Tag Archives: Alexander Payne

Preservation of King Fong Cafe

March 3, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

To walk upstairs from 16th Street to the dining area of King Fong Cafe was like passing through a time-warp. Destination: Southern China, more than 100 years ago. Pagoda chandeliers hovered above lavish teakwood tables inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Golden camphor carvings decorated the trim of private booths and tearooms. Silken embroideries adorned walls.

But the cuisine was another sort of time-travel experience. At least until King Fong’s—considered Omaha’s oldest restaurant—closed “temporarily” for renovations in 2016. King Fong’s menu featured old-school Chinese-American dishes such as chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young.

Back in the early days of Chinese immigration to the U.S., entrepreneurial chefs invented chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young to appeal to American taste buds. The dishes became staples at Chinese restaurants throughout the United States, but they have gradually faded from Chinese-American menus in recent decades. The trend is evident in New York City’s Chinatown. Likewise among the Chinese restaurants of Omaha.

Omaha-born director Alexander Payne was involved in a company’s purchase of King Fong’s in 2007. He has expressed desire to ensure that a Chinese restaurant remains at the site of King Fong’s for future generations; however, the restaurant remained closed for renovations as this edition of Omaha Magazine headed to press.

Preservation of King Fong Cafe represents a continuation of the last-remaining continuous link to Omaha’s early Chinese community. The restaurant’s founder, Gin Chin, was born in California; Chin’s father was a potato farmer in Stockton who gained citizenship while working as a houseboy for the mayor of San Francisco. Chin eventually left California to open a Chinese restaurant in Duluth, Minnesota. Upon visiting Omaha for the 1896 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, he decided to relocate to Omaha’s relatively more-temperate climate. He opened the Mandarin Cafe and then King Fong Cafe in Omaha.

King Fong’s opened in 1920 at 315 S. 16th St. The building previously housed dining entrepreneur Tolf Hanson’s Cafe Beautiful, an ambitious French restaurant that ended up a financial disaster (the bankrupted Hanson committed suicide in 1909, a year after Cafe Beautiful opened). To remodel the magnificent space, Chin went all the way to Canton (present-day Guangdong province) to retrieve the traditional furniture and décor that would fill King Fong’s second and third levels. Chin even took the boat back to America with his teak tables, chandeliers, and silk embroideries to keep the investment safe.

Subsequent generations of the Chin family would leave the restaurant industry behind. Chin’s son, Carl (the eldest male of eight children), became a chemical engineer and chief chemist for Omaha Public Works. Although Carl personally helped out with accounting at King Fong’s, none of his own children would work there. Among Carl’s five children, his second-eldest son—Dennis Chin—is the only one still residing in Omaha. He became an accountant for Union Pacific before switching careers to education as a Bellevue school teacher/administrator and wrestling coach.

Dennis’s first language was Toisanese—a regional dialect of Cantonese—but says he’s no longer conversational in Chinese. His Chinese-American wife, Betty, grew up in Pittsburgh’s small Chinese community. Her first language was also Toisanese.  Dennis and Betty (who remains bilingual) speak English with each other, their children, and granddaughter. Their household conversations demonstrate how English often becomes the language of familiarity for second and third-generations of Chinese-American families.

Just like the culinary landscape of Chinese-American communities has changed—with chop suey, chow mein, and egg foo young becoming increasingly rare—the linguistic landscape has also changed with subsequent waves of Chinese migration.

Mandarin has replaced Cantonese as the dominant Chinese language in Chinese-American communities. (Cantonese is the regional language/dialect of Guangdong province and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, while Mandarin is spoken throughout mainland China and Taiwan.)

Meanwhile, with recent waves of Chinese immigration, the great variety of Chinese cuisine has found more authentic representation in American cities: from Sichuanese (a spicy Chinese cuisine from the interior of the country, available in Omaha at China Garden), to Shandong specialties (available at Blue & Fly in Omaha), and even back south to the Cantonese-speaking region of China with authentic dim sum (available in Omaha at Gold Mountain’s two locations and Grand Fortune Chinese Restaurant).

King Fong’s in 2018

This article was printed in the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. Interior photos of King Fong’s published in the September/October edition of Encounter Magazine.

