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The Casino That Time Forgot

In an exclusive excerpt from his forthcoming book, ‘The Vapors,’ David Hill unearths a tale of the grandest casino in what was once the premier gambling destination in America: Hot Springs, Arkansas

Michael Weinstein

April 7, 1961

Down in the valley beneath the shadow of Sugarloaf Mountain, where the hot vapors rise from the healing waters of the springs, L.V. Rowe was on one hell of a roll at the dice table. He was crowded in between the stickman and the other dice players, who were lined up two and three deep at all five tables, making the wide marble-and-crystal-appointed room feel small.

“Five! A no-field five!” yelled the boxman.

The gamblers whooped. The dealers placed the checks down on the felt in front of the winning players. Rowe picked his up and placed them in his stack along the rail of the table. The stickman shoved the two dice along the felt and left them right in front of him, and he picked them up and shook them in his fist. He was on some run indeed.

“We’re coming out!” the boxman yelled as Rowe prepared to shoot. He flung the dice across the table, and the crowd roared.

This was the Vapors, the grandest casino in what was once the premier gambling destination in America. Hot Springs, Arkansas, is a very different place today—an anonymous Southern city 25 miles from the nearest interstate, the gamblers long since run out of town—but late on a Saturday night in April 1961, at the height of the horse racing season at Oaklawn Park, there was no more exhilarating place to be in the entire country. The gaming floor was filled to capacity with revelers after a long day of hollering at the track. Hot Springs was in the middle of a banner season, welcoming 5 million visitors that year alone—a high-water mark in the city’s history.

As far back as the 19th century, when Las Vegas was still a dusty smudge on the horizon, Hot Springs had been a popular resort town. They used to call it “America’s first national park,” because long before there was even a National Park Service, Hot Springs was the first park managed by the federal government. In 1832, before Arkansas was even a state, President Andrew Jackson signed legislation designating the land around Hot Springs where the thermal waters flowed from the mountains as federal territory, with the idea that the government could construct medicinal bathhouses. On March 4, 1921, when the federal government did finally designate Hot Springs a national park, it had the distinction of being the country’s smallest. In fact, it was arguably not even a park at all. Not in the traditional sense of one, anyway. The national park was merely a stretch of federal property smack-dab in the middle of the then-bustling small town. The more lush and dense areas of the national park weren’t nearly as popular among visitors as the one-block stretch that lined one side of Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, which they called Bathhouse Row. The federal government operated a string of eight bathhouses up and down the block, which piped in the naturally hot water that bubbled up from deep below the earth’s surface and sprang from cracks in the surrounding mountains. The city’s unofficial motto was “We Bathe the World.”

Buy The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice

The hot water brought visitors in search of medicinal qualities it was said to possess. They came to soak in scalding hot baths or to sit in so-called “vapor cabinets,” often on doctors’ orders, to treat everything from diabetes to epilepsy. Prizefighters like Jack Dempsey trained for fights in Hot Springs in order to be close to the baths. Baseball players like Babe Ruth would spend the spring months in Hot Springs, recuperating by soaking in the hot water. The popularity among professional ball players was so great that Hot Springs eventually became the official spring training location for a number of major and minor league teams, including the Brooklyn Dodgers, the Boston Red Sox, and the Pittsburgh Pirates. As visitors to Hot Springs would disembark from their trains, they would be besieged by doctors advertising their services, such as post-bath mercury rubbings. Some of the more popular ailments that patients came to treat were venereal diseases. Al Capone would “take the waters” in the 1920s to treat his syphilis. These regular and quasi-permanent guests built Hot Springs into one of America’s first resort towns, one that aimed to rival the glitziest spas of prewar Europe.

Hot Springs grew into one of the most unusual cities in the country, with an economy that revolved around tourism and employed some of the South’s most colorful characters. From carnival folks to musicians and artists, people of all races and religions flocked to Hot Springs for work taking care of the diverse and often international guests. Despite being deep in the heavily Baptist and segregated South, Hot Springs boasted two synagogues and a Jewish hospital, two Catholic churches and a Catholic school, and nineteen Black churches that served the city’s thousands of African American residents, most of whom worked in the bathhouses or the hospitality industry. On the east side of Malvern Avenue were Black-owned hotels, restaurants, and theaters—even a Black-owned-and-operated hospital. All this in addition to a growing number of Greek, Italian, and other European immigrant families, all of whom followed paths to Hot Springs to either take the baths or take care of those who did. And taking care of the bathers meant more than just scrubbing them and drying them off. The hospitality business in Hot Springs was full-service. All that a visitor desired was available. They needed only to cross the street.

