The Bullard family has leased the building at 1443 Stout Street for 35 years, most of which were seriously downscale.
"It was nothing but a joint all those years," Rusty Bullard, now forty, admits. And until five years ago, that joint was divided down the middle into two clubs: the alcohol-free Red Garter, with all-nude dancing, and Sweet Dee's Saloon, into which an all-nude dancing fan might pop for an alcoholic pick-me-up.
"Then my dad and I decided to combine the two places under one license, and that process took forever," Rusty says. "At that point, I was going to sell, but I finally decided it could be marketable. Let's just say it cost me a bundle."
It may have cost a bundle, but with an expanded Colorado Convention Center going up just blocks away, it stands to make a bundle. Rusty felt sure that a new, improved strip club -- with a new, improved name like La Boheme -- could become an integral, and lucrative, part of the downtown scene, even with the very upscale Diamond Cabaret nearby. "We just weren't the wave of the future," he says. "My dad was all for it. Plus, you get tired of the reputation, of being on the bottom of the totem pole.
"My first impression was, let's gut it," says Gidget Sanders, the entrepreneur and former stripper Rusty hired as a manager and right-hand woman. "We ended up taking out thirty containers of pure trash." But Gidget was able to see beyond the trash, into an exotic future that came, in part, from her own imagination. "Topless dancing, with a flair," she recites. "Go-gos and fire. Not just dancers, but entertainers."
"Our architect went nuts," Rusty admits. "I mean, there's a Tibetan oak wall unit -- I wouldn't say there's another strip joint with that in it. I guarantee there's not another one with an Egyptian sarcophagus in it."
"And there's the Egypt thing," Gidget says. "That's because we want to appeal to guys who go to Las Vegas. We want to be high end without being stuffy. The Hindu part is because that's a very sexual culture, the Kama Sutra and that sort of thing, and then the whole Middle Eastern thing is very popular right now..."
And the French thing, too. The corsets and fishnets, the fin-de-the-last-siècle furnishings in the lobby and, of course, the name. "It's a gentleman's dance, a gypsy, an opera," Gidget says of La Bohème. An opera with a heroine who eventually dies of tuberculosis, but all the girls here appear to have very healthy sets of lungs.
"In a way, it's more like a regular nightclub," Rusty says. "Different from the Diamond, which appeals to business guys, whereas we're very couple-friendly. People go out and hit the clubs and then they come here."
"But we call it a gentleman's cabaret," Gidget carefully points out, "and the young crowd is not really the crowd we want. We want businessmen. We want the conventioneers. We target the older, more affluent residents of downtown. That's why we have the Opal Room -- I mean the Pearl Room."
"Is that what we're calling it?" Rusty asks, amused.
The Pearl Room, separated from the rest of La Boheme by panels of smoky glass, is almost a VIP lounge, where gentlemen -- and possibly ladies -- can relax on cushy sofas, watch a fight on the flat-screen TV, maybe order a bottle of one of the 53 champagnes available from the club's cellar. Here an entertainer might engage a visiting conventioneer in pleasant, modern-day geisha conversation, perhaps proposing a table dance after a proper interval has passed.
"These are good-looking girls, but also girls who are funny and upbeat," Gidget says. "We can do the angel wings; we can do the big feathered headdresses, Vegas style. These are really some incredible girls."
And these girls have an incredible surrogate mother. Pat Patterson serves as a sort of valet/medic/counselor/disciplinarian to the dancers, working out of La Boheme's basement dressing room. In the business -- or at least the upper end of the strip-club business -- this job is known as "house mom." Having already worked at several local topless clubs, Pat has more on-the-job experience than almost any other house mom working at a Denver strip joint. And unlike most house moms, she is neither a former dancer nor a younger woman who could easily be mistaken for a bartender or cocktail waitress.
"I don't tell anyone my age," she says indignantly, "but you can call me 59."
In those 59 -- or thereabouts -- years, Pat has worked not just as a house mom, but as a real mom, too, and as a legal secretary, a medical assistant and a legal-plan saleswoman. She's a writer, too, and most of those jobs have been ways to support that habit. Her house-mom hours -- 7 p.m. to 2 a.m., three nights a week -- work particularly well. But she's also an avid collector of interesting details, and she finds plenty at La Boheme.