See other Omaha-Chinese content from the March/April 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine:

Alexander Payne’s Homecoming

February 13, 2018 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Alexander Payne’s new tragicomedy Downsizing imagines the fate of an overpopulated world hanging in the balance due to depleted natural resources. When scientists find a way to miniaturize humans, adventurous souls choose going small as an act of conservation or exploitation. Matt Damon plays Paul, an average Omaha man whose pioneering micro-me experiences range from surreal to sublime.

The Omaha native’s big-budget sci-fi satire premiered in December at the newly reopened Dundee Theater, where Payne practically grew up. His debut feature Citizen Ruth also played there.

Now that this prodigal local son and world- class filmmaker is 56, remarried, and a papa— daughter Despina Evangeline Payne was born in Greece last fall—he’s downsizing from hurly-burly L.A. to his laid-back hometown with wife Maria and baby in tow.

Putting down roots is important to Payne. His mother Peggy, extended family, and close friends live here.

“I love Omaha and have been looking for a chance to be there full time,” says Payne, speak- ing from Greece before his relocation. “I miss Omaha very much when not there, and having quiet time in town with the new kid feels like the right move…and I hope to find some other trouble to get into.”

The active Film Streams board member brings Hollywood to Omaha. Making this his main residence only further enriches the local cinema culture.

“He and I have always fantasized about pro- grams we can plan, people we can bring to town, and ways he can be even more involved with what we bring to Omaha when he has a chance to spend more time here,” says Rachel Jacobson, Film Streams’ founder and director.

Payne is no stranger to making movies in his “backyard.” His latest, Downsizing, shot three days here—a fraction of the time he spent on his first three locally filmed features.

“Of course, I wish I’d shot all of the scenes per- taining to Omaha in Omaha, but it just wasn’t possible,” he says. “What I really missed about shooting in Omaha was the extras.”

On Toronto soundstages, he recreated a Creighton Prep class reunion and a farewell party at Jam’s Old Market.

“It was a drag having to train Torontonians to behave like Omahans. Once, when I caught two gals pretending they hadn’t seen each other in years kissing on both cheeks, I about had a heart attack,” Payne says, adding that he was glad to have captured some key local scenes in the film. “One of the great locations I was able to shoot in Omaha—complete with the people who actually work there—was Omaha Steaks,” he says.

The well-traveled and socially conscious auteur has made his most issues-oriented film of international scope at this mature career point, though he doesn’t concede to middle age.

“I don’t feel as though I’m at the midpoint of life; I still feel as though I’m at the beginning,” he says. “I can’t help but feel I’m still barely learning how to make a film, and now that I’m a father, well, that’s a new sense of beginning. My friends all have grown children. My best friend from college is a grandfather twice over, and me, I’m just now wading into these waters for the first time.”

He can taste the irony of his words: “I remember seeing [Akira] Kurosawa speak in 1986 in L.A. to promote Ran. He said, ‘I’ve made 30 feature films, I’m almost 80 years old, and yet I feel as though I have less of an idea now of what a movie is than when I was younger.’ I thought he was just trying to play Mr. Humble. Now his words are haunting. I think my gravestone will read, ‘I was just getting started.’”

Downsizing pushed Payne to the limit with its complex storyline, epic scale, and special effects. It took a decade getting made from when he and co-writer Jim Taylor completed the script’s first draft. Once shot, fixing on a final cut proved elusive.

“I’m just glad it’s over and I can get on to something new,” he says. “It was a very long process. The script took a long time to corral, finding financing was nearly impossible, and the movie fell apart three times before finally jelling. Production was long and costly, and it was tricky to pinpoint the final movie in the editing room. It’s a film I had to get out of my system—Jim and I believed in it for all these years, believed in its wacky but very interesting idea, and we finally got it made.”

Payne and longtime casting director John Jackson of Council Bluffs assembled an impressive international acting ensemble. As Paul, superstar Damon (the Bourne franchise lynchpin who recently starred in the Coen Brothers’ 2017 film Suburbicon) takes us on a wild, downsized journey.

“He’s a wonderful actor,” Payne says of his leading man.

Of Kristen Wiig, Paul’s spacey life partner, (who previously starred alongside Damon in Ridley Scott’s 2015 film The Martian) Payne says: “Lovely woman, super-funny, able to be either subtle or overt with the same level of commitment and humor.”

