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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Flashback to Fabulous Fifties

As the 1950s began, America had just been through two World Wars, Prohibition and the Great Depression. 100 million people had lost their lives, and these massive traumas reverberated in the collective psyche.  And as if that weren’t enough, America was now in the middle of the Cold War. We will now consider the decade of the 1950s keeping this in mind.

Is it Cold in Here or is it Just Me—The Chilly Climate Of The Cold War

By 1950, both Russia and the United States had nuclear weapons—the Cold War had begun and the specter of nuclear annihilation loomed large.  In June of 1950, North Korea launched a surprise attack on South Korea beginning American involvement in the Korean War, which would not end until 1953.

Although there had been “red scares” before, most notably in the 1920s, McCarthy saw a communist behind every bush and pursued them on national television, where in the middle of the decade HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings were televised live.  No industry was spared, and Hollywood was seriously affected by blacklisting. Communists were even suspected of lurking in the State Department and other governmental offices.  The Rosenbergs were found guilty of spying in 1951 and executed in 1953. 

In January 1950, Truman ordered the development of the Hydrogen Bomb, since Russia had successfully tested an atomic bomb the previous August.  By 1953, both the United States and Russia not only had atomic weapons, but both had hydrogen bombs. In 1952, an atomic test explosion was broadcast live in Nevada. Later that year, the first H-bomb was detonated at Eniwetok Atoll, and March 1, 1954 largest thermonuclear blast ever occurred at Bikini Atoll. 

The Cold War was now in full gear, and people were building fallout shelters in their back yards; and civil defense programs included air raid drills and “duck and cover” exercises.  The unimaginable was now imaginable—mankind now had the power to annihilate itself and life on the planet at the push of a button.  It was the beginning of the "Age of Anxiety" and the arms race: “People now spoke of ‘massive retaliation,’ ‘mutually assured destruction’ and with a nod to the economy ‘a bigger bang for a buck.’ The nuclear threat was never far from anyone’s mind” (Young & Young, 2004, p. 13).  Our naïvete at the time was almost laughable, as people were taught that tilting hat brims and wearing long sleeved shirts and hosiery might shield them from the heat flash, and jumping face first into ditches was also recommended.

Civil Rights—Right Here At Home

During the mid-1950s, civil rights came into widespread consciousness for the first time, as America wrestled with its shadow and realized the evils of racism and segregation.  The Supreme Court in 1954, overturned Plessy vs. Fergusson with Brown vs. Board of Education, (which they unanimously amplified in 1955) ruling that “separate but equal schools” are inherently unequal, and school segregation was ordered to be ended, “within a reasonable time.”  In December of 1955, Rosa Parks refused to take a back seat on the bus, leading to the Montgomery Bus Boycotts and propelling Martin Luther King Jr. to the forefront of the civil rights movement and into the national spotlight.  In 1956, the Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated seating on public transportation was illegal. Riots and protests ensued over the desegregation of schools, finally leading to Federal troops being called in to protect black students in Little Rock Arkansas in 1957.

Portrait of the Decade in a Compensatory Light

The turn of the Twentieth Century with its massive urbanization looked like a bed of roses by comparison.  From where we stood mid-century, after the traumas of the previous decades and the threat of nuclear annihilation, those turn of the century times indeed looked like the "good old days."  Viewed in this light, much of what we saw in the 1950s can be viewed in a compensatory light.

Restraints and shortages of war years, prohibition and depression gave way to easy credit, abundant goods, and sugar filled cereals. We were consumed with consuming and instant gratification was the rule—popular culture’s content reflected this promise of fulfillment (Young & Young, 2004, p. xii). After World War II, the United States was the most powerful nation on Earth. Although America manufactured more than 1/2 of all world’s products, it was also  the single biggest consumer.  Credit cards appeared for the first time—Diner’s Club in 1950 and American Express in 1958, as a profound transformation occurred in America's attitude towards debt. The so-called “silent generation” that came of age in the “Fabulous Fifties” grew up in the lull before the storm.  

