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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WHERE THE MUSIC DIED

Even before Konocti Harbor became synonymous with oldie rock bands, the North Bay was a popular stop for fading has-beens. In the first decade of the 20th century, not a single top name musical act played near Santa Rosa, with the arguable exception of John Philip Sousa’s Band in 1904 (and even his group could be viewed as an oldies touring band, as the March King’s glory days had passed). Instead, the little theaters north of the Golden Gate churned through a procession of unpolished – and often cringe worthy – vaudeville acts, novelty athletic exhibitions such as the man who roller skated on stilts, and those geriatric tours of names once famous on Victorian stages, back 20, 30, even 40 years before.

One group that played Santa Rosa in 1908 had been quite famous less than a decade earlier: The Richards & Pringles Original Georgia Minstrels. The Press Democrat interviewed their manager, asking if he had read a recent newspaper article about declining audiences for minstrel shows. Manager Jack Holland predictably dismissed the idea as “the veriest rot,” conceding that a few minstrel touring companies had folded, but the recent theatrical season had been rough for everyone. “The good old style of entertainment still holds a warm place in the hearts of the American people,” he assured the reporter.

Some of this was braggadocio and whistling past the graveyard; minstrel shows were being slowly squeezed out by the modern and always-changing vaudeville bills, as discussed here in an earlier essay. The Richards & Pringles show wouldn’t fold until around 1916, and a few companies would hang on for another two decades beyond that, booking halls in smaller and smaller rural communities in the Deep South and performing for audiences that were mostly African-American.

Sadly, the PD interview with manager Holland begins with that single insipid question and ends with his predictable and banal answer. Even a Journalism 101 student today would have probed a bit, and realized that this man had stories enough to fill the newspaper for days. (Nor was this the only time that year a clueless local reporter had flubbed the shot at a big, newsmaking interview.) Jack had worked for several circuses before becoming an agent for Richards & Pringles, and by the turn of the century, he and his financial partner simultaneously owned that famous minstrel troupe and three others, all using only African-American performers. For showmen they were remarkably successful, and that should have led an astute reporter to drill down to the fundamental questions: Why is your famous company playing a dinky theater in a remote California farm town? Where’s Billy Kersands? And where were you on that night in Missouri, six years ago?

John Holland started working for Richards & Pringles in 1891, about three years after the company was founded. Billy Kersands was already the star of the show. Holland greatly owed the success of his shows to this black showman, who was possibly the most charismatic stage performer of the late 19th century and could be considered the first crossover act, as wildly popular with black audiences as white. Kersands was renowned as a comic genius and also created – or at least, popularized – a dancing style known as “Virginia Essence,” which was the direct ancestor of tap dance. He was universally admired and respected; when the group toured England and Europe, Queen Victoria awarded him a diamond pin. A good biography – and a Ken Burns-quality documentary, even a motion picture (he looked remarkably like Eddie Murphy) – is long overdue.

The money-making Kersands/Holland machine might have chugged along for another decade if not for what happened February 16, 1902, on the outskirts of New Madrid, Missouri. A day earlier, the Richards & Pringles company had come to town and that afternoon, a few well-dressed black performers were taking a stroll when a couple of local young men began pelting them with snowballs. One of the performers cussed at them. At the sold-out performance that night, local youths heckled the performers and at the end of the show, charged the stage. One of the minstrels fired a revolver and at once there were a half-dozen guns firing in both directions. The audience panicked but when order was restored, the only serious injury was a bullet in the leg of a performer. Members of the troupe suspected of firing weapons were taken to jail, where they were beaten. The next evening, mask-wearing men attacked the sheriff’s office. The mob singled out Louis F. Wright, a 22 year-old trombone player, as the performer who began the shooting. He was dragged from his cell and hanged from a tree at the edge of town. His body was cut down the next morning and shipped C.O.D. to his mother. No one was arrested for involvement with the murder. Wright’s friends and family in Chicago raised money for a lawyer to sue the county, but nothing apparently came of it.

A one -paragraph AP wire story on the lynching appeared in many newspapers, including the San Francisco Call, but there was no followup in the press about the incident, much less comment from the owners or players in the troupe. Judging by ads found in digitized newspaper archives – always a hit-or-miss proposition – the company had few bookings for the rest of the season, and almost all of them were in Northern cities with no habit of lynching black men: Places like Minneapolis, Seattle, and Salt Lake City. When they ventured again into the Deep South at the end of the year, their newspaper advertisements downplayed the Richards & Pringles brand, most of the ad space filled with a photo of Billy’s big grin.