Pat's territory is a large locker room with deep red carpets, oak lockers and a row of red armchairs lined up in front of the traditional chorus-girl mirrors. At the moment, one of those chairs is occupied by a stripper named Cassandra. Pat is applying ointment to her vicious sunburn.
"Last night I was in tears over this, and she fixed me up," Cassandra says. "She takes care of us. She gives us first-aid and treats."
"The poor girl was in so much pain," Pat remembers.
A harried dancer runs by, grabs a tampon and mutters, "Tonight of all nights!"
"Mom, did we iron that outfit yet?" another stripper asks Pat.
"Not yet, dear, but it'll be ready for you in time," she promises. "Dancers are mostly very friendly," she observes. "I iron, mend, bring them treats. And I guess I worry about them, too. I wonder, how can some of them be so health-conscious and yet smoke?"
"Are you trying to get us fat with these Oreos?" a dancer asks.
"No, dear, but everyone's got to have their chocolate."
In a profession as old as Salome, house moms are a relatively new development. They may date back to the burlesque days, or maybe just the '60s-era Playboy Clubs, which hired "bunny mothers." But even now, they're only in the best joints, "only the classier clubs," Pat says. And not all of those, either.
House moms are paid in cash every night, generally through tips shared by dancers. Other than a basic medical kit provided by the club, they're responsible for their own supplies. But even though their relationship with the club may seem somewhat tenuous, owners recognize that they provide an important service.
"In my opinion, it's always been a problem keeping your eye on the locker room, whether they were partying or had a bottle or something," Rusty says. "You could hire a manager to sit down there, but you kind of want to give the women their privacy. And the way the thinking went was, so as long as you have another woman down there, hell, why can't she do a little hair and makeup, too?
"And actually," he concedes, "that whole security thing was years ago. The truth is, dancers don't really want to hang out down in the locker room anymore. They don't make money unless they're on the floor."
Good advice helps there, too, whether it comes from a house mom or manager. Even Rusty, who doubts he could sit through a table dance without laughing, has been known to hand out specific dancing hints, such as, "Sweetheart, you don't actually dance out there; you strut." Nevertheless, he has a terrible time telling a prospective dancer that she is either a) past her prime, or b) not the caliber he seeks. So these days, he leaves that job to Gidget.
"Some of them roll in here, and I do mean roll," he says, "and you want to say, 'What are you thinking?'"
Some of them are probably thinking that stripping has become a much more respectable career choice (if one that's relatively short-lived). Rusty can back this up; he knows strippers and stripping backward and forward, from skank to swank.
"These places are going a lot more mainstream," he says. "It's become just another form of a bar. It used to be in 99 percent of them, no unescorted ladies were allowed, because they were all working girls. But now, even in Vegas, the clubs are upscale. It's what everyone's going for: a nice, comfortable, beautiful place."
A nice, comfortable, beautiful place in a part of the city that's growing nicer all the time.
According to Helen Gonzales, director of the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses, six "adult cabarets" are currently doing business in the city, two of them downtown: La Boheme and the Diamond Cabaret. There are also two "adult entertainment" clubs, which are alcohol-free but permit all-nude dancing. A set of hilariously specific laws govern what personnel can and cannot do inside a strip joint that serves alcohol. These rules reached their zenith when former zoning administrator Dorothy Nepa submitted detailed drawings of buttocks and their possible coverings to Denver City Council.
Rusty has held many informational meetings for dancers, in which he explains that they may touch "the sides of their breasts, but not the top or the bottom, and no areola," he says. "And they each have to wear two T-bars [thongs], because if you pull out the side of one to grab a dollar bill and there's nothing underneath, the customers can see everything, which they're not allowed to do.
"I swear," he sighs, "the regulations seem to change every five minutes. And you have to remind the girls over and over again."
A near-compulsive hanger-outer, he knows and is generally friendly with the competition. A notable exception is the Diamond Cabaret, for which he feels no love lost. And he'd rather not discuss details, he decides, except to say that the two clubs are expected to engage in heated competition for the downtown business, and to add that he's not worried about the rumored reappearance of Cliff Young at the helm of the Diamond, which suffered the loss of founder Bobby Rifkin several months ago.
Rusty often pops into Shotgun Willie's or Cheerleaders or PT's for a drink and a chat, though free drinks make him uneasy. "They have a business to run," he says, "and what if I found out my bartender was doing that to me?
