Bernie Griffin: Still in the Spotlight

September 21, 2023

Longtime 5th Avenue Theatre Managing Director Bernie Griffin just retired, but she remains a staunch advocate for an arts community she helped create. In the latest episode of the Seattle magazine podcast, Griffin shares tales from her colorful career backstage, how live theater is inherently risky and why she always returned to Seattle after holding influential roles in both New York and Los Angeles.


Hello everybody, my name is Rob Smith.

I’m the executive editor of Seattle Magazine and Seattle Business Magazine and welcome to the latest edition of the Seattle Magazine podcast.

I am very pleased to say that we have one of the most illustrious and one of the most important personalities in Seattle with us today, Bernie Griffin, who spent more than 20 years at the Fifth Avenue Theater and she also spent time in New York and Los Angeles, which we’re going to talk about, and she’s doing some consulting now and we’ll get into that later as well.

But Bernie Griffin, thank you so much for taking time out of what I’m sure is a very busy schedule to join us today.

Oh my gosh, Rob.

Thank you so much for having me.

This is a thrill.

Happy to be here.

You recently retired.

So what’s the biggest revelation you have about retirement?

I have no work worries.

For the first time since I was 21 years old and going into an office every day, I have no work worries, which seems kind of obvious, but it still was kind of surprising.

So I remember my father saying he was a little bit bored after he retired.

He got used to it pretty quickly.


Have you been bored at all or did you were you worried that you weren’t going to have enough to do?

I have not been bored at all and I’ve been pretty busy.

And you know, it’s that old statement that people say, “I never know how I had the time to work,” you know, at being busy in retirement and so far that’s what I’ve experienced.


Well, you deserve it because you know, you assumed a leadership role at the theater back in 2002 and during your tenure, more than 6 million patrons have enjoyed almost 150 musicals.

Isn’t that correct?


Isn’t that amazing?

More than two dozen of those were new and about a dozen went on to Broadway and garnered 14 Tony Awards.

Do you follow what happens to the musicals after they leave here?


What it’s about at the fifth was and is producing musicals for our community.

So anything that happens to a show after it leaves here is kind of gravy, but it’s always thrilling to see some of the successes like “Hairspray” was the first one out of the gate and you know, a show like “Come from Away” that started in the basement of the fifth and then went on and the next level was it was performed at the rap and then theaters across the country before it went into New York.

Some weren’t so successful, but it’s you know, to be a part of the development of something new is pretty amazing because at one point West Side Story was new.

It takes the right creative teams to all be rowing in the same direction and it takes an audience like the audiences of Seattle that are pretty sophisticated because they do go to other theaters around town and in other places and you know, you can do all the work in an empty theater and you can work on it and work on it and work on it, but until there’s an audience you don’t know what you got.

Now you grew up in Walla Walla.

I did.

Very different place when you were growing up.

Well yes, what we said about Walla Walla was in the 60s and the 70s when I grew up it was it was famous for the sweet onion and the state pen.

So do you go back to Walla Walla?

Oh my gosh.

Okay, so we grew up in Walla Walla.

I’m the youngest of seven and my folks left Walla Walla.

When I graduated from college, I went to St.

Martins down in Lacey.

When I graduated in 82, they sold the house and went traveling in a fifth wheel for 25 years.

So none of and none of us stayed in Walla Walla.

So we have not had a presence in Walla Walla since 82 and yet every year I make Sean come with me and we do the tour of Walla Walla.

We go by our old house.

We go out to the strawberry field where we picked berries.

We go out to our church assumption parish where we used to go.

We go to the iceberg and get a hamburger and go and buy near park.

That’s what we do.

Once a year I go to Walla Walla.

Unfair question.

Do you like it better now or then?

Well, you know, I think that there are Walla Walla still feels like home even though we haven’t lived there for a long time.

And there’s parts of the new Walla Walla like the downtown and all of that stuff that I think is really exciting.

And you can go to our old haunts in Walla Walla and they’re exactly the same.


So both things can be true.

One of the things that fascinates me about you, Bernie, is you know, you’re basically a Seattle or Washington state native.

You’ve left several times.

You were in Denver.

You were in New York.

You were in Los Angeles.

But in between all those stints, and we’ll talk about that a little bit, but you’ve always come back.

Did you always know you were going to come back?