On the other side of Central Avenue, directly across from the federally owned Bathhouse Row, were saloons, brothels, crooked auction houses, and all sorts of bookmaker shops and casinos. The diverse residents of Hot Springs weren’t a bunch of Bible Belt simps. Hot Springs was home to card dealers and bookies, jazz musicians and burlesque dancers, prostitutes and con artists, and everything in between. Throughout the years musicians from Duke Ellington to Elvis Presley would visit to perform or simply to vacation. Often these notable visitors to Hot Springs rubbed elbows with some of America’s most notorious, as the small Southern town’s lax attitude toward crime and vice made it a popular hideout for criminals like Sam Giancana, Vito Genovese, Al Capone, and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. Hot Springs was visited by sitting presidents and presidents-to-be, and even saw one of its native sons, Bill Clinton, go on to live in the White House. Some called Hot Springs the spa. Some called it Bubbles. The ones who took notice of the cloud of mist hovering over Sugar Loaf Mountain—the hot vapor emanating from the natural spring flowing just beneath the surface, like smoke billowing from a chimney that wasn’t there—understood why this place was called the Valley of the Vapors. It was all enough to give the God-fearing people of Arkansas—those who didn’t live in Hot Springs, at least—a bad case of nerves.

Hot Springs had enjoyed wide-open casino gambling in one form or another since 1870, despite the fact that gambling was then and had always been illegal in Arkansas, as it was in every state in America except Nevada, which legalized gambling in 1931. But in Hot Springs, gambling clubs like the Vapors were open to the public and on full display, the criminal activity inside of them advertised on bright marquees and in newspaper and radio advertisements across the country. In addition to the Vapors there were the Southern Club, a large downtown casino that had been in operation since 1894; the Tower Club, a modest supper club on the outskirts of town; and the Belvedere Club, a stately country club on rolling hills that could hold up to 2,000 gamblers. In addition to these four main clubs there were over 70 more casinos, bookmaker shops, and establishments with some form of gambling, large and small, scattered throughout the town of 28,000 people. On a per capita basis, Hot Springs was perhaps the most sinful little city in the world.

The Vapors club was the newest joint in town, and it was like nothing Hot Springs had ever seen before, as plush as any place in New York or Las Vegas. It was built to accommodate the influx of wealthy gamblers who had flocked to Hot Springs in the years after the war—newly rich oilmen from Oklahoma and Texas, monied Wall Street executives from New York, and well-connected gangsters from Chicago and the East Coast. The Vapors was a place where these men and women of means could feel comfortable. It aspired to be everything the nicest club in Las Vegas was, and to that end its owners spared no expense. By 1961, Hot Springs found itself locked in a competition for tourists, and it could no longer rely on its small-town charm and its scenic beauty to attract gamblers. Americans cared less about healing waters and spa cures than they once had—instead, they were flocking to the arid desert of Nevada, where the sin was shameless and on full display, advertised in looping neon. At the same time, attitudes toward gambling back in Arkansas were hardening. The culture wars of the ’60s were about to begin. America was changing faster than the revelers at the Vapors on that April night would have cared to admit.

The Vapors was small in size relative to its counterparts in Las Vegas. It had no hotel attached to it. It was only one story, a squat but modern brick building erected in 1960 near the intersection of Central Avenue, which served as the city’s main drag, and Park Avenue, which was the main road out of town toward Little Rock. Despite its physical size, the club employed more than 200 people, while all the other clubs in town employed 700 to 800 combined. The payroll at the Vapors was over a million dollars a year. In addition to the casino, the club offered a 24-hour coffee shop, an elegant steak house with the finest chefs from across the South, and a showroom with nightly entertainment worthy of Broadway. So much so that the Vapors developed a reputation as a good place to premiere a new show before taking it to New York. The entertainment budget was over $10,000 a week, with marquee acts like Mickey Rooney, Liberace, and the McGuire Sisters under contract.