The Fifties was a decade of confidence, conformity, consumption and prosperity.  A sense of exterior calm, comfort and stability seemed to lull us into a false sense of security which we so desperately desired. Yet the Fifties was also an age of anxiety, tranquilizers and social unrest simmering beneath the surface, as civil rights became a national issue and segregation slowly started to disintegrate:

Acute observers could already detect cracks and fissures in the national mood, yet a nostalgic haze of consensus lingers over the Fifties, often held by those who never actually experienced the decade . . . . The Fifties portended great social and cultural changes.” (Young & Young, 2004, p. xiii)

In the 1950s the boundaries of culture blurred as popular culture absorbed everything with the expansion of mass culture especially through television.  Some saw this boundary blurring as popularization or democracy, while others felt it was vulgarization.  In a contradictory move, we also saw an acceleration of the individualization as formats splintered to appeal to narrower and more specialized audiences. The 1950s was also a time when many new kinds of culture proliferated, especially in music.

Yet, conformity seemed to hold sway, and was the watchword of the day.  Split-level and ranch-style suburban houses were exemplars of social conformity as well as the ubiquitous gray flannel suit.  The move to suburbia was seen as a paradise.  The mass media, “especially television served as the voice and vision of conformity—they provided common experiences in similar but separate surroundings."  Television, as we will see was the darling of the decade to many, although some considered it “the idiot box,” “the boob tube,” or the “light that failed.” Edward R. Murrow, the decade’s top TV commentator said:

"If television and radio are to be used for entertainment of all of the people all of the time, we have come perilously close to discovering the real opiate of the people." Opiate it very nearly was.  By 1959 the average US family was sitting before the box some six hours a day, seven days a week.  (Bowen, 1970a, p. 250)

Focus On The Family

The birth of Little Ricky on the I Love Lucy in 1953 (filmed in 1952) was one of most watched events in TV history.  This mirrors the intense focus on the family that the Fifties was famous for.  As we shall see later, many television shows from that time, which are still popular today in syndication, focused on the family. Life seemed to revolve around the home, which was increasingly suburban.  Suburbia was seen as a safe place to raise the kids, of which there were many in the post war Baby Boom.  By 1958 almost a third of the population was 15 or under. The baby boom reflected in the birthrate by 1959 was 3.51 vs 2.2 in the 1930s. The home was a focus for a way of life, and became the “nexus of sharing” (Young & Young, 2004, p. 8). The nucleus of the nuclear family was the kitchen, seen as a place for entertainment as well as work.  The kitchen was a big cultural symbol of the 1950s; the home was the center of life, and the kitchen was the symbolic center of the home.

Although around a third of American women were active in the workforce, providing family happiness was the cultural message to Fifties women.  Now that World War II was over, women were expected to return home and turn their talents toward the home, where they were glorified as housewives. Mass media persuaded women to find fulfillment in the roles of wife, mother, cook, and hostess. Comfort, convenience, and happy lifestyles were prominent themes; fun and recreation were seen as the focus of modern living (Young & Young, 2004).

Father Knows Best, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, Make Room for Daddy, and The Donna Reed Show espoused strong family values.  Family togetherness, Tupperware parties, and the do-it-yourself craze reflected the centrality of the home and family.  There was a lot to do around the home: paint-by-number kits and different crafts were popular as were model trains, planes, and cars.  Collecting became a hobby, and games like Scrabble and Canasta became crazes.  Mr. Potato Head became a runaway success in 1952.  And of course, the family could watch television together.

As childhood had become a distinct time at the turn of the century, “teenage” became a time in the 1950s.  Although the term had first appeared in the 1920s, “the idea that there was a time of life between childhood and adulthood that could be isolated and that had its own characteristics, belongs largely to the 1950s” (Maltby, 1989, p. 140).  The flourishing postwar economy created a market for working teenagers, whose income was largely disposable.  Teenagers became an economic force to be reckoned with, and they had their own tastes, which were many times at odds with their elders.  The tots going through their terrible twos of the 1950s would become the teens of the 1960s.

Fifties Foods—Frosty Frozen and Fast

Since sugar was no longer in short supply, as it had been during the war years, sugar-coated breakfast cereals were serious business, becoming a multibillion-dollar enterprise.  Kellogg weighed in with Sugar Pops and Sugar Frosted Flakes in 1950, and then Sugar Smacks in 1953 with a 56% sugar content, followed later by Frosted Krispies.  While General Mills marshaled up Trix, with a 46% sugar content, Frosty-O’s and Kix.  Both companies added chocolate to their lineup with Kellogg's Cocoa Krispies and General Mills Cocoa Puffs.  To offer sweet taste without sugar, sugar-free chewing gum and soft drinks first appeared on the scene in 1951 and 1952. 