I just miss Seattle.

I just miss Seattle.

So the first, well, yeah, I was in, when I graduated from college, moved to Denver and then moved back and had my first job in the arts at the Rep.

And then that’s where I met Sean, my husband, who is a award-winning actor, Sean G.


And he was in a show.

He came, he had been a member of the acting company at the Rep in the 80s.

And then he was, he came back to the Rep to do a show called Conversations with My Father with Judd Hirsch.

And we met at the Rep and got married and moved to New York.

So we were in New York about three years and Sean had been in New York off and on for 25 years.

And I always tell this story because a lot of people always say, I had a moment when I knew it was time to leave New York.

And I was working for Tony Randall in the National Actors Theatre.

And we were in the Actors Equity Building in Times Square.

And we lived in Chelsea.

And I was walking home from work.

It was a summer day.

It was a thunderstorm.

It was hot.

It was raining.

It was humid.

And I was walking home and there was a bunch of tourists in front of me.

There were about five of them across and I couldn’t get past them.

They were like an accordion.

And I finally got past them and I elbowed them because they just irritated me.

And I got home and I said to Sean, I said, I think I need to go back to Walla Walla.

Because you’re not coming to Seattle.

I’m a New Yorker.

I was going, I saw the direction I was going in.

And then that’s when I came back and was on the team that helped build Ben Aroya for the symphony.



That’s fascinating.


That was great.

That was amazing.

So then after that though, you were in Seattle for several years.


And then you went down to Los Angeles.

Yes, we did.

So you always came back to Seattle.


But you wanted to leave Seattle a couple of times as well.

Well, you know, after that campaign was done for Ben Aroya, we have a joke of the staff or the volunteers or the board.

Because at the time that was the largest campaign for an arts organization in the city in the 90s, and it was like $120 million.

We joke that when that campaign was over, everybody either went into rehab or into therapy, you know, because it was just, it was big and it was wonderful and amazing and exhausting.

And you know, sometimes there is a group that gets something built and then there’s the group that comes in and maintains it.

And a lot of times they’re not the same people.

And then we had an opportunity to move down to Los Angeles.

And Sean did a lot of episodic TV work.

And I worked both at the Laguna Playhouse and primarily at the Geffen in Los Angeles and Westwood.

So what was that experience like?

It was interesting, you know, Orange County.

So we lived in Orange County and Los Angeles.

And we made some great friends.

And you know, the day we were driving out of Seattle to go down there was a winter where we had, you know, 92 consecutive days of no sun, you know, something like that.

It was one of those winters.

And I said, I am out of here.

I enjoy nice weather.

And you know, after a while, I came to the understanding that life is more than the weather, right?

And Orange County is its own kind of Southern California thing.

And Los Angeles is its own kind of Southern California thing.

And I think there’s only like 30 miles between them, but they’re like two different worlds in, oh, in an odd way.

So then you came back to Seattle, the Fifth Avenue Theater, which is where your long tenure started.

What was the Fifth Avenue like back in 2002?

Okay, that is an interesting question because when the Fifth Avenue reopened in 1980, it was a Broadway touring house, or what they used to call a roadhouse.

And before the Fifth Avenue reopened, there was not a Broadway touring show that could come to Seattle.

Because the only other venue that they could go to was the old opera house.

And the opera house was filled.

It had the symphony, the ballet and the opera, and then all sorts of other things.

So there was no like span of time that a Broadway show could come and perform for two to three weeks or whatever it is.

And so it was the first time a Broadway tour came to Seattle was at the Fifth Avenue Theater in 1980, opened with Annie.

And it ran and ran and ran and ran.

And the thing that’s interesting about the Fifth is it was really founded by corporate individuals, Unico, Roger Stevens, who founded Unico, and then went on to run the Kennedy Center.

I mean, he had a really interesting background.

Annie was the producer of Annie.

So Annie came, it ran for five or six weeks.

And then it came back again, and it ran for another eight or nine weeks, full capacity.

And all these corporate guys were saying, “What’s so hard?

What’s so hard?

What’s so hard about running a non-profit arts organization?”

Well, that, that, you know, it becomes more difficult as time goes on.

And so it was a, it was a roadhouse.

And then in about 1989, it started producing in conjunction with Theater Under the Stars in Houston, Texas.