Kersands might not have been in New Madrid that night; some sources place him working that year at another of Holland’s touring groups, “Rusco & Holland’s Big Minstrel Festival.” Nonetheless, he severed all ties with Jack Holland’s minstrel empire at the end of the 1902-1903 season. He next performed a solo act, headlined in a stage comedy and formed “Billy Kersands’ Minstrels.” Later with his wife he renamed the troupe “Billy and Louise Kersands’ Minstrels,” and he broke from the minstrel tradition to create a variety show that was the precursor to vaudeville. (In an interesting switch, it was reported that whites were segregated into a corner of the balcony at these performances.) That he was also the owner of these shows and traveled on his private railway car was unprecedented for an African-American entertainer .

Billy Kersands died in 1915, immediately after closing an engagement in New Mexico. He was 73 and had spent the greater part of fifty years in the spotlight. Newspaper clippings showed he toured major cities in the East and Midwest in his last decade, but reference books are contradictory as to his movements and success (one otherwise-respected source has him performing for Queen Victoria nine years after her death). At the time Jack Holland was being interviewed by the Press Democrat in 1908, he was again part of a traditional minstrel show, headlining for the “Dandy Dixie Minstrels” in a swing through small cities in the Texas panhandle and adjoining states. But that doesn’t mean his stardom was in descent; at the same time, a top white vaudeville act, The Three Leightons, were performing an ersatz minstrel routine that centered upon an imitation of Kersands.

Between the 1902 lynching and its closure in 1916, the Richards & Pringles Minstrel Show apparently rarely performed below the Mason-Dixon Line. Perhaps Southern theater owners were skittish that local yokels would want to “finish the job” and string up other members of the company, or maybe they feared that the African-American performers were troublemakers. For whatever reason, the show toured mainly in the West, Southwest, and Upper Plains states, where audiences would be mainly white.

So this was this answer to the question that the Press Democrat reporter didn’t ask: They were in Santa Rosa because they now just performed outside the South in places where a sentimental view of “Dixie” prevailed. And without a bi-racial audience, they undoubtedly cut or “whitened up” sections of the program that appealed directly to blacks, leaving only a parody of the original show with a supersized portion of racism. What appeared here was probably more like “A Tribute to the Richards & Pringles Original Georgia Minstrels,” not so different from those ghost bands that tour under a once-famous name. Had they stuck around another seventy years, they undoubtedly would’ve been playing at Konocti.

JACK HOLLAND TALKS ON MINSTRELSY

A reporter recently met “Jack Holland,” for many years the business manager of Richards & Pringles famous minstrels who appear here on Monday night, and called his attention to an article in a recent issue of a metropolitan paper on the decadence of minstrelsy as a form of entertainment.

Mr. Holland replied with a smile: “Oh, yes, I read the article with a great deal of amusement. Every once in a while you will read an article by some misinformed writer about the passing of the minstrel show. That Americans have tired of the form of amusement that used to make their grandfathers, and yes, even their great grandfathers, laughed till the tears rolled down their cheeks.

“But such talk is the veriest rot. Minstrelsy was never in a more flourishing condition than at this very day.

“This is a progressive age, and one must keep abreast of the times if he is catering to the public. The season of 1907-08 was a particularly disastrous one. Scores and scores of dramatic shows and musical comedies were obliged to close for lack of patronage. Very few indeed were the minstrel shows that gave up the fight. There were two or three minstrel shows closed, to be sure, but they were inferior companies, and scarcely worthy [of] the name.

“None of the leading organizations closed, which proves conclusively that the good old style of entertainment still holds a warm place in the hearts of the American people.”

– Press Democrat, October 31, 1908

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A NEW PLAY EVERY WEEK

Pretend that you live in a town – say, 1906 Santa Rosa – that suffered a major disaster – say, an earthquake that killed scores of people and left the downtown in rubble. A few weeks pass and you’re worn down by mourning and stress and just plain bored. So what could you do for fun?

The town went roller skate crazy when a very nice skating rink opened that summer, and seemingly everyone in town turned out to whirl around the rink or to watch experts perform (there was a gallery that could seat a thousand, and professionals appeared regularly). But there’s not much variety to the sport, and Santa Rosans were accustomed to being entertained. Before the quake, there were two theaters: The cavernous Athenaeum, where plays and stage shows were performed, and the Novelty Theatre, which presented Gong-Show quality vaudeville acts. Both were destroyed in the disaster.

The first post-quake playhouse was The Hub Theatre, which apparently opened its doors in September with an address of simply, “Main st.” It’s difficult to determine where it was, because the two blocks of Main between Courthouse Square and Sonoma avenue were almost completely flattened; it was probably in a long, narrow building that had been used to store buggies, and is now part of the site of the Roxy Stadium 14 movie theater (quite a nice coincidence, that).