On two-time Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz (the Nazi antagonist in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds), Paul’s amoral guide in the new world, Payne says: “A very smart, very funny, very committed actor. We disagreed a couple of times, but something very good came out of it.”

Newcomer Hong Chau (who starred in P. T. Anderson’s 2014 film Inherent Vice) plays an activist who gets under Paul’s skin. Payne echoes what others say about her breakthrough, Oscar buzz-worthy work.

“A star is born,” he says. “I often get asked why my movies ‘always’ seem to be about adrift, middle-aged white males. But in fact, I’ve had the most fun, midwifing, terrific performances by females: Laura Dern [Citizen Ruth, 1996], Reese Witherspoon [Election, 1999], Kathy Bates [About Schmidt, 2002], June Squibb [Nebraska, 2013] and Shailene Woodley [The Descendants, 2011]. I’d say Hong Chau really takes the cake.”

“It was the right role finding the right actor at the right time,” Payne says, “and she all but steals the whole damned movie. Matt Damon calls her a ‘thoroughbred.’”

Chau confirms what others note about Payne.

“I have so many feelings for Alexander,” she says. “He’s an amazing person, an amazing director. It’s really been a joy getting to work with him and also getting to know him as a person. It’s the first time I’ve worked on something where I feel like he’s going to be my friend for life.”

His “gentle” directing style suited her.

“I don’t feel the heavy hand of directing,” Chau says. “All of the redirections are tweaks—a very small degree or two on the dial where to turn an emotion or a word in a sentence. A lot of his writing is filled with comedy, so there’s some precision needed in order for the humor to land the way it’s supposed to.”

Payne invited her to observe the editing pro- cess. She marveled at what he cut to make the film leaner.

“It really showed how disciplined he is to telling the story and keeping it sharp in terms of what the audience should be receiving,” Chau says. “It’s why Alexander has become one of the great American masters.”

Leading up to its debut in Omaha, the film gen- erated strong word-of-mouth from trailers and festival screenings. It opened to uniformly warm praise at the Venice Film Festival, where Payne, in attendance for the first time, was joined by Damon, Chau, Wiig, and new Paramount head Jim Gianopulos.

After the high of Venice, Downsizing receiving mixed reviews at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and the Toronto International Film Festival.

“Some people really dig it. Others think it maybe bites off more than it can chew,” Payne says. “Sure, maybe the screenplay is a little greedy, but what the hell? The movie was designed as episodic—a sort of road trip through the world right now. We think that’s what makes it fun.”

Editing footage down to the theatrical release’s 135 minutes (including credits) was an arduous task.

“I kept hearing the same thing all directors always hear from studio executives: ‘Make it shorter,’” he says.

The studio is bullish on Downsizing’s potential.

“It’s Paramount’s big Christmas release,” he says, “and they see the movie plays great with audiences—lots of laughs. They’re expecting it to do well commercially, and I pray to God they’re right.”

With seven completed features under his belt, Payne is eager as ever to make movies. For the time being, this family man is content to wait for inspiration before jumping into the fray again.

“I wish I were making a movie all the time,” he says. “But I also want to speak only when I have something to say.”

Sculpture by Derek Joy

This article was printed in the January/February 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine.

Downsizing Home Cameos

November 17, 2017 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When Oscar-winning filmmaker Alexander Payne prepares a film, he not only auditions actors but locations, too.

The writer-director insists on actual locations whenever possible. When he films in his hometown of Omaha, he’s extra keen to get it right. Just as local homes brought authenticity to his films Citizen Ruth, Election, and About Schmidt, Omaha homes earned supporting roles for Payne’s new film Downsizing during a mid-April 2016 shoot here.

Omaha figures prominently in the sci-fi dramedy (starring Matt Damon) that played major festivals in Venice, Italy; Telluride, Colorado; and Toronto, Canada. Its first half establishes Damon’s character, Paul, as an Omaha Everyman. The script called for him to reside in an inner-city duplex and, thus, location scout Jamie Vesay and counterparts in Toronto, where much of the film was made, scoured prospective sites.

Two matching 1920s-era, two-story brick duplexes on Douglas Street (in Payne’s childhood Dundee neighborhood) stood in for Paul’s home.