So that’s when the producing arm of the Fifth Avenue started.

And then the board decided it was time for the Fifth Avenue to have its own artistic profile.

So that’s when they hired their first ever producing artistic director who was David Armstrong, who came in 2000.

And then Bill Berry, who is the current producing artistic director, came about four months later.

And then I came as a first ever fundraising person.

It was very interesting because we came into an organization that didn’t really have an artistic profile in the community, but was fairly successful and able to come in and be entrepreneurs and establish new departments and new initiatives and education and new works.

And, you know, over the course of time, you know, the Fifth was reaching 75,000 young people throughout the state annually.

And the New Works Department was developing new works kind of page to the stage, that kind of stuff and investing in the development of new work.

So it’s really pretty incredible to think back on all that was accomplished during the last 21, 22 years.

When you started then, it wasn’t so much of a turnaround job as just something that had never been, the vision just hadn’t been there.



The Fifth never fundraised.

And that was part of the strategy of the board is that we would, that the Fifth would not fundraise.

And I came and, you know, coming back into town from the symphony and the rep, I knew people in the community.

And I remember going to funders and they said, well, the Fifth said they were never going to fundraise.

And I said, well, never say never.

Here we are.


At what point did you realize that the Fifth Avenue was really going to become what it became?

Well, as I was interviewing for the position.

And it was people around the table like face Sarkowski and Peter Donnelly and David Armstrong and Marilyn Sheldon, who was the founding managing director and Kenny L.


And as I learned more about what the vision and the aspirations were to be a producing house, rather than a touring house, I said, well, that’s what excites me because it’s employment.

It’s employment for people like Sean and all the all of the folks in our artistic community who could who could work because we’ve got a great we’ve got a great community of actors and artists.

Do you consider yourself more of a business person or a creative?

I view myself maybe somewhere in the middle because we have we’ve always had like chief financial officers who are indeed the business people who are, you know, the numbers and the audits and the and and all of that kind of stuff, the financial stuff.

And of course, fiscal responsibility and understanding budgets and knowing what revenue you need to cover expenses and and what you, you know, because, you know, you make a budget and things never go the way of the budget.

And then how are you going to balance that?

And so to be fiscally responsible, I think my core strength was connecting people with the organization.

I think that was it for me, which is a very business focused thing.



Now, I want to get into a lot of the stuff you’ve done in in and around Seattle, especially downtown Seattle.

Oh, yeah.

But before we leave this topic, yes, so you have dealt with both business people and artistic people who are also business people.

What’s the what’s the main difference?

Well, I have had the thing that’s been great about this job that I had the privilege of having was that you do have one foot in the artistic world and one foot in the business world.

And being able to communicate back and forth, I think is really interesting because sometimes they are talking from different points of view, right?

So you have a finance committee meeting and, you know, you have bankers and business people on the finance committee.

And we always said the finance committee, the sub the subtitle to the finance committee is the finance committee dot, dot, dot, where artistic dreams go to die, you know, as people are saying, you know, because this stuff doesn’t make any sense on paper.

People come in and go, what?

And yet, you know, and yet I believe that the folks that run the folks who run artistic organizations are the most creative when it comes to research and development, as well as management, fiscal management, and being creative and being able to accomplish things when the resources aren’t there.

And so it is about an under-resourced kind of sector.

And yet the magic that it produces that fill our souls and make us all human and bring us together by telling stories is pretty incredible.

It’s pretty incredible.

How important is the relationship between an artistic director and a managing director?

I think it’s very important.

And I think, you know, Bill and I had the luxury of working together for a long time because these are arranged marriages, you know, and we had the luxury of working together, always as colleagues, all the way through our time together.

So there was never a time where he was above me on the org chart or I was above him on the org chart.

We were pretty much colleagues, head of departments, and all of that.

So when we, when David retired in 2017, we said, this is how we’re going to continue.

And every artistic decision is a financial one and every financial decision is an artistic one.

And so we did, you know, things pretty much hand in glove.

And this came to light really during the pandemic.

Arts organizations have always struggled for the most part financially for money.

And that was very clear during the pandemic.

Why is that?

Is that because of what you just described?

Is there an inherent clash there?

Well, I think the way the model was set up, so it’s a very interesting kind of history of the regional theater movement in the United States.

