same year she appeared on stage as a gun juggler. “Mrs. George charged that he had conducted himself improperly with another young actress at a Third avenue theatrical boardinghouse. He won this gay soubrette for his own, and made her his stage partner.” No mention was made of when Marie and Fred separated, but he began performing with Excelia just a few months after her juggling debut.

Fred and Excelia’s act was more than Zouave drill and twirling; now they were promoting themselves as comics and sharpshooters. Reviews can be found praising their “transformation scenes” and her marksmanship, but the comedy aspect was not described. Given vaudeville’s fondness for slapstick, it’s easy to imagine the scenario might have involved him portraying a gruff drill sergeant while she was the insouciant private, similar to the opening of Charlie Chaplin’s 1918 comedy, Shoulder Arms.

Marie’s divorce was granted, and later in 1899 the Police Gazette – sort of the National Enquirer of its day – ran the photos of Fred and Excelia shown here, along with a thumbnail bio of them. Due either to the reporter’s incompetence or Fred’s guile, all mention of Marie was replaced by Excelia. It has them marrying in 1885 (when Excelia would have been nine) and Excelia performing with him in all the touring companies mentioned above. The newspaper article on Marie’s divorce is equally flawed; it’s claimed she was then 21, which would have meant she was only six years old when she and Fred first teamed up to spin guns.

By 1903 the team of Excelia and Heath had been together for a half-dozen years. There’s no question they were more successful than Fred’s partnership with Marie, but that may be due to the steadily increasing popularity of vaudeville. But then in the autumn, they disappear from all mention. Like the situation with Marie exactly a decade earlier, we don’t know if they anonymously joined a touring company, decided to quit, or someone fell sick – or maybe died. The trail of Frederick P. George, AKA Fred Heath, abruptly ends after an appearance that October.

It was an odd couple that first appeared on stage during July, 1905 in a little theater in Connecticut. “DeRossett” was Fred’s first wife, her name slightly altered; her partner was “Excella,” his second.3 Fred was nowhere to be found; perhaps he had moved on to wife number three and quietly retired. Like with the women in this story, research turned up many Fred Heaths and Fred Georges who almost-but-not-quite fit his shoes.

(RIGHT: Novelty Theatre ad, Santa Rosa Republican, April 17, 1907)

DeRossett & Excella apparently reverted back to the old act Marie did with Fred. The few small reviews that exist describe gun spinning, juggling and mock combat – no more mention of comedy and shooting. They called themselves the “Girls Behind the Guns” which adds to the confusion because there was another act, “Clinton & Beatrice lady sharpshooters” which also used that nickname.

Through the theatrical calendar in Billboard magazine we can follow their travels west, ever drawing closer to Santa Rosa: Cleveland before Thanksgiving, South Bend before Christmas, Minneapolis at New Years’. They reached the West Coast two months before the earthquake.

In California they joined the Novelty Circuit, the smallest of all vaudeville chains in the state, with just six theaters. As discussed here earlier, the acts who appeared at Santa Rosa’s Novelty Theatre were usually has-beens or wanna-be’s, those whom were somewhat popular entertainers long ago and those whom were popular entertainers last summer at parties back home. With Marie at the top of the bill and them apparently performing an act that was considered stale a dozen years earlier, they were definitely in the classic-oldies category.

And then this happened: April 18, 1906.

Excelia was instantly killed in the earthquake, a man named Eugene West wrote to one of the vaudeville papers, and Marie was severely injured. Who Mr. West was, and how he came to know these details, is unknown – he was not one of the performers here at the time.

No mention of Marie appeared in the post-quake Santa Rosa papers, so her injuries were apparently not serious enough to delay her from escaping town as fast as possible, leaving others to deal with Excelia’s body and puzzle out her identity. (Even in the chaotic days following the earthquake, some remains were shipped out of Santa Rosa.)