TV dinners were introduced in 1954, following the success of Swanson’s frozen turkey pot pies in 1951.  TV dinners had metal trays with separate compartments and featured a television screen showing the meal on their cover.  TV dinners, eaten in front of the television, were a “telling comment both on the impact of TV and the growing informality that characterized the decade.” (Young & Young, 2004, p. 102)

Fast foods also appeared, because the United States was a nation on the move.  Dunkin’ Donuts led the pack in 1950, followed by Jack in the Box in 1951, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Sonic in 1953, Shakey’s Pizza and Burger King in 1954. McDonalds, a regional franchise appeared in 1953, and the "Golden Arches"would go national in 1955, after Ray Kroc, a former milk-shake machine vendor bought the McDonald brouthers out. A burger, fries and a coke became the standard meal in America.  The combination of speed and standardization was hard to beat.

From Science Firsts to Science Fiction

Big science and technology in the 1950s, apart from placing us on the precipice of extinction also gave us the first organ transplant, and a cure for polio, which saved tens of thousands of lives a year (Young and Young, 2004, p. xii). The structure of the DNA molecule and Vitamin B12 were both discovered in the early 1950s.  In 1956, morphine was synthesized, the same year that the TV remote control and Velcro were introduced.

The first commercial business computers were first manufactured in the early 1950s. UNIVAC (universal automatic computer), successor to the first computer ENIAC (electronic numerical integrator and computer) of 1946, was the first computer to store memory.  UNIVAC ushered in the "Information Age" in 1951 when it was used by the Census Bureau, becoming the first commercial computer.  Although IBM had developed a working computer in 1950 and had only sold 20 of them, Big Blue came out with their 700 series in 1954 and later in the decade had sold over a thousand. Xerox introduced the first copying machine in 1950, and mechanical mimesis—making Xeroxes—became possible.

In 1952, with miniaturization, transistors replaced vacuum tubes; Texas Instruments began manufacturing the first silicon transistor in 1954, and Sony introduced the first transistor radio, which was mass-produced in 1955.  The first commercial color television broadcast occurred in 1951. Fiberglass was introduced in 1952.  The Boeing 707 prototype took to the skies on its maiden voyage in 1954. The thick haze that often covered Los Angeles, when damp air mixed with automobile emissions was the name given the name smog in 1955 (a combination of smoke and fog).  A year later, the Federal Highway Act was passed leading to interstate highway system, although the New Jersey Turnpike, one of the first postwar superhighways, opened in 1951.

UFOs became a trend that began in 1947, but during the 1950s sightings averaged 650 a year.  1952 was a banner year with 1500 UFOs reported.  Although the United States government issued a report denying their existence in 1955, UFOs had already captured popular attention and were the subject of several films: The Day the Earth Stood Still, and The Thing in 1951, It Came From Outer Space, War Of The Worlds, and Invaders From Mars in 1953.  The Creature from the Black Lagoon of 1954 and others of its breed showed another popular theme—science run amok and the all-time favorite science-fiction monster movie, Godzilla, thundered onto the silver screen in 1956.

Different Fifties Fashions

The “New Look” in fashion was very dressy, creating the effect of maturity and sophistication, symbolizing glamour, fun, and luxury, a sharp contrast to wartime drab.   This is probably the reason why in most high school yearbook pictures from the Fifties, the teenage girls look like they are forty years old.  Although Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield sizzled, the “healthy good looks of Doris Day and the innocent high style of Audrey Hepburn dictated popular fashion choices” (Young & Young, 2004, p. 94).  Jeans became popular, and were the first intrusion of the youth culture into the world of fashion. Jeans could be ultrafeminine and ultramasculine.  They were casual, and a symbol of rebellion against the stuffy gray flannel conformity of the times. Jeans represented the free and easy casual lifestyle attributed to youthfulness.