At first, The Hub offered more cheesy vaudeville acts such as “Marco the Boy Magician,” and “Flood and Hayes, Renowned Trick Jumpers.” But it wasn’t long before the shtick variety programs were replaced by plays performed by the Columbia Stock Company, Al Richter, manager. They offered a new play every week, with three evening shows and a matinee. By early 1907, the ensemble had become the Al Richter Stock Company, with performances seven evenings a week plus a Sunday matinee, which was probably more of a dress rehearsal.

It’s no small feat to assemble an acting troupe, and Mr. Richter must have been an interesting character with boundless energy. But Orson Welles he was not, and the plays he presented were hardly cutting edge Ibsen. The newest play I can find advertised was about 8 years old at the time, and the oldest predated the Civil War. These were farces and potboilers, with titles such as, “The Moonshiners”, “Wanted, A Baby!”, “Too Much Mother-In-Law”, and “Nugget Nell, or the Pet of Poker Flat.” These early-to-mid Victorian era plays often leaned heavily on ugly racial cliches; villains or comic characters might include a “drunken Indian,” a “giddy Celestial,” a “lazy Colored servant,” which meant that the Richter Stock Company made heavy use of burnt cork, yellow and red paint along with demeaning and crude dialect. One week Mr. Orrin Shear was playing “Johnson, Colored Gentlemen” in their production of “Little Alabama,” and a few weeks later portraying “Ratts, the slave auctioneer” in “The Octoroon.”

Entertainment options bloomed in 1907, with vaudeville acts at the new Empire Theatre on Third street, a few doors down from the ruined courthouse. There was also the Star Nickelodeon at 414 Fourth street showing continuous motion pictures. And just before Thanksgiving, Al Richter opened his new Richter Theatre on the northwest southwest corner of B and Third street (currently a pitiful grassy knoll outside the mall, across from Wells Fargo). On the first anniversary of the Richter Stock Company that autumn, Press Democrat editor Earnest Finley wrote an approving commentary: “Nearly all of [the productions] were good, and some indeed excellent. The players as well as the plays have been of superior character, and the prices have been much less than were formerly paid for entertainment not so good.”

But all was not sunny that year for Al Richter. Theodore (T. T.) Overton, brother and business partner of Santa Rosa’s mayor and one of the town’s movers and shakers, announced that he was going to build an even bigger theater and organize his own company of actors. The Press Democrat featured a drawing of “Santa Rosa’s New Theatre” (not reproduced here because of poor microfilm quality, but it can be found in the Feb. 26, 1907 edition) that would seat 700 and have a state-of-the-art design by architect Victor Dunkerley, who had just designed the jewel of the new Santa Rosa downtown, the Overton Hotel. The cathedral-like playhouse would have 10 exits that could be opened “with the throwing of a single lever in the box office, which would be a safeguard in case of fire or other cause which might induce a panic,” according to the announcement in The Republican. Surely the spectacle of ten doors flipping open at once would have been a powerful temptation for scalliwags to cry “fire” in a crowded theater.

That would have been intimidating competition for Richter, whose operation was showing signs it might be having money troubles. Attendance was apparently off; while still in the smaller Hub Theatre, the stage manager came out and urged the audience to patronize their homegrown productions because it was, after all, a local business, and everyone in town was doing their darndest to shop locally. Another hint at desperation was that Al Richter rented space for building and painting new sets “to give the people a new set of scenery each week as the bill changes at the theater.” Read between the lines and it appears that he was making copies of stage sets from a theatrical service in San Francisco in order to save rental costs.

It seems that this era of local theater ended in the spring of 1908, when it was announced that the Richter Theatre was henceforth a vaudeville house. “From the large and appreciative audience it would seem that the change was to the liking of the patrons,” The Press Democrat snarked on May 15. In the following months it would also serve as a movie house/nickelodeon and a week-long rental theater for traveling acting companies. Ads announced in September that there was a new manager at the theater, and it followed soon that it had been sold.

The new owner was Mr. Overton, who somehow had never gotten around to building his expensive and extravagant playhouse, although Santa Rosa was promised more than a year before that “the building [was] practically assured.” He hadn’t gotten around to founding his own acting company, either; maybe he was disappointed that he couldn’t get the Richter Stock Company as part of the deal.

THE DRAMA IN SANTA ROSA

Although Santa Rosa no longer has the good theater building that it had before the fire, the people who go to plays have been better entertained within the last year than ever before in the city’s history. Occasionally there was a good play at the Athenaeum; but, depending entirely upon road companies, that playhouse often billed shows that sounded the depths of inferiority. Since the Richter Stock Company has held the Hub theatre, to which little playhouse local theatre-goers have been compelled to journey by reason of the lack of a bigger and better one, fifty-two different productions have been presented, nearly all of which were good, and some indeed excellent. The players as well as the plays have been of superior character, and the prices have been much less than were formerly paid for entertainment not so good.