Like the rest of the press, the theatrical newspapers were hungry for any details about the great disaster on the West Coast and as performers fled eastward, they published every scrap of information available. Almost all of the news came from people who experienced the quake in San Francisco. Santa Rosa was ignored except for a letter from Fred Gottlob – another player on the bill with Marie and Excelia – who told his tale of being trapped under fallen beams in the Grand Hotel for several hours.

But while these trade papers churned out lists of every player of every company that was in San Francisco at the time, Excelia’s death merited only a couple of lines in a couple of papers. Her real name was not given; probably no one at the papers knew anything about her, and likely anyone who did know her didn’t see the itty-bitty notices. This may be the greatest surprise in the whole story; the theatrical world was exceptionally clannish, with every sneeze and hangnail reported. (Literally so – while Fred and Marie were in Europe, one of these papers had an item about her tearing off a nail during a performance.) For a member of their fraternity to violently die while on tour and not be memorialized in some way is a shocking oversight.

Our story doesn’t quite end with Excelia’s unmourned death. Most important of what is still left unresolved is the matter of the little girl who came to be associated with her. Was Excelia her mother?

(RIGHT: “Mlle. Excelia,” National Police Gazette, September 2, 1899)

“Miss Excelsa” appeared on the April 19 casualty list, so it was immediately known she had died – but it was never mentioned where it happened. Then on April 21 this item appeared: “The remains of Miss Excelsa, the Novelty actress, and a little girl, identity unknown, were found this morning and taken to the morgue. The body of the latter was taken from the ruins of the Ramona lodging house” (south side of Fourth st. between Exchange avenue and B street).  As discussed in a previous article:

In the casualty list that appeared in the same edition, there were separate entries for “Excelia, Miss, Novelty actress,” and “Little girl (unknown), Ramona Lodging House.” But the following lists counted the child twice – both as “Little girl” and as part of “Excelsa, Miss, Novelty actress and child.” Apparently everyone forgot that the only connection between the two was that they were found on the same day.

The only possible way to tie them together would be to demonstrate Excelia was also staying at the Ramona, and would have been very unlikely. Vaudeville players and other traveling entertainers religiously followed “route books,” which were pocket-sized references that guided them from town to town. They listed important details about the theaters such as size of the stage and what electricity was available (they were divided between AC and DC back then). They told you where to get your clothes washed and where to get your handbills printed. They told you where to stay – and that was almost always a hotel and not a boardinghouse. The 1906 theatrical guide lists the Occidental and Grand hotels, both of which collapsed in the disaster and together caused the majority of fatalities. When fellow performer Fred Gottlob and his wife were trapped under timbers, they were staying at the Grand. Excelia was probably there, too.

Comment is also needed regarding the strange circumstances that came to bring Excelia and Marie together here that fateful morning. For Excelia to form a partnership with her husband’s ex-wife (or maybe, her ex-husband’s ex-wife) seems as if it might have been a mite awkward, particularly since she was named as “the other woman” in bitter divorce hearings. And don’t forget, we’re not talking about two people running a bakery – the partnership in question involved high precision, high speed handling of real guns and real swords. It was a situation where you would not want to have the most fleeting concern the other person might harbor unresolved anger issues.

What they shared – besides a history with Fred – must have been their certainty that this was their best available option. They were mature women, Excelia about thirty and Marie probably a little beyond forty. It was 1906 America, when employment opportunities available to women were hard, menial (usually, both) and certain not to pay very much. But they had mastered this weird skill and already had the props, the costumes, the scenery. So, what the hell. But by the time they reached Santa Rosa, the tour had a depressing familiarity. Fred and Marie were ultimately a flop; on her own Marie was an even greater failure. And here they were on the other side of the continent, playing the smallest hall in the smallest theatrical circuit in the state. Next stop: Mining camps?

Excelia’s death ended their failing partnership, but Marie still did not retire. In 1907 Marie de Rossett, the “Military Maid” and “the Girl Behind the Gun” was again spinning rifles. Her last known booking was September, 1908, at a regional fair in Canada. Then she finally stepped offstage into deeper shadows, which we cannot follow.