The Beat Generation was unfashionably fashionable, uninterested in conforming to mainstream ideas, the Beats preferred basic black and working class attire, which became styles in themselves.  Beat, like abstract painting and progressive jazz, was interested in improvisation and spontaneity.  Jack Kerouac with his nonconformist, stream of consciousness, unpunctuated “sketching,” mirrored the art scene of the time  (Maltby, 1989).

Propeller beanies from the Beanie and Cecil television show had soaring sales, but nothing was as popular as the Davy Crockettcoonskin hat from Disney’s 1954 series on the Disneyland televison show, which sold $100 million and the song “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” sold over four million copies.  Disney licensed over 3000 different Davy Crockett items.  Gumby and his sidekick Pokey ambled onto the scene in 1955, too.

Playboy Magazine began publication in 1953 with Marilyn Monroe as its first centerfold, capitalizing on her sex appeal.  Playboy was on the forefront of the sexual revolution, perhaps firing one of the first salvos.  Since we now had television, TV Guide was a sure fire hit and also began publication in 1953; Sports Illustrated began in 1954. 

Speaking of sports, in 1952, the USSR competed its first Olympics since the 1917 Revolution held in Helsinki Finland. Sir Edmund Hillary and Tensing Norkay reached the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953, and Roger Bannister ran the mile in less than four minutes in 1954.  Meanwhile out in the open seas, Florence Chadwick swam the English channel in both directions in 1950 and 1951, the Catalina Channel in 1952, and the straits of Gibraltar in 1953.  Swimming pools also became popular, from a few thousand pools in the late 1940s to well over 100,000 by the end of the 1950s.  Esther Williams splashed her way to stardom in Pagan Love Song in 1950, Skirts Ahoy and Million Dollar Mermaid in 1952, and Dangerous When Wet and Easy to Love in 1953.

Religion—Experiences A Revival

At beginning of decade around half of Americans claimed church affiliation and by 1960 church affiliation reached an all time high of 69%.  Evangelists Billy Graham, Bishop Fulton Sheen, Norman Vincent Peale, and Oral Roberts all attracted large crowds.  Billy Graham had a multimedia empire, with a syndicated newspaper column, magazines, and had his own corporation that produced movies, radio, and television shows.  The charismatic Catholic, Bishop Fulton Sheen, brought his message to television in the 1953 already having had a popular long-running radio show.  Sheen's TV show did well, even though it was on at prime time up against Milton Berle.  Powerful pastor Norman Vincent Peale extolled the Power of Positive Thinking in 1952, which then became a bestseller for several years, showing how an optimistic attitude and material prosperity go hand in hand. The Bible, too, became a bestseller; the RSV (Revised Standard Version) of the Bible sold 3 million copies in 1952 and 1953 and slowed down slightly in 1954 only selling about one million copies.

Hollywood religious spectacles were blockbuster hits at the box office: Sampson and Delilah in 1950; Quo Vadis in 1951; The Robe in 1953; The Ten Commandments in 1956; and Ben Hur in 1959. “Under god” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954 and “In God We Trust” was added to money the same year.

Depth Psychology—In Many Gods We Trust!

Jung turned 75 in 1950, and his Bollingen stone commemorated this occasion.  In this last full decade of his life, Jung wrote some of his most important works, as preiviously mentioned: “Synchronicity,” “UFO’s,” Answer to Job, Aion, and Mysterium Coniunctionis, all of which had religious, spiritual, or alchemical themes.  Interestingly, in Aion, Jung (1951/1979) discussed the correspondence of Christian symbolism and with the Piscean age. Deeply influenced by Jung’s work, Joseph Campbell had just published The Hero With a Thousand Faces in 1949.  The Kleinian Branch of Object Relations was in full swing; Melanie Klein’s work during the decade included: “Psychoanalytic Play Technique, Its History And Significance” and “On Identification” in 1955;  Klein’s book Envy and Gratitude was published in 1957.  Winnicott was working on his ideas about transitional space and play in 1951, and Bion’s research included “Group Dynamics and Theoretical Conclusions About The Emotional Life Of The Infant,” in 1952.  Bateson’s seminal article on play was written in 1955, while Montagu, K. Lorenz, and de Beers were investigating neoteny during the early and mid-1950s.  Grof began his investigations into LSD in 1956.