In the nine months it had been open, the Vapors had already hosted elected officials, mobsters, and movie stars. A reporter from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote, “The Vapors is like a miniature Las Vegas Strip, with top-flight entertainers.” The word was out that Hot Springs wanted to fight back against the rise of Las Vegas, competing with the other Sin City for entertainers and for customers. From coast to coast, the upper crust was talking about this little club in a little Southern town, and no small number of the 5 million visitors in 1961 were drawn to Hot Springs by word of mouth. While Vegas could attract visitors with the promise of legal gambling, the Vapors and other casinos like it were forced to walk a fine line between tacit acknowledgment of the obvious and open denial of what was taking place within their walls. In light of this fact, the visitor totals were astounding.

Hot Springs was also bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue by the early ’60s, and construction had begun on over a dozen new luxury hotels. It wouldn’t be long, folks figured, until Hot Springs once again surpassed Las Vegas. The future looked bright, at least on a Saturday night at a crowded craps table at the Vapors, and the locals were proud of the town’s reinvention. Where else might a good country person like L.V. Rowe enjoy a show from a big-time Hollywood star, play cards beneath Tiffany chandeliers, and roll the dice with boldfaced names from all over America?

Rowe was a doctor—well, a chiropractor, anyway—and a regular at the Vapors. Like a lot of folks who came to live in Hot Springs in those days, he loved to gamble. For many of his fellow dice players, his good fortune at the craps table must have been a happy sight. Who didn’t like to see a local boy do well? It also helped that in craps, the players tend to win and lose together. It was everyone against the house. With each successive roll of the dice, the players either celebrated or commiserated together as one.

Hazel Hill was another good country person who loved to gamble. She was 42, an attractive brunette, and looking like high society that night in her party dress and shawl. Only she wasn’t high society, not by a long shot. On her own dime, Hazel wouldn’t ordinarily be in a place like the Vapors. She’d likely be at the Tower Club, with the other down-on-their-luck locals. Or, if it were a special occasion, she might be at the Pines Supper Club, or any number of the more proletarian establishments around town, where the low rollers and hustlers could gamble cheap and drink even cheaper. Hazel worked for the Vapors as a shill player, gambling with house money to keep the tourists interested and the games going. It wasn’t a great job as far as the money went, but it was the best job Hazel had ever had, playing with the house’s money and blowing on doctors’ dice for them. Whatever the pay, it was worth something to her to just be in the Vapors. It put Hazel right at the center of the whole world.

Like Dr. Rowe, Hazel had been drawn to Hot Springs because of the gambling business. She arrived in town at age 16 and had spent her young life working in and around these clubs, all while trying to raise three children, the youngest of whom, Jimmy, was my father. Jimmy Hill would grow up in the bright lights of the casinos and attend high school alongside Bill Clinton, and yet the town that once seemed so full of promise would eventually rob him of his mother.

Hazel was a street-smart high school dropout. She had become a wife and a mother in Hot Springs, earning her living on her wits and the skills she had picked up in the casinos—how to calculate odds, how to place and take bets, how to deal cards. By 1961, her two older sons were already off on their own and Jimmy was just starting high school. Yet she was still young, still filled with enthusiasm for the pomp and promise of Hot Springs. She still believed, despite how hard and heartbreaking her life had been up to that point, that a better future was possible for her in that town. It was hard not to believe that while sitting in a place like the Vapors. The club was a monument to such magical thinking, the splendor of it intoxicating.

For someone like Hazel, it was hard to resist the lure of all the vice on display around her. At the end of each shift as a shill, she made her way back to the office to turn in what was left of her players’ checks, all of which belonged to the house. While her dream was to one day deal blackjack at the Vapors, a job that could pay as much as $50 a night plus tips, for now she was content to pretend to gamble for $10 a night. After handing over the house’s winnings, she was given two blue five-dollar chips in return. Paying her in chips was smart. It was a good way to make sure the money never left the walls of the club. For someone like Hazel, the walk from the back office to the parking lot could be agonizingly long. Often, she went straight from the gambling tables to the bar.