1 Shortly after the Civil War, producers discovered it was much easier to sell out all the seats in theaters by offering vaudeville-like shows aimed at children. “Humpty Dumpty” was the first and most famous of these productions, with Mother Goose characters singing, dancing and pantomiming a story loosely based on nursery rhymes. Featured were spectacular stage effects and crowd-pleasing novelty acts (trick roller skating! dancing monkeys!) plus lots of broad slapstick humor with sly topical jokes slipped in to amuse the parents. The show was an immense money-maker that was revived every few years through the turn of the century, followed by spinoffs such as Humpty Dumpty Abroad, Humpty Dumpty’s Dream and so on. The original play included a Zouave drill and bayonet combat and presumably Fred and Marie were offering a slick drop-in for that segment of the show to theater companies planning to stage Humpty Dumpty.

2 The Sam T. Jack Creole Co. was particularly famous for popularizing the cakewalk and being the first company to present African-American performers not wearing burnt cork on their faces. Multiple references state the company was all black, which was not true; besides occasional white performers such as Heath and De Rossett, the troupe sometimes included Egyptian women who performed “Scenes of Oriental Splendor.” But curiously, the Creole Co. was unable to perform in Louisiana because the troupe contained no actual creoles. One Louisiana paper called for them to stay away because the show’s “‘creole beauties’ is in reality composed of mulatto women and negroes.”

3 We can only guess Excelia tweaked her unusual Christian name to Americanize it for easier pronunciation (was it ExSEElia or Exehluh?) and spelling. If so, it was a mistake; “Excella” was spelled with one L about half the time and then became “Excelsa” in the newspapers casualty lists. Not a single misspelling of “Excelia” could be found during the years she used that as her stage name. It should also be noted that she was identified as Excelia on the April 21 casualty list in the Democrat-Republican. Perhaps this shows there was someone in Santa Rosa who knew her correct name; but as it was so badly misspelled otherwise, it could be a “broken clock is right twice a day” coincidence.

1906 EARTHQUAKE
At the Novelty This Week

The program at the Novelty theatre this week proved its popularity Monday evening by the repeated encores given the various participants. The overture by M. R. Samuel was a medley of popular song successes, Colonial Intermezzo, “Prescilla.” This was followed by the moving pictures showing the latest mystery of the “Missing Jewel Casket.” L. Blanche Gilman in the monologue act, “An April Fool,” is a former Santa Rosa girl. She was encored. Dave Yoder was recalled twice to repeat the chorus of “Goodbye Sweet Marie,” as an illustrated song. De Rosette and Excella, the girls behind the guns, gave some sensational work as gun jugglers and fencers. Dainty little Pearl Hickman, in her singing and dancing act as a soubrette, was given a hearty encore. Mr. and Mrs. Gottlob & Co., present their rural comedy sketch, “Government Bonds,” which is a real New England home scene, in a manner to delight all. The closing feature is another set of moving pictures, showing “The Critic at a Vaudeville Show,” which are very entertaining.

– Press Democrat, April 17, 1906

Mr. and Mrs. Gottlob, who were playing at the Novelty theatre the week of the disaster, are safe at Denver. Joe Cowen has received a letter from them written from that place.