"Some of the joints are on their way out," he continues, "but there's still a place for them. Your blue-collar guys want to watch girls as much as anyone else. Dandy Dan's and the Paper Tiger -- they're great. They're joints."
The Bullard business history is full of joints. At fourteen, Rusty began washing dishes at his father's many strip bars, including the Funky Fox, the Stage Door, the Clown's Den and Trickie Dickies. By eighteen, he was tending bar. His father, Ted, had no problem introducing him into what many considered a low-life atmosphere. (Of the persistent rumor that dancers at the Red Garter would sell hand jobs, Rusty says, "An urban legend! My mother never would have let me work where that was going on.") Steeped in the business, he decided to make it his career -- in much the same way that Troy Lowrie of the PT's nightclubs empire followed in his father's footsteps.
Troy has built his father's few strip joints into a $30 million empire that comprises at least ten clubs in nine states. "To me, this is just level two," he told Westword a few years ago ("The Daily Grind," April 13, 2000). "My dad was at level one. My son, hopefully, can get to level five."
Like Troy, Rusty has kicked around a few new ideas for a very old business. "I wanted not so much hustle, more food, some real entertainment," he says. "We don't push it. We want our customers to enjoy and relax. We have a killer wine list, and our wines are not even hugely marked up." He envisions a place where a businessman can go regularly for lunch -- perhaps even taking a woman with him.
"Some of our clubs have nearly 50 percent female patrons," says John Soto of PT's.
"There's definitely not the stigma attached to strip clubs anymore," Rusty says, "and we're seeing a lot more women."
A lot more women come in, and a lot more women leave the business through the front door. Speaking of lifted stigmas, Rusty asks, "Where do you think those trophy wives come from?"
Amid all this relaxed luxury and upscale strutting, it's sometimes hard for Rusty to believe that he still works in the same building, in the same business. The Red Garter never had a marketing concept -- much less a full-time marketing maven -- but La Boheme has Bridget LaBoure, who's spent much of the morning talking up the club on the air with KBPI's Uncle Nasty.
"We're going to do the La Boheme Body Buffet," she announces. "Unfortunately for the girls, I've promised that Ed the Intern gets to eat dessert off one of them. Only desserts -- nothing icky. Key lime pie, maybe? I got on the air with the drummer for the Red Hot Chili Peppers. We've had members of Godsmack in here."
"And Tommy Davidson," Gidget adds. "And all kinds of Nuggets and Broncos. And then some musicians I can't mention because their target audience is teenagers and we don't want to be swamped."
"And Tyson Beckford," Bridget says happily. "And who was that guy from the soaps?"
"I don't know," Rusty says. "I watch the History Channel."
Cynthia Stanley was about to begin work as a La Boheme bartender when she discovered she was pregnant. Neither she nor Gidget could wrap their brains around the resulting image, so Cynthia agreed to be a house mom instead, filling in on Pat's days off. Before starting a daycare home, she'd waitressed at cabarets in Denver and Indiana, so she knew what she was getting into.
"I used to think the whole thing was demeaning," Cynthia recalls. "Women taking their clothes off for money. But I was a single mom, and I needed work, and I found out I could make 200 bucks a night cocktailing at a topless place. Then I got to know the girls. Occasionally, yes, a girl will go home with a customer -- some girls don't have the common sense not to -- but they're just real people, in the same proportions as the rest of the world. I understand that now."
So in addition to safety pins, deodorant and superglue for high heels that self-destruct, Cynthia offers a compassionate ear: "I tell them, talk to the customers, but don't really talk to the customers. If you have a problem, come down here and tell me about it. The customers have their own crummy lives; they don't want to hear about yours. They want smiles, beauty and grace. And skin. I remind them that it's nothing more than acting. You just go up there and portray what they're looking for."
For a pregnant woman in her thirties, with the usual aches and exhaustions, the house-mom job is ideal, she says. "I'm reading the new Stephen King during the slow hours, and the girls love my pregnancy. A lot of them have children, too. Although I've had enough of size-four girls complaining about how fat they are," she admits.
A woman who got a job as a house mom at Shotgun Willie's last year had similar concerns. "I weigh about 200 pounds," she says, "and I was worried. I thought I'd be treated poorly by a bunch of girls who make their money based on how they look."