Now, though, it was Dr. Rowe who was pocketing chips. The shills had their eyes on him. One of Hazel’s fellow shill players, a buddy of the club owner named Richard Dooley, watched Rowe like a hawk. One of the craps dealers was paying Dr. Rowe more money on each of his winning bets than he actually won. It could have been a simple error, but the fact that Rowe was putting the extra chips in his pocket, rather than in his stack of chips along the rail of the table, told Dooley all he needed to know. Dooley signaled John Ermey, who had once been the chief of police of Hot Springs but now had a more lucrative and powerful position as the head of security at the Vapors. This was how it worked, how the town was able to stay wide open in bald-faced violation of the law for so many years: at one time or another, the whole of the establishment was in on it, from the mayor to the chief of police to the district judge to the county clerk. Many of the bouncers, guards, and even pit bosses and dealers at the Vapors were off-the-clock police officers padding their municipal paychecks. The city government levied fines on the clubs for breaking gambling laws, and then used those funds, which were essentially illicit payoffs, to build a new police station. According to a long line of Arkansas governors, gambling was a local issue, to be handled by local law enforcement. Federal laws only applied to criminal activity that crossed state lines. So it was left to the municipal government to enforce, or not, the state’s prohibition on gambling in Hot Springs.

Ermey made eye contact with Johnny Mattison, the casino manager, across the room. Ermey motioned toward Dr. Rowe’s table. Mattison nodded. The two men hovered over the table, one behind the stickman and one behind the doctor.

“Eight easy!” the stickman shouted.

The dealer set a stack of checks down; Dr. Rowe picked them up. Mattison saw that there were more checks in the stack than Rowe was owed. Dr. Rowe put some in his stack on the rail of the table, and some in his jacket pocket. Mattison had been in the gambling business almost his entire life. He knew a crossroader when he saw one.

Mattison stood behind the dealer who kept putting the wrong number of checks down in front of Rowe, a road gambler they called Slick who had been hired as temporary help during the busy horse racing season. “Come with me, Slick. This gentleman will take your place.” No sooner had Mattison and Slick walked away from the table than Dr. Rowe felt a hand on his shoulder.

“Get your chips and come with me,” Ermey growled.

“Where are we going?”

“We’re going to the office.”

“What for?”

“Goddamn, come on and you’ll find out.” At this hour of the night John Ermey didn’t have any patience for dumb. He yanked Rowe by the arm. Rowe yanked it right back.

“If you don’t come on you’ll have so many knots on your head you can’t wear your hat,” Ermey barked at Rowe.

Right about then Dr. Rowe felt another man’s hands on his other arm, and he was lifted off the ground and carried through the throng and into the adjoining theater, where guests were dancing to the sounds of the Buddy Kirk Orchestra. They dragged Dr. Rowe along through the back hallway and stopped in front of a door. Dane’s door.

Dr. Rowe felt his body turn cold. He turned to run. John Ermey blocked his path. The third man, a square-jawed Greek tough named Harry Leopoulos, pulled Rowe forward into the office.

“Get your ass in here or I will smear you from one end of town to the other.” Leopoulos picked Rowe up off the ground. Rowe turned toward Ermey, who was carrying a pistol. That tore it. Rowe gave up his fight and let Leopoulos heave him into the office.

Sitting behind the large oak desk was Dane Harris. He had broad shoulders, a round face, a tight crew cut, and the look of a young college professor. He sat with one perfectly creased pants leg crossed over the other, leaning back in his seat and thumbing through a hand of playing cards. He was all of 43 years old, but his position behind that desk made him the most powerful man in Hot Springs. The latest in a long line of boss gamblers, Dane Harris was the de facto leader of the community of more than 40 big-time scofflaws who ran the city’s casinos and bookmaking joints. That meant Dane ran all of Hot Springs, the whole combination. His job was to make sure it all functioned like a well-oiled machine, and his was no easy task.