– Santa Rosa Democrat-Republican, May 2, 1906

Mr. and Mrs. Fred Gottlob, who were playing in Santa Rosa, state: “We were buried for nearly three hours beneath timber and plastering. The suffering of my wife and myself while waiting for someone to dig us out was indescribable. We were pinned down so that we could not move hand or foot. We were in the Grand Hotel, a three story brick structure, and had been asleep several hours when the shock came. My wife was thrown out of bed into the middle of the floor, but I managed to keep in. The roof and whole building fell in, burying everyone. The timbers and beams were within an inch of my face, and I nearly smothered. My wife, a few feet away, spoke to me, and asked if I was hurt. All about, people were groaning and calling for someone to dig them out. After a time men began digging over us, telling me to keep up courage and that we would soon be safe. The earthquake occurred about 5 o’clock, and it was 8:15 before we were finally taken out. We were not injured except for several bruises, but I never want to go through such an experience again as long as I live. My wife was in a very nervous state, and we had to leave town in avery short time. Before leaving someone took us to a Mr. Carrington, a real estate man of that city and he gave us clothes (for we had on only our night robes) and gave us something to eat. Several hours after the ‘quake, a newspaper was issued in the middle of the street, from one of those little presses. The papers sold like hot cakes. I procured one and will have it framed.”

– New York Clipper, May 5, 1906

Eugene West, of West and Henry, writes: …Miss Excela, of De Rossett and Excela (gun spinners), who were playing the Novelty Theatre at Santa Rosa, was instantly killed, while her partner and Pear Hickman (Soubrette) were severely injured at Santa Rosa.

– New York Clipper, May 12, 1906

DEATHS IN THE PROFESSION

MISS EXCELA, of the team of De Rossett and Excela, female gun spinners, was killed at Santa Rosa Cal. on the morning of the earthquake, April 18. The team was playing the Novelty Theatre in that city.

– New York Clipper, May 12, 1906

Santa Rosa suffered very much by the earthquake and fully two hundred and fifty people were killed or injured. Miss Excella, a performer playing at the Novelty Theatre, was among the unfortunate ones. She was on the team of DeRossett and Excella, and did a gun-spinning act.

– Billboard, May 12, 1906

Pearl Hickman, Santa Rosa–Safe. 855 Grove

– Watertown Daily Times, May 3, 1906
HEATH AND LATTA

…Heath and Latta in drill exercises…

– NY Dramatic Mirror, 1881

…Heath and Latta…

– New York Clipper, January 5, 1884

…Lynch and Latta, in their well-executed zouave drill…

– New York Clipper, January 12, 1884

…Heath and Latta…

– New York Clipper, April 26, 1884

LATTA and LYNCH, The Champion Zouave Drill Artists of the World. Past two season, Andrews’ “Michael Strogoff” Co., assisted by DE ROSSETT and HEATH, Engaged last season as special attraction C. D. HESS ENGLISH-OPERA CO., in Musket and Bayonet Drills, Bayonet Contests, etc., etc. The equal to which haa never yet been placed before the American public.

– New York Clipper, March 12, 1887
HEATH AND DE ROSSETT

Heath and De Rossett and T. G. Scott have organized a new “Humpty Dumpty” Specialty Co., which with twelve people and a uniformed brass band, will take the road Jan. 20 opening in New York or New Jersey. The principals will be Heath and De Rossett and the Scotts (Tom and Lillie).

– New York Clipper, December 28, 1889

The Sam Jack Creole Co., out of Boston in 1890 had the following people: Heath and DeRossett…Old Slack happened to drop into Sam T. Jack’s Creole Car while enroute to Chicago not long since. I had a hard time effecting an en- terance as Heath and DeRossett, with gun and fixed bayonet, guarded both doors, but as they thought I was the subject that was to be sacrificed for the Sun God, at the next stand they let me in.

– Old Slack’s Reminiscence and Pocket History of the Colored Profession from 1865 to 1891

Heath and De Rossett are in their seventh week with Pain’s fireworks at Harrisburg, Pa.

– New York Clipper, July 18, 1890

…a novel military spectacle, entitled “Blue and Gray,” which, besides parading the charms of the hand-some girls of the company, Introduced a number of good specialties. In the olio that followed there were some new features. Fred Heath and Madame De Rosett gave a really remarkable bayonet, drill and combat

– The Times from Philadelphia, November 24, 1891

[Night Owls Beauty Show] Heath and De Passette, besides appearing in “The Blue and the Gray,” gave an exhibition of bayonet and drill exercises which was remarkable.