And, you know, it really started after World War II, primarily in the 60s, though it really, I mean, I think the Cleveland Playhouse is the oldest regional theater in the country.

And I think that was established somewhere in the late 40s, but takes Seattle.

So the rep was established in 63.

And, you know, how the model was set up in the 60s was had a deficit built into it.

So it was and that was at the same time as the Kennedy administration and the establishment of the NEA.

So the business model always had a revenue hole that ticket prices would never cover the full cost, nor should it.

We’re a nonprofit, you know, we’re a nonprofit sector.

And people have to be able to afford and have access to the theater.

That’s a main mission.

So if you can’t charge what you need to to cover costs, then you have to do it through philanthropy.

So it’s always that push pull between ticket revenue and philanthropy.

And, you know, when you look at philanthropy and the kind of pieces of pie of philanthropy and where the money goes to, the arts are a very small section.

And it’s becoming smaller and smaller.

Individuals are making up more and more of that as corporate is going down as foundation and as as public support.

Is there anything arts organizations can and should be doing differently to help stabilize their funding models?

Well, I think that there is always an opportunity to tell our stories better.

Because, you know, I think that sometimes like when I read articles in the paper about something with the arts, and then I read the comments.

And one, there’s not a lot of comments in like when I read something in the Seattle Times, which is mmm.

And then but sometimes the comments are the this is an elitist sector, they should receive no government funding, wealthy individuals should support.

And that that makes me sad.

And so I think it’s not necessarily doing a better job fundraising, because these fundraisers are working.

And they’re very smart and strategic.

But it’s how do we tell our stories to the people who you know, when people are recruiting, they use the natural beauty of the area.

And they also use a vibrant arts and cultural sector as a attraction to this region.

And yet the support there is it’s an add on.

How important is it to get young people involved in the arts?

And are you satisfied that enough young people appreciate what they have in downtown Seattle or in the Seattle area?

I think a couple things.

I think that’s where, you know, young kids, I mean, when we were growing up, we would take field trips and go to the symphony and and go to theater and stuff like that, even walla walla.

And if you don’t expose kids to the arts, they don’t know, they don’t know.

And so you got to you got to get them young.

And that’s what I say about musical theater that so many times it’s the gateway drug for all of us, right?

It is, you know, maybe you had a brother or sister who was in a musical in high school and you all went to see it.

Maybe your folks took you to a show.

Maybe you experienced as someone who grew up with Disney musicals, animated musicals.

But it’s usually our first exposure to the arts.

And so that early exposure is so important, so important.

And to your other question about do I think that people appreciate or the younger people appreciate what we have in Seattle?

I don’t know if I really did until, you know, I went down to Los Angeles and, you know, a place like Los Angeles, how many millions of people?

Seven million plus.

And, you know, at the time when I left Seattle, we had the Seattle Rep in Tehran before it’s in its in its different phase now act the children’s theater, the Fifth Avenue, and then all the small, you know, book at Seattle shakes, all of those.

So there were, you know, a depth to the theater sector here.

In addition to that, on top of that, a world-class symphony opera in ballet for a city the size of Seattle and the region, which is not even a million people.

And then I went down to Los Angeles and there were three regional theaters.

There was Pasadena Playhouse, the Taper, and the Geffen, which was just getting started when I started.

And then, of course, they have the Philharmonic and the Opera, but they don’t have a dance company like P&V, like we have here, which is extraordinary.

And that’s when it hit me that was like, wow, we got a lot going on in Seattle.

And it takes careful tending because it’s pretty fragile right now.

Now, Bernie, you’re a big advocate for downtown Seattle.

And you’re still on the Downtown Seattle Association Board, correct?

Yeah, John Skoll is one of my favorite people.

I love that guy.

He hasn’t kicked me off yet.

And you created the Downtown Seattle Theater District.

It was, you know what we did?

It was the Downtown Historic Theater District.

And it was at the time, it was where Herman from Town Hall, it was Becky Whitmer and Carlos Gen-Duzzi from Act, Josh LaBelle from Seattle Theater Group, so that would be the Paramount, the Moor, and myself from the Fifth Avenue.

And where from Town Hall.

And we established the Downtown Historic.

It’s a city identified or a city sanctioned, city approved district.

It was during Mayor McGinn.