Before Dane there had been other boss gamblers—men who kept the various parties involved in enforcing the gambling laws happy, and who kept the spoils of the business divided fairly between the myriad club owners. Dane, though, had faced the unique challenge of restoring order to a city that had suffered through a number of tumultuous years without a leader. Rival club owners sponsored their own candidates, splitting the combination in two and sometimes three. The police and the governor would shut some clubs down and let others operate. Some judges would spring the bookies when they got pinched, while others would issue warrants for the enemies of their friends. Everyone fought over who should get what, who could operate and who couldn’t. Dane was the man who fixed all that. He built a coalition of powerful backers and presented them with a vision of Hot Springs as the next Las Vegas—scratch that, even bigger than Las Vegas. He built the Vapors to prove it. The gamblers, politicians, even the mobsters lined up behind him. And now he got to sit behind the big oak desk—a boy king, and the last person L.V. Rowe wanted to find himself face-to-face with. Not like this, anyway.

Across the desk from Dane sat Jerry Rosenberg. Rosenberg was the Las Vegas Flamingo’s credit man, which meant he worked for Meyer Lansky, who at that time controlled the gambling interests for nearly all of the organized crime families in the United States. He was in Hot Springs that night as the Vapors’ temporary credit man, which was a nice way of saying he was the house loan shark. On big nights like Saturdays during the horse racing season, the Vapors hosted scores of high rollers and did considerably more business than usual. That extra volume necessitated access to serious credit, instant and on demand. That wasn’t the kind of service you could get from the Bank of Arkansas. Rosenberg approved loans to the Vapors’ customers, loans that were in all probability backed by the mob.

In denial of the obvious, folks in Hot Springs liked to say that their gambling combination was homegrown, free of the influence of the mobsters who pulled the strings of the $9 billion illegal gambling industry across the country. But while the fellows that owned the majority of the bigger clubs in Hot Springs were locals, Hot Springs depended on the mob for much of the gas that fueled the gambling engine, and this was by design. That $9 billion was the single biggest source of revenue for the mob in 1961, which had organized itself into a national crime syndicate that coordinated its efforts and divvied up the profits. The money didn’t come from directly running craps games and the like. It came from controlling the infrastructure that those craps games and poolrooms relied on to operate. The mob sold the clubs of Hot Springs their slot machines, manufactured their dice tables and chips, and even trained their dealers and pit bosses in mob-run casinos in places like Las Vegas and Havana. Most crucially, the mobsters controlled the race wire, the all-important service that provided sports results to bookmakers from coast to coast. They wielded the wire as a cudgel to extract a percentage of practically every dollar bet in America.

In Hot Springs, the wire service was run by Owney “The Killer” Madden, former owner of Harlem’s Cotton Club and onetime New York City crime boss, who upon release from prison in 1931 was urged by Lansky and other leaders in the national crime syndicate to “retire” to Hot Springs. Over the past 30 years Madden had ingratiated himself into the local community, and he served as the mob’s ambassador to this small Southern town. He had become a powerful entity in Hot Springs, and his power was resented by many and even tested by some.

Dane Harris, however, saw Owney as a valuable ally, and someone who shared his vision for how Hot Springs should be run. And Owney saw in the young Dane a person who was ambitious enough, tough enough, and, most important, smart enough to shepherd Hot Springs toward a bright future. While Owney the Killer had once dealt with his enemies in New York by shooting them down in the streets, in Hot Springs he employed a cool hand. Owney intended to live out the rest of his days in the spa. He did not intend to go back to prison, but neither did he plan to retire. He had spent his life and made his fortune operating some of the most famous nightclubs in New York City. He had launched the careers of Mae West, George Raft, and Duke Ellington. He wasn’t about to sit on the sidelines of a cow town like Hot Springs, Arkansas. Not when it held such potential. Owney helped Dane become boss gambler without firing a single shot—he protected Dane from enemies without, and Dane protected Owney from enemies within.

And yet the presence of men like Owney Madden and Jerry Rosenberg in Hot Springs had become the central problem that Dane Harris had to reckon with. By 1961 the public had grown weary of the mob. The U.S. attorney general, Robert Kennedy, was waging war on organized crime with a series of legislative initiatives aimed at curtailing its influence over the gambling business. Before his brother was elected president, the younger Kennedy had been special counsel to the Senate Committee on Investigations, which had probed rackets throughout the 1950s in a series of highly publicized hearings. Kennedy, the Senate, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation had succeeded in shutting down wide-open gambling towns like Hot Springs all across America. Places like Phenix City, Alabama; Newport, Kentucky; Fort Worth, Texas; and even Palm Beach, Florida. As each of those towns closed up shop, Hot Springs grew.