– Brooklyn Standard-Union March 22, 1892

Miss De Rossett, of Heath and De Rossett, the rifle drill experts who have been making a successful appearance at the Middlesex, England during the past fortnight, met with a painful accident while performing at that establishment, Aug. 31. In the mimic combat with her partner, Miss De Rossett had the nail of one of her fingers torn off. A physician bound up the injured finger but the pain was so excessive that Miss De Rossett fainted twice.

– New York Clipper, September 24, 1892

…Rossett and Heath In combats….

– NY World July 9, 1893

…De Rossett and Heath, who provide a European novelty, consisting of a sensational military drill…

– NY Press July 9, 1893

…Miss De Rossett, the first and only female soldier in the world, assisted by Fred Heath, will present a very original and entertaining military novelty, with muskets, broadswords, and bayonettes…

– The Milwaukee Journal, Aug 5, 1893

Of the vaudeville artists appearing in the theater the most notable are Heath and De Rossett in their realistic military assault-at-arms, with broadswords and bayonetted muskets. Miss De Rossett’s performance is the first of its kind ever attempted by a woman. They come straight from Europe.

– Buffalo Courier, September 25, 1893
EXCELIA AND HEATH

WANTED
An Expert Gun Driller for Partner
Address Fred Heath, 128 Berriman St., Brooklyn, N.Y.

– New York Clipper, September 28, 1895

(at Proctor’s 23d St.) Excelia, gun juggler…

– NY Dramatic Mirror Aug 7, 1897

…Excelia and Heath, comedy entertainers…

– Buffalo Courier, February. 6, 1898

(Comedy Company) Excelia and Heath are wonders in their transformation scenes; and the shooting by Miss Excelia is well worth seeing

– Yonkers Statesman Jan 17, 1899

EXCELIA AND HEATH.

“Fred” Heath was born in Pittsburg, Pa., and made his professional debut in the same city in 1879 as a gun spinner and juggler under the team name of Heath and Latta. In 1885 he was married and he and his wife, Excelia, who was born in Paris, France, have worked together ever since, having played a part in the “Michael Strogoff” company, Robert Manchester’s Night Owls company, “Sam” T. Jack’s company and many others, as well as the principal theatres in America and Europe. In 1893 they conceived the idea of introducing comedy into their act and it proved to be a grand success. They are at present filling summer engagements at the parks in Pennsylvania, Delaware and New Jersey.

– National Police Gazette, September 2, 1899

…Frederick and Excelia Heath…

– NY Tribune February 4, 1900

…Fred and Excelia Heath, comedy duo…

– NY Dramatic Mirror February 10, 1900

…Excelia and Heath, the sensational gun spinners with electrical rifles…

– Chicago Tribune, February 10, 1901

…Excelia and Heath, gun spinners…

– NY Dramatic Mirror January 19 1901

Heath and Excelia have a wonderful reputation for their work with firearms and during the week wil perform many seemingly impossible feats in the line of sharpshooting; also some very difficult juggling with the different weapons used in their act.

– Lockport NY Journal August 23, 1902

…Heath and Excelia…

– NY Dramatic Mirror Oct 3 1903
DE ROSSETT AND EXCELLA

DeRessette and Excella, two Arabians who also carry their own special scenery for a new novelty act, will make their first Pacific Coast appearance at the Novelty and they will no doubt be the talk of the town after their opening Monday.

– Oakland Tribune March 3, 1906

The bill opens with a great novelty act, De Rossette and Excella, “The Girls Behind the Guns,” who do some wonderful gun spinning and juggling that for women is the best seen here in many moons.