Instead, she had a wonderful time -- while it lasted. (Pregnant or injured dancers get first dibs on the house mom job at Shotgun Willie's.) "I could make 150 bucks a night, and I still got to read, and I never had to wear a suit," she recalls. "I was kind of an overachiever. I always brought an entree item and a vegetable, and when it comes to food, you had all the types: Atkins freaks and the 21-year-olds who ate everything. So I brought Oreos and celery, pizza rolls and fruit. I covered up tattoos. I sewed up costumes, and I listened to a lot of stories. A lot of the girls were dealing with creeps. They liked to have someone to talk to."
Pat Patterson also found herself pleasantly surprised by her first house-mom job. "I wasn't the type to hang out at these places," she explains. "I don't even drink, particularly."
A Colorado native, Pat envied her newspaper-reporter father, who sometimes took her along on breaking stories, but generally thought such activities unsuitable for girls. "It was sad for me, because I always wanted to write, as early as I can remember," she recalls. She thought she might pursue her passion in college, but marriage put a stop to that: She ended up working to finance her husband's many years of medical school and residency. After that, her husband was restless, and the family moved many times, from small towns such as Lamar and La Junta to Columbus, Ohio, and Sacramento, California. For a short time, they lived in Los Alamos, "a strange place," she recalls, "where 55 percent of the population had master's degrees and kids were synthesizing their own LSD in their home labs. It was a town of coffee klatches -- but then, they all are."
While her husband built his practice and her kids worked their way through school, Pat held down a series of secretarial jobs and, for a while, attempted the role of housewife. "In the small towns, doctor's wives do that," she says. "I entertained a lot, too, but I always felt like I was wasting my life."
Twenty years into the marriage, her husband made one final move: After joining the military, he was stationed in Japan. Having promised her kids that they could finish high school in one place, Pat filed for divorce and moved to Greeley. There she worked as a motel clerk -- "one of the worst jobs there is," she says -- and went to college, earning degrees in English and psychology.
Finally, she was free to start the writing she'd always dreaming of doing, cranking out two as-yet-unpublished young-adult novels as well as a practical, and published, manual titled The Denver Job Search, written during one of the Mile High City's worst stretches of unemployment. To finance her writing jones, she continued to work as a secretary. "For the longest time, I felt that I had chained myself to a desk," she remembers, "but that's what I did -- I worked in offices. And I ended up in the cardiac intensive-care unit three times! Too much pressure."
Determined to give it a rest, she let her son talk her into selling T-shirts at street fairs and flea markets. From there she began selling jewelry, eventually traveling a regular circuit of motorcycle bars. The hours were late and the company questionable. She loved it.
"It was freedom! No deadlines! And besides," she adds, "I'm always open to anything that will help me write."
It turned out the bikers had girlfriends, many of whom were strippers, and plenty of whom suggested Pat try selling at topless clubs. She did, matching jewelry styles to classes of club: sterling and Native American accessories at the less fancy places, rhinestones at PT's Gold and the Diamond Cabaret. She tried the Red Garter only twice. "It was scary," she recalls. Besides, how much jewelry can an all-nude dancer wear?
"But eventually, I got tired of being in bad neighborhoods in the middle of the night with a lot of jewelry and money clanking around in my car," she says. When she announced her retirement from the jewelry business, she was offered a house-mom job at Beach Babes, a Diamond Cabaret offshoot designed to appeal to a younger crowd. "It only lasted four months, because it turned out those guys had no money -- and also, they had dates," she notes.
Pat went on to work at the Landing Strip, Shotgun Willie's and, most recently, the Diamond Cabaret, where she spent more than three years. After that, she worked for a while at a home for emotionally troubled youth. And then, in a Kaiser Permanente lobby, she ran into Gidget, who lured her back into the strip-club business in time for La Boheme's grand opening last month.
Over the intervening years, Pat says, the industry has changed. "Each club has its own personality," she explains, "but this place is really classy. I don't think they have a dressing room this nice anywhere, even in Hollywood. And management is the best I've ever seen. Gidget's danced; she knows what's going on."
Then again, some things never change. "The girls are always very gutsy," Pat says. "The prevailing attitude is they're prostitutes, and I will grant you that I've met one or two over the years -- not here, of course. But usually it's different. I had one girl tell me she and her husband were building up the down payment for a house. A lot are working their way through school; a lot are moms themselves."