In 1961, Hot Springs remained miraculously untouched by the Senate probe, and still managed to stand shoulder to shoulder with Las Vegas as one of America’s capitals of vice. Robert Kennedy’s chief organized crime investigator, William Hundley, called Hot Springs “the largest illegal gambling operation in the United States.” The town was in the crosshairs, and Dane knew that something had to be done before Kennedy succeeded in shutting down Hot Springs altogether. A lot of folks in Arkansas believed they could stave him off if the clubs would only cut ties with the mob, but it wasn’t as easy as that. If it were, they’d have done it long before. But Dane and the other club owners needed the mob. They couldn’t make book without the wire. They couldn’t deal craps without well-trained and trustworthy dealers and pit bosses. They couldn’t run a big-money game without any credit for their players. And as the spa’s popularity and profits grew, so, too, did the interest of the various crime families around the country. Dane had to work with Owney and the local political machine to keep the mob, the government, and the increasingly agitated locals all at bay while he figured out how to square the circle. What that added up to was that while Jerry Rosenberg and his ilk brought on the heat, there was no way around him. For the time being he was there to stay. And he wasn’t someone who suffered fool-ass country chiropractors like Dr. Rowe too gladly.

Ermey pushed Rowe up against a wall while Leopoulos fished chips out of his pockets. “How many goddamn chips do you have?” asked Ermey.

“Tell me what this is all about!” Rowe demanded.

“We have reason to believe you were taking chips that the dealer was putting down for you,” said Dane as he continued to play his hand with Rosenberg.

Dr. Rowe expressed his disbelief that anyone could take him for a cheat. After all, he played here every week. They all knew him.

Yes, Dane replied, they knew him well. “You’re a small player. You play one and two checks. Yet I’ve seen you cash out one night 700, 600 one time.”

Ermey and Leopoulos stacked the checks from Rowe’s pocket on the desk. There was a knock on the door. Leopoulos opened it for Richard Dooley.

“Is this the guy?” Dane asked him. Dooley nodded.

“How much did he buy?”

“Fifty dollars.”

“That’s a lie!” Rowe said. “I bought in for a hundred!” He told them he won the money fair and square and he intended to leave with his winnings.

“I’ll splatter your head against that wall,” Leopoulos said. “When I get through with you, there won’t be any of you left.” Dr. Rowe saw a blackjack, a short lead club sheathed in leather, appear in Harry Leopoulos’s hand. Dane Harris motioned for Dooley to leave the room.

At the end of her shift that night, Hazel stopped off at the lounge and took a seat at the bar. She had worked for Dane Harris off and on for the past few years at his various nightclubs and other businesses. Sometimes she wore an apron, sometimes at the smaller clubs she dealt cards, sometimes she shilled. But she rarely got to sit at the famous mahogany bar of the Vapors and drink with the Arkansas aristocracy. On this night, however, she would carry no tray. She would deal no cards. The orchestra struck up “Mostly Martha.” The dance floor filled with spinning skirts. The bartender greeted her by name.

Hazel told the bartender to fix her a whiskey. It wasn’t all nice, being there in the Vapors. There was a darkness to it. What other secrets lurked behind the curtains of the casinos and supper clubs of Hot Springs? How many beaten and bloodied bodies were in the back alleys? How many people got hurt so that these rich people could eat steak and dance the night away? How many top-shelf whiskeys could a young woman get for $10 at the elegant bar at the Vapors? She had no idea. How many whiskeys could she even drink? About that question she had some inkling.

Hot Springs might yet be the next Las Vegas. It might yet be the place that, growing up, Dane Harris always believed it could be. It might yet be the place that, upon arriving 30 years before, Hazel Hill and Owney Madden thought it already was—a place where they could have it all. The year 1961 was the most successful year so far for the biggest illegal gambling operation in the United States, and it was fixing to get a whole lot bigger. Getting to this point had not been easy for Dane, Hazel, or Owney. A heaviness lingered. There was, it seemed, a price yet to be paid.

Excerpted from THE VAPORS: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice by David Hill. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2020. Copyright © 2020 by David Hill. All rights reserved.

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