– Oakland Tribune March 6, 1906
MARIE DE ROSSETT

…Marie De Rossett gave an idea of her skill in a Zouave drill and bayonet exercise…

– Boston Daily Globe November 3 1896

…Marie De Rossett named as part of Fay Foster Company

– Trenton Evening Times November 20, 1896

…Marie De Rossett named as part of Fay Foster Extravaganza Company as part of “Grand Olio” group

– Boston Sunday Post January 10, 1897

…Marie De Rossett, the champion female gun manipulator in the world…

– Bridgeport Herald February 20, 1898

MARIE GEORGE GETS A DIVORCE
Her Husband Preferred Another Soubrette to His Pretty Wife.
NOT THE CASINO FAVORITE
George Is Now Playing in the West Under the Name of Frederick Heath.

Marie George, not the Casino favorite, but one of the “Gay Masqueraders,” now playing in Brooklyn, tripped into the Supreme Court yesterday in company with a bunch of a dozen or more lively soubrettes, and after relating a touching tale of domestic unhappiness to Justice Nash, she walked out with an absolute decree of divorce tucked away in the bosom of her sealskin cloak.

The former Mrs. George’s stage name is Marie de Rossett. She is a handsome dark-haired young woman of less than 22 years, who has made a name for herself on the variety stage through her beauty and ability to perform difficult “stunts.”

Her former husband’s name is Frederick P. George, who is professionally known as Fred. Heath. Mrs. George charged that he had conducted himself improperly with another young actress at a Third avenue theatrical boardinghouse. He won this gay soubrette for his own, and made her his stage partner.

Mr. George was not in court when the case against him was called. It was explained that he was out in Kansas City, following his profession in company with the young woman whom he seemed to prefer to his pretty young wife.

Mrs. George was the first witness examined. When her counsel asked, “Who are you?” her hat almost jumped from its fastenings as she suddenly threw back her head. Several of the soubrettes in the room began to laugh, and one of them went so far as to volunteer to tell the justice who she was.

Finally the young woman replied: “I am Mrs. Marie George. Do you think anybody else would be suing my husband for a divorce?”

“I hope not,” replied her counsel, and then Mrs. George resumed the history of her life. Again her counsel interrupted: “Who are you? What do you do for a living?”

“Well, I declare,” she smiled, “isn’t it foolish of me? Why I am a–well–I am at present a burlesquer in the ‘Gay Masqueraders.’ I was married to my husband on February 27, 1895, and he left me about two years afterward.”

Mrs. A. Fielding, who maintains a professional boarding-house at No. 363 Third avenue, testified that George had lived in her house with another woman for two years.

Mrs. George’s counsel said she did not want alimony, but the justice allowed her $20 a month, any way, and signed a decree in her favor.

Some of the young soubrettes became so deeply infatuated with the spicy proceedings in the divorce court that they remained for the rest of the afternoon.

– New York Morning Telegraph, January 19, 1899

Judge Nash, of the New York Supreme Court, granted a decree of divorce to Marie De Rosett from her husband, Fred. P. Heath, on statutory grounds. She was represented at the trial by Attorney M. Strassman.

– NY Dramatic Mirror January 28, 1899

De Rossett is introduced and she shows what a woman is capable of doing with a gun.

– Boston Post January 31, 1899

…Marie DeRossett… (4th billing of 10 novelty acts in Tuxedo Club burlesque show “the burlesque is new and not of a  trashy order”)

– Newark Daily Advocate October 21, 1899

…Marie DeRossett… (5th billing, below Prof Kreisel’s Dogs, Monkeys and Cats)

– Boston Daily Globe August 10, 1902

…Marie de Rossett the Military Maid

– Boston Post, Oct. 27 1907

…Marie de Rossett, “the Girl Behind the Gun,” went through the manual like a true soldier…

– Boston Post, Oct. 29 1907

…Marie de Rossett Is certainly the champion gun spinner and her act went with great applause…

– The Billboard June 6, 1908

Marie DeRossett (Provincial Fair) Quebec

– The Billboard September 1908

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LUTHER BURBANK’S MOVING AWAY

You can bet jaws were dropping all over 1912 Santa Rosa when rumors spread Luther Burbank was moving out of town. He wasn’t going far – only about a mile from downtown, to a new subdivision called “West Roseland” – but Santa Rosa without its Burbank was unthinkable. Being the home of the “plant wizard” defined Santa Rosa’s image, with a perpetual stream of visitors coming from far away to see him and his gardens. And that’s exactly why he would have wanted to move away from the well-beaten path; Burbank was besieged by pesky pilgrims whenever he worked in his fields.