Pat quickly made herself comfortable in La Boheme's locker room, occasionally venturing upstairs to watch one of her girls dance, return dirty dishes to the kitchen, or marvel at the glitzy surroundings.
"There is gold tile in the upstairs ladies' room," she says, "and a TV inside the mirror, which I don't understand at all -- and some of the marble, I think, came from Italy."
"You should see the looks she gets on her way through the bar," Rusty says. "People do double takes. It's like, Mom?"
It is early evening, and for the moment, La Boheme is dead. An Asian stripper sits on the lap of a man with a biker/Buddha physique. On stage two, a girl in a plaid evening gown and thigh-high boots does a desultory dance, lowering herself into a kind of erotic push-up. There is one man at the bar -- not much older than 21, and not dressed like a rich guy. On the TV screens, the words "Drink Bud" appear.
But last night, at a party thrown for hotel concierges, the club was hopping.
"It's just incredibly unpredictable," Rusty says, wondering when he will take an actual day off, one that consists of no time spent at La Boheme.
Down in the dressing room, Nelly emanates from the sound system: It's getting hot in here/So take off all your clothes/I am getting so hot/I wanna take my clothes off. And, okay, the strippers take their dresses off and put others back on. During slow periods, dancers sometimes change outfits just to pass the time. One girl, not yet hired, plans to audition later tonight. She hopes for at least a semblance of a crowd.
"I think I'll call myself 'Italia,'" she says into the mirror.
"You know," replies Pat, who's unpacking her supplies for the night, "I think we already have a Natalya. That's awfully close."
"How about Brooklyn?"
"I danced with a Brooklyn," says her mirror mate, who has just changed into a minute white baby-doll dress and put a tropical flower behind her ear.
"Oh, well. I'll think of something."
Dancers keep arriving for work, wearing overalls, cutoffs, flip-flops, prescription glasses. They disrobe and begin applying false eyelashes, hairspray and eyeliner, then step up into ultra-high heels.
"You get them online or at porn stores," one dancer says. "They come in four inches, fives, eights -- I've seen elevens. They're tough to walk around in, but it's all at your own risk. Like if you climb up the pole and fall off -- that's your problem and no one else's." With that, she picks up a kid's metal lunch box -- which she uses for tips -- and struts upstairs in a shimmering silver gown.
Men, even management, are supposed to knock before entering the locker room. But the new cook doesn't know this yet. He comes in unannounced, holding a stainless-steel tub full of dinner, and comes upon at least five girls in five-inch heels and lace tap pants, none of whom show the slightest interest in his arrival. Stunned, he scrams, not even registering the sign on the door that reads: GIRLS! NO TOUCHING BREASTS, BUTTOCKS OR PUSSY!
Pat puts down a package of cookies and the book she's reading (Atlas Shrugged). Lou-Ann, a representative of the town's Vietnamese stripper-clothes manufacturing cartel, arrives with four bags of slinky garments and hangs them on a clothes rack. Dancers will riffle through them for the next two hours, after which Lou-Ann will check the supply of T-bars she leaves with the house moms for emergencies.
Italia/Brooklyn is still deciding on an outfit. She has chubby cheeks and long, curly black hair and seems younger than everyone else. "Hey," she says, mildly perturbed, "I'm not as skinny as the rest of you guys."
"Mom, do you have any tape?"
"Mom, can I have a cookie?"
"So, what's dinner?"
"Last night it was mystery meat," says a woman who sits on the floor balancing a plate on her knees, her eight-inch heels putting them almost level with her eyes.
"Dinner tonight is some kind of chicken parmesan pasta thing, and it's very good," Pat announces. No sense in letting the dancers complain. They'll be complaining soon enough, anyway, if business doesn't pick up.
After a while, Gidget comes out from her office to eat with her employees. Dancers and former dancers may be the only women on the face of the earth who can eat while looking in the mirror.
While she eats, Pat talks about the occupational hazards of her girls' job. Overly enthusiastic customers, for example. "In my day, we would have called them an 'octopus.' Now they call it 'handsy,'" Pat explains. "They come back ranting and raving about some handsy guy. They have to say, 'Don't touch me -- you need to stay eighteen inches away.' They really don't want them thrown out, though, so it's tough. If it were me, I'd have them thrown out, but they sort of have to think differently. On the other hand, the club is very good about watching these guys. You never, ever want to pick a fight with a security guard. I never heard of a soul winning an argument with them."