Drugs and Alcohol Abound

Alcoholic beverages became stylish, as hard liquor gained wide acceptance, and cocktails epitomized the period.  Alcohol was celebrated and glamorized in books, television, and movies.  Frank Sinatra sang “One for My Baby and One for the Road” in the movie Young at Heart in 1954, and it became a classic.  Drinking became an American ritual, and cocktail time became a special hour.  Interestingly, we now call it happy hour.  Alcohol consumption in the 1950s went from 190 million to 235 million gallons, with gin production tripling from 6 to 18 million gallons, and vodka going from almost nothing to 9 million gallons during the decade. 

Tranquilizers, developed in the 1950s, were also very popular—with 73 different brands to choose from, and they sold in astronomical numbers:

Although available only by prescription, it soon became obvious a lot of people used them.  Beneath an outwardly calm surface, Americans had issues that needed attention, and organized religion seemed unable to solve all of them.  For some, masking reality with drugs seemed a possible outlet.  (Young & Young, 2004, p. 8)

Rock and Roll is Here to Stay

1954 was a big year in music.  In April, Bill Haley and the Comets had their hit "Rock Around the Clock," and in July, the Newport Jazz Festival debuted, along with Elvis’s first commercial recordings.  Elvis would become a teen idol two years later in 1956 with the release of hit "Heartbreak Hotel" and his appearance on Ed Sullivan’s show, Toast of the Town.  The entire decade was musically rich, from rock and roll’s beginnings, cool jazz and bebop, to country music becoming nationwide in appeal, and bluegrass’s taking root. Elvis represented a crossover in black and white styles. He was the king of crossover, because his hits simultaneously were classified as mainstream, country, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.  Elvis’s success “along with the acceptance of rock and roll announced the arrival of a new, probably unbridgeable generation gap along with a revolution in sexual mores” (Young & Young, 2004, p. 173). Rock and roll was feared as primitive and barbaric as it “promised good times, sex and freedom from constraints” (p. xiii).  As rock and roll’s popularity soared, the generation gap began to widen, although it was not as perceptible as it would be in the following decade.  Disc Jockey Alan Freed popularized the term, “rock and roll, although it was already in use well before that in rhythm and blues circles as a euphemism for sex. Rock and roll had just begun and it was here to stay.

Let's Go to the Movies

Television took its toll on the film industry. Viewership of movies declined from 60 million each week in 1950 to 46 million in 1952, and kept declining during the decade.  Hollywood, at first hoping television would just go away, realized the futility of that wish and fired back by providing what television could not—more and better. Future movie icons Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe both made their film debuts in 1950. Screens got bigger, color got richer, and productions were more spectacular.  Classic musicals and religious spectacles were examples of this, as Hollywood gave us flights into fancy.  On the other end of the spectrum, Hollywood also sought to appeal to younger restless audiences, with darker grittier films. Film noir had its heyday in the Fifties, and horror films, teen pictures and drive in movies were also in vogue. Many musicals went from coast to coast, as they crossed over from the Broadway stage to the silver screen during the decade.  The Fifties musicals are still considered classics: Annie Get Your Gunin 1950; Show Boat in 1951; American In Paris and Singin’ In The Rain in 1952, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Kismet and Kiss Me Kate in 1953; Brigadoon in 1954; Guys And Dolls and Oklahoma in 1955; Anything Goes, Carousel and The King and Iin 1956; Pal Joey and The Pajama Game in 1957; and Gigi, South Pacific, and Damn Yankees in 1958.

Gimmics abounded as Hollywood tried 3D, Smellorama, Sensurround, and Shockovision.  Cinemascope made a splash with its curved screen and stereophonic sound which became standard in 1953, the same year Disney’s Peter Pan finally made it to the Big Screen.  Many of Disney’s other classic movies came out in the 1950s as well: Cinderella in 1950, Alice in Wonderland in 1951, and Sleeping Beauty in 1959.  Disney was the first major studio to cross over into television and that is just what we are about to do now.