Financially secure for one of the few times in his life, Burbank could afford building a new place. A couple of months earlier he had signed a deal with investors to create the Luther Burbank Company, which would henceforth sell his seeds and plants. He was paid $30,000 up front, worth about $4 million today. Work was also underway at the newly-formed Luther Burbank Press to finally create an encyclopedic series of books on Burbank’s works. All in all, 1912 was very likely his happiest year.

Everything was going so well that he even risked a few days off. In August Burbank was part of the “flying legion,” a ten day junket to promote the upcoming Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Traveling on a special Southern Pacific train, about a hundred men took the trip up the coast to Vancouver and back, with stops at all major cities on the way. The only other local man in the delegation was Robert John, an officer of the Luther Burbank Press and Luther Burbank Society, who appears to have been the linchpin in both projects.

Burbank kept a very low profile. He was toasted at a banquet in Canada but told the audience he wasn’t much of a speaker unless the topic was something like “spuds,” which he could discuss at length. A reporter in Oregon quoted his views on the importance of the trip, where in characteristic Burbank fashion he managed to complain and boast in the same breath: “This is almost the first day’s vacation I have taken in ten years, and I came at a time when I have on the place, working toward the publication of my books, 43 stenographers and typewriters, besides my usual executive work is hard to get away from.”

After the trip, nothing more about a planned new home was reported and the Burbank archives have no entry regarding a possible move to West Roseland. It’s more likely he bought the land on speculation; central Sonoma County was then enjoying its first building boom of the Twentieth Century. Ads for new subdivisions appeared regularly in the papers, and developers competed with each other by offering choice locations or no-money-down contracts. Here, it seems the developer was promoting West Roseland as an upscale neighborhood, where buyers would rub elbows with Burbank, George Dutton, Max Rosenberg, and other well-heeled local luminaries. And to cement the link to Santa Rosa’s favorite son, the main road was named “Burbank avenue.”

It appears none of the movers-and-shakers built grand homes in the subdivision. Today, Burbank avenue – which runs north-south, between Stony Point and Dutton Ave. – is almost entirely post-WWII construction, with a couple of older cottages. As you move farther away from Sebastopol Road it turns into a pleasant country lane with pastures and large empty lots that are surprising to discover so close to downtown. Much of it looks like it probably did in Luther’s era, when it was unincorporated county land. Of course, as it’s part of greater Roseland it is still unincorporated county land, only now surrounded on all sides by Santa Rosa proper. Of all the subdivisions then being developed outside of Santa Rosa, Petaluma, and Sebastopol, West Roseland was the only one that didn’t make it into city limits.

BURBANK BUYS LAND
Report Says He is Going to Build New Home

Luther Burbank, the well known resident and great horticulturist of this city, has purchased 16 2/3 acres of the Richardson tract on Sebastopol avenue, one mile west of this city. When asked as to his plans of use of the property, Mr. Burbank stated that he had made no plans to announce at present. The report was current on the streets, however, that he intended to build a fine, modern residence there.

The property adjoins the property recently purchased by Max Rosenberg, Dr. J. H. McLeod and John Rinner, and which they are now having surveyed to be placed on the market. The survey includes an avenue a mile long, which runs southerly from the Sebastopol road and which the purchasers will name Burbank avenue. The tract being subdivided will be called West Roseland.

Mr. Burbank made his purchase through the agency of Barnett & Reading.

George Dutton has purchased a piece of property adjoining Burbank’s new property and is planning a fine residence on his new possession.

– Santa Rosa Republican, July 3, 1912

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