So do you have a particular fondness for downtown or was part of the drive because the Fifth Avenue was down here?

And all the arts organizations are also down here?

Or did you take a broader interest in what’s happening downtown?

I love downtowns.

And I love what’s happening in Seattle’s downtown right now.

You might have heard of San Francisco’s Mayor recently said, basically giving up on downtown San Francisco.

And we see what’s happening there.

That’s not happening in Seattle.


So why is it, why are downtowns in general important to you?

Well, economically, it’s the engine that makes everything work.

It’s the revenue that’s generated from downtown businesses and tourists and all of that, that fund all the things that we want it to fund.

So if downtown is not healthy, our communities are not healthy.

So there’s the economic side.

But I think downtown Seattle is the largest neighborhood in Seattle.

So I think that’s what’s changed over the last 15 years or so in regards to downtown is that there is a very, there’s a higher population of residents in downtown.

So I love that too.

More than 100,000, I think.

Yeah, I mean, it’s big.

That’s big.

And I mean, my goal is always to get those folks who live downtown to walk to one of these amazing arts organizations that you don’t have to get in your car to go to.

You can walk three blocks and have world-class theater and world-class arts and culture that is pretty extraordinary.

And you basically live in the Pike Place Market.

We do.


What do you like about the Pike Place Market?

It’s like a little neighborhood.

It’s like a little, it’s like Mayberry.

It’s like Walla Walla.

You go through and you say, “Hey to Chaz, who’s at Frank’s?”

and going at your fruit and your vegetables and your meat down at the meat market.

And just that the community of the market is really wonderful.

Well, it’s like Mayberry with about 15 different languages being spoken on any given day.

That’s right.

That’s true.

That’s true.

But no, it’s a really, it’s a wonderful little, it’s just a wonderful little place.

So what’s your favorite musical of all time?

I think back on moments, I can’t say my favorite musical of all times, but I can say some that I have liked.

I mean, I think Sunday in the Park with George, I can think about the end of Act One in Sunday in the Park with George and it takes me to a place that is unbelievable, that music and the coming together of that painting.

And I remember the first time I saw Sweeney Todd and the big unveil and reveal and was like, “What?”

And even shows like mid-century with the great scores, “Anything goes.”

I love that.

I love the hairspray.

I love West Side Story for all different reasons, for all different reasons.

And some that are surprising.

First time I saw, and a lot of these I saw for the first time at the fifth.

First time I saw Candide was one of the most beautiful productions I’d ever seen.

Now, your retirement gala, which was just this summer, raised $1.3 million for the Fifth Avenue Theater.

What’s it like to have your own retirement gala?

It was, you know, it was, I am a fundraiser through and through.

So, you know, whenever you’ve got something to hook something on, you use it.

So, being able to use someone’s retirement is something I’ve done all my career.

So, you know, it’s like just lean into it, man.

Let’s lean into it and raise money for the Fifth.

So, that was, you know, it was a tool and I was very happy to have the outpouring of support for the Fifth.

Was there ever a time that evening when you thought, God, I wish I wasn’t leaving?

Or were you all in on retirement?

Well, you know, I had had, I had made the decision and I gave a year.

And so, I knew that I was, I was ready and it was, it was time for the next, you know, change in leadership on the management side.

Now, Bill Berry, who’s a producing artistic director, who’s been there as long as I was, is still there and he is, he’s an amazing artist.

He’s an amazing creative.

He is wonderful with staff and understands all the financials.

He’s, he’s, for the, for the new managing director, Katie, he’s, he’s a wonderful, wonderful partner.

When you reflect on your career, what are you going to remember most?

What’s one of your brightest memories?

I think, you know, I have had, you know, some people write me notes and things along the way.

And of course, it’s about, you know, it’s about the art, of course, and the storytelling and, you know, taking people, we had a tagline once that I always loved is, you know, worlds away from the everyday.

So being able to create the magic on stage, employing people and impacting people’s lives and creating memories is, is pretty wonderful.

And the folks who, you know, came to the fifth, maybe that was their first job out of college or maybe their mid career and they laughed or they stayed or whatever.

And they said that I impacted their lives is very meaningful to me.

If you had the chance, what would you do over?

I would not, I would try not to worry about everything so much.

Because you know what, it’s all somewhere another.

There’s a great God, I wish I had it.