Television Triumphs

There were fewer television sets than movie theaters in America in 1947, but in 1954, there were more than 32 million TVs. Television brought families together to share entertainment, and sold faster than any other consumer durable ever had.  No new consumer commodity ever sold so fast or penetrated available markets so thoroughly as television did in the United States in the 1950s (Maltby, 1989). In 1947, there were 16 television stations, by 1951 that number had jumped to 107, and there were 300 stations by 1953.  By the mid-1950s, almost the entire country could receive at least one channel, and television became the primary carrier of both entertainment and news.

In bricoleur fashion, television borrowed from other forms of entertainment extensively, radio comedies and dramas became sitcoms, soap operas, and series. Variety and comedy shows were popular, with their roots in vaudeville.  Milton Berle, the epitome of this, was known as “Mr. Television” and had a 30 year multi-million dollar contract at the beginning of the decade.  Jackie Gleason was a big hit and had two popular shows: TheCavalcade of Stars which became The Jackie Gleason Show, and The Honeymooners.

Situation comedies, or sitcoms, portrayed situations that “may never have actually existed outside the world of television, but television brought them into our lives and living rooms"  (Young & Young, 2004, p. 221). The 1950s sitcoms continue to be popular today because of the way they portrayed American values:

For many, the sanitized view of family life they provide has evolved into a kind of collective nostalgia for a way of life (white, middle class, suburban) that never accurately represented America.  The 50s, through the imagery of television situation comedies of the period, represent for many the best of times, but that rose-colored sentiment conveniently overlooks any problems the country might have been facing.  The irony in this is approach is that those who criticize today as “too violent” or “too negative” and long for a return to the past often base their view of that past on a media-created image that never existed in the first place.” (Young & Young, p. 221) 

Mary Martin portrayed Peter Pan on Broadway in 1954, and a live telecast was shown on television in 1955:

it created a sensation, becoming one of the highest-rated shows up to that time, and spawning a series of televised musical children's stories, none as successful as this one. It was re-staged live with the same cast only a few months later. In 1960 it was finally videotaped, with virtually the same cast (except for the children) and this time at its full-length. It is one of the first instances in which a Broadway stage production has been duplicated exactly for television. (Donehue, 1960, online)

Children’s television shows were also popular in the 1950s and two of the most memorable, The Mickey Mouse Club and Captain Kangaroo, both debuted on the same day—October 3, 1955.

The Disneyland television series debuted on October 27, 1954, and became the longest-running prime-time series in network history.  The program opened with fireworks display over Sleeping Beauty Castle.  Disneyland was designed to promote Disney’s new theme park also called Disneyland, and the castle became an iconic image.   Disneyland gave updates on the Disneyland Park's progress as well as presenting treasures from Disney’s film vaults, and its own short series created for the television show.  The format of the Disneyland television show and the theme park matched each other, and each week a different themed land was featured.  Adventureland highlighted different Disney True Life Adventures, while Fantasyland featured animated cartoons favorites, Tomorrowland featured the "Man in Space" series and Frontierland made a big hit with the "Davy Crockett" series that spawned a fad of Crockett memorabilia, a hit song and the ubiquitous coon skin cap.

Since television was in its commercial infancy, there were many television firsts in the fifties, among them were: the first Disney Christmas Special in 1950; the premiere of I Love Lucy, and the first commercial color telecast by CBS in 1951; Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation was televised live, as was the Academy Awards in 1953.  But for this dissertation, the most important event in the 1950s was the opening of Disneyland, on July 17, 1955, was covered by a record number of television crews. R. A. Schwartz (2003) remarks:

Cold War anxieties often remained unspoken, and brisk economy; advances in science, medicine, travel and technology; and the ever increasing variety of consumer goods and entertainment opportunities created an outward veneer of good times.  These perhaps found their strongest expression in the opening of Disneyland in California.  The world’s first modern theme park resonated strongly with Americans by recreating the wonder and delight of youthful innocence, promoting a patriotic and noble view of America’s past and imagining a bright future mad better and easier by science and modern technology. (p. 242)

Disneyland cost $17 million, employed 2,500 construction workers, was built on 160 acres in Anaheim California, adjacent to the freeway, and opened in less than a year from groundbreaking.   Now that we have our archetypal bearings and have seen how both the sky and the world were gathered during the 1950s, we can proceed to explore Disneyland itself.


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