There have been no grand stage settings, no large orchestras, no spectacular extravaganzas. The entertainment has been chiefly light melodrama, considerably below the highest form of dramatic art, but far above the childish humor of the comedies so popular in even the “dramatic centers,” and even further still removed from the vulgar indecencies of suggestive pruriency idocy [sic] of the “slap-stick” variety.

The theatre is supposed to represent Art. The greatest critics lay down the law that poor art is also poor morals; and there can be no doubt that coon songs [sic], rag-time, slap-sticks and like abominations have an influence directly opposed to all that is best in both art and morals.

It is pleasing to know that before many months Santa Rosa will have a theatre better adapted to its purpose than is the Hub, and that the Hub’s company will tread the boards there with much better accessories for creditable productions. The old company in its new home should be one of the town’s “institutions.”

– Press Democrat editorial, October 29, 1907
TOOK PROPERTY FROM THEATRE

Some time ago five pistols, part of the property of the stage manager of the Hub theatre, were stolen. Yesterday Chief of Police Rushmore and Police Officer Boyes placed a youth under arrest and charged with the theft. It seems that there is another youth concerned in the robbery, and he will be arrested today.

– Press Democrat, January 23, 1907
THEATER FOR SANTA ROSA NOW PRACTICALLY ASSURED
Will Have Seating Capacity of Seven Hundred And Be Modern

Santa Rosa is practically assured of a handsome theater in the near future. Arrangements are now being made for the structure, which is to be constructed on Fifth street, opposite the Republican office. The news that T. T. Overton was contemplating the matter of providing an up-to-date playhouse for the City of Roses was recently given to the public in the columns of this paper and was pleasing news. The necessity for an opera house here is apparent to the most casual observer and the long time that has elapsed since the traveling companies from the east have visited this city makes people hunger for the good old times gone by when theatrical attractions in large numbers visited the city.

The theater planned for Mr. Overton by Architect Victor Dunkerley will have a seating capacity of seven hundred and five. Of this number four hundred will be accommodated in the main auditorium and three hundred and five in the balcony which is included in the plan.

Ten exits have been provided for the structure and all can be opened with the throwing of a single lever in the box office, which would be a safeguard in case of fire or other cause which might induce a panic. In construction and appurtenances the new structure will be up-to-date in every respect and fire escapes will be provided for the outside of the structure. The perspective is quite a handsome one, and on one side of the building will be the work “Music,” and on the other “Drama.”

Mr. Overton is organizing a stock company at present to handle the project with him and there has been a liberal response to the invitation to invest in the enterprise. Estimates of the cost of the structure prove that a liberal interest can be gained on the amount of coin to be invested and the building is practically assured.

– Santa Rosa Republican, February 23, 1907

“THE OCTOROON” ALL RIGHT
Another Good Attraction Being Presented at the Hub Theatre

“The Octoroon,” which constitutes the attraction at the Hub Theatre this week is a strong play, and in the hands of the Al Richter Stock Company furnishes a fine evening’s entertainment. Not many patrons of the house will be apt to miss this week’s bill.

In his curtain announcement Monday evening, Stage Manager Harries made a point that seemed to find much favor with the local business men present. He called attention to the fact that while a traveling company might at times take a good deal of money out of town, a stock company such as that playing at the Hub was an entirely different proposition, practically all the money remaining here, and being spent each week among the local merchants. He urged a liberal patronage upon the part of the Santa Rosa business men for this reason.

– Press Democrat, April 9, 1907
RUSHING WORK ON “THE RICHTER”

Carpenters are rapidly rushing the work on “The Richter,” Santa Rosa’s new theater, and Manager Al Richter declared he will have the prettiest and cozziest [sic] little playhouse that Santa Rosa has ever seen. It will be neat in the extreme, and seat about 550 people…

– Santa Rosa Republican, December 11, 1907

RICHTER IS MAKING SCENERY
Opens Special Paintshop for Benefit of Local Theatre

Manager Al Richter of the Richter theater is going into the scenery painting business on a large scale for the next few months. He has leased the room formerly occupied by Davis drug store on Fifth street and has transferred the place into a veritable paint shop, where he can work on the scenery for the theater. He expects to be very busy for the next three months and until such time as he can get stocked up with scenery.

It is Mr. Richter’s plan to give the people a new set of scenery each week as the bill changes at the theater, and to do this he will have considerable of a task as well as heavy expense. In order to hasten matters for the present he sent to the metropolis, where he secured a number of exterior sets and these are already on hand. Mr. Richter is an enterprising man and is determined to make the productions at the Richter equal to the best there are.

– Santa Rosa Republican, January 17, 1908

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