But there’s a great line that Jeffrey Rush does in Shakespeare and Love.

And it’s like it makes no sense.

It looks like it’s never going to work.

And disaster is all around us.

And yet it happens.

And it happens and it’s magical.

And that is what happens.

And I think it, it’s, you know, and I got there, I think, as I matured in my role and stuff as far as trusting the process and knowing it’s going to be okay.

And even if it’s not the way I think it should be, it’s still okay.

So in all your years in live theater, can you think of a memorable mistake?

Well, you know, I, it would be funny to talk more to an actor who was, you know, Sean has a few of those stories.

But we knew I knew one because I saw it as an audience member.

And one year we had, it was for the holiday show and the show we were going to do at the holidays was Dr.

Dolittle and it fell apart.

And we had like four weeks to put on a holiday show, which of course is the revenue generator for the whole season practically.

You get a large part of your revenue from your holiday show.

And so we put together sound of music.

And we had an amazing cast, I don’t know, Terrence Mann, who is an amazing guy.

He was, he was Captain Von Trop.

He, we just, you know, called his agent.

He wasn’t doing anything.

He came out.

It was like that kind of kismet stuff.

And I can’t, oh my gosh, Kim, our actress who played Maria.

She had a little girl at the time who was probably four or five.

Her name was Paige.

And she was the littlest Von Trap.

And so they were, they did, they were in the, you know, Adelweiss.

I don’t know, it wasn’t Adelweiss.

It was the scene in the bedroom where raindrops on roses and people are, you know, the kids are scared with the thunderstorms.

And she brought her guitar out and she whacked Paige right on the noggin.

And you could hear it.

It was like, and the audience was like, oh my gosh, and there was laughter in the audience.

And then, but then Paige got her back because it was the wedding scene.

And she went center stage and just stepped right on her veil that was her train.

And so she, her mom had to go back a little bit.

But anyways, that was, that was a memorable night.

That was sweet.

So do audiences tend to be pretty forgiving in your view if a line is flubbed or there’s a little bit of a mistake, even sophisticated audiences?

I think they love it.

I think they love the opportunity.

I know, you know, there’s many times in previews and sometimes, you know, it’s live theater stuff happens.

Sometimes you have to stop and those audiences are there.

So Bernie, after a long and incredibly successful career, you’re now a consultant.

And I know you’re consulting a little bit with the Fifth Avenue.

What other types of consulting are you doing or do you want to be doing?

I am, you know, keeping a toe in the world of musical theater.

And I’m just kind of, you know, after working every day, going into an office every day of my life since I was 21, it’s looking to see what’s next and taking a pause and seeing what awaits me and how I can best serve the sector and the people involved with the sector.

Because I learned early on, I mean, I was a theater major in college, but I learned early on I was much better at supporting artists than being an artist.

I think the universe took care of me and put me right where I needed to be.

I understand you’re going to be doing some traveling now and you just bought a new car?

We traded in our Mini Cooper, which we had had for a couple decades, not the same Mini Cooper, but for a RAV4 hybrid.

So, yeah, yeah, so that just happened.

And we just got back, we went to Ireland last week and went to the Notre Dame Navy game in Dublin.

Oh, wow.

And we went to Sean’s hometown of Limerick and we had, it was a really dear trip with my stepdaughter, Heather, and Sean’s nephew, Sean, and his wonderful wife, Lisa.

And then we had a wonderful, wonderful time.

Last question, Bernie, where were we most likely to find you on a Saturday afternoon?

I think on a Saturday afternoon, I might be going to see a performance somewhere, maybe theater, maybe the ballet.

I love the ballet.

I love P&B.

And I love the symphony.

Saturday afternoon, that sounds pretty great.


That sounds pretty great.

Bernie Griffin, Fifth Avenue Theater.

You’re always going to be associated with the Fifth Avenue Theater.

Thank you so much for your time today.

Fascinating conversation.

Oh, Rob, honor and a privilege.

Thank you for having me.

And thank you for listening to the Seattle Magazine podcast.

Thank you for listening to the Seattle Magazine podcast.

You can always find us on

Look for new episodes approximately every two weeks on our website.

A special thank you to the entire Seattle Magazine staff and to podcast producer Nick Patri.

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Until next time, let’s keep celebrating Seattle.


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