"Mom, will you clasp this necklace, please?"
"Here you go. That looks nice. Very nice."
"I like your necklace, too," the stripper says politely. It's a faux-pearl choker in the shape of a bowtie, worn with Pat's sensible business shirt and powder-blue pantsuit. Hers are the only flats in the room, unless you count bare feet.
All around her, the dancers sway to a seemingly endless techno soundtrack. "I can block it right out," Pat says proudly. "Just like when your kids are little and they're bickering. That kind of training comes in handy."
Very handy. "I heard about that," an irate dancer is saying as she bursts into the room. "Apparently, she's fucking him. That place is going to hell. The girls all hate it. Fuck that place. This dressing room is a hell of a lot better, anyway."
"You hear that crude language? I'm used to it," Pat says.
"Oh, Mom, can I have a Band-Aid? Look at my knee from dancing last night. Is it terrible to go on stage wearing a Band-Aid?"
"No, it's perfectly all right," she says, then adds, "It's also fine to have tattoos here. At the Diamond, I spent a lot of time covering up tattoos."
Upstairs, the crowd has been building steadily. Girls who aren't dancing are drinking at the bar or chatting up the customers. A nice, intimate passing of the time can lead to a table dance, or even a chance to be "bought off the list," meaning a dancer is allowed to keep talking and drinking -- and possibly fending off handsiness -- instead of returning to the stage.
From her subterranean vantage point, Pat tries to get a sense of what's going on above her head. Because eventually, she says, it all comes back into play in the locker room.
"Jealousies develop," she explains. "You have to break up arguments. Some of the girls are male magnets -- men can't seem to throw enough money at them. Others just sit around up there for no apparent reason. At the Diamond, every four or five months there'd be a fight that had to be broken up by security. Or you have to drive them home, and you have to be firm. 'You're not driving anywhere by yourself in your condition,' I'll say."
Sometimes, to her horror, a dancer will spot a man in the audience -- a family member, say, or a college classmate -- who has no idea what she does for a living and whose ignorance she wants to preserve. That's when Pat smuggles the girl out of the club.
"People have no idea what kind of effort it takes to work like these girls do," she says. A case in point: the Asian dancer who, at last count, had been sitting on biker/Buddha's lap for three hours and has just dragged herself downstairs for dinner.
"I have cramps," sighs a bodybuilder whose dress fits like latex. "I usually smile, but I'm forcing that smile out my ass tonight."
"...and then my car was towed. God, it's a long story," says the dancer in the baby-doll mini-dress, as she heads back upstairs.
"Driving while Hispanic -- that was her crime," Pat announces. "It's terrible that such things even happen."
A recent Russian immigrant -- a dead ringer for Marilyn Monroe, if she were six feet tall and raven-haired -- tweezes an errant pubic hair. A girl with electric-blue hair adjusts her makeup. "Gosh, someone give me a boob job," another girl pleads, to no one in particular. "If anyone needs one, it's me. Desperately."
"I hate my clothes," sighs someone else.
Pat listens carefully. She's thinking of rewriting one of her young-adult novels and has been told that her teenage characters don't use up-to-date language. Setting aside the occasional obscenity, which she would never dream of transcribing, she absorbs dialogue here to her heart's content.
And as she listens, she moves quickly down the row of chairs, picking up dirty dishes and straightening up. "Somewhere along the line," she says, "I always think all this will help me with my writing."
Italia/Brooklyn reappears, elated, with a handful of bills in one hand and a locker key in another. Her audition has been successful.
"What do you think of 'Ghost' for a name?" she asks the room, which remains silent.
As she ponders the name question, Italia/Brooklyn/Ghost tries on a long black evening gown.
"Finally!" a friend tells her. "You look like a lady for the first time all night!"
"You really do look very classy," Pat assures her.
"Wait! I have my name! How about Justice? I'm very honest," she explains, "and I always wanted to be a lawyer."
"This," says another dancer, without a trace of sarcasm, "is terribly unique."
"It's Justice," the new girl decides. "Definitely."
And Justice heads upstairs for her first official shift as a La Boheme stripper.
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