The story has Paul and wife Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) visit a suburban McMansion. Vesay scouted that, too.

Jamie Vesay

Two new large homes in Elkhorn’s Five Fountains neighborhood portrayed the for-sale property that Paul and Audrey visit.

Scenes were also shot outside La Casa Pizzaria, Creighton Prep (Payne’s alma mater), Jam’s in the Old Market and at Regency Court, and Omaha Steaks’ distribution center.

The story required a duplex with adjoining back decks to underscore the attachment Paul feels to his mother, who lives next door at one point. Payne loves physical comedy, and the director liked all the business of Paul entering-exiting various doors and navigating steps.

Events fast forward nine years to find Paul’s mother gone. He and Audrey now live in his mom’s old place, and he’s renting out his former unit. It’s a commentary on Paul’s limited horizons before his grand adventure.

Vesay says Payne also liked the Douglas properties for their small, steep front yards. A yard sale unfolds there that comically shows folks struggling with the tight quarters and severe pitch. Sealing the deal was the alley’s confluence of yards, fences, garages, light poles, wires, and its downtown view.

Carol Redwing lived at one of the two Douglas Street duplexes. The exterior of her residence was used for daytime and nighttime shots with Damon and Wiig. The unoccupied unit next door was leased by the production. The same arrangement was used at the other duplex on Douglas Street, where interiors were shot in a unit doubling for the on-screen duplex. More interiors were doubled in Toronto.

In suburban Five Points, Gretchen and Steven Twohig’s home became the McMansion exterior. The home of Ethan and Erin Evans became the interior. Vesay says the sea of cookie-cutter roofs visible from the development caught Payne’s eye.

The exterior of the Twohig home where filming occurred

Long before the production reached out to residents, their homes were scouted from the street. When first contacted, they were wary. Once assured that the Hollywood scout was not a prankster, Vesay, Payne, and department heads came for closer looks. The locals only knew their places were in the running before receiving final confirmation.

When word leaked about the Downsizing dwellings, reporters and curiosity-seekers appeared.

“It was kind of surreal,” says Redwing, who has since moved.

During the shoot, Vesay says producers broke protocol and allowed civilians on set. “People got remarkably close,” he says. Residents who lent their homes to the cause got up-close-and-personal experiences themselves. It was eye-opening.

“There’s a lot of moving pieces and people,” Redwing says. “It was really cool.”

Ethan Evans says he was struck “by how many behind-the-scenes people it takes—it’s quite the production. It was kind of a circus and crazy for a while.”

Hollywood came calling, but as Gretchen Twohig noted, “There’s nothing glamorous or fancy about any of it. It’s just people working really hard to get a project done. You realize all this hard work and all these tiny moments have to come together to make a movie.” She and her husband have school-age children but opted not to take them out of classes for the filming. The Evans’ young children watched. Redwing and her son saw everything.

Twohig echoed the other residents in saying everyone from Payne to the stars to the grips were “down-to-earth, calm, warm, professional, and gracious.”

The Evans’ garage became a staging spot. That’s where the couple hung out with Payne, Damon, and Wiig.

The high-ceilinged, spacious home’s entryway, dining room, and kitchen got the shoot’s full attention.

“Besides moving furniture around to make room for lights, screens, and cameras—and taking pictures down— they sort of kept everything the way we had the house decorated,” Evans says, “It only took a few takes.”

The Evans and Twohigs met one another as a result of Hollywood casting their homes. They’ve compared notes about their Downsizing experiences.

Twohig says after hours of setup at her place, as crew adjusted window blinds and for-sale signs, moved cars in and out of the driveway, and took the family basketball hoop down, put it back up, and took it down again, the actual shoot was over in a flash.

At Redwing’s old duplex, crew did landscaping and made building touch-ups but left her recycling bin, tools, and other homey elements intact. She’s confident her old abode made the final cut since it’s such an essential location as the hero’s home. However, the Evans and Twohigs know their places are more incidental and therefore expendable.

“We’d be disappointed, but we knew going in it could very easily be cut,” Twohig says. “But it would sure be fun if it was there.”

Redwing spoke for everyone regarding anticipation for Downsizing’s December release. “I’m very eager to see it.”

Meanwhile, one of the Douglas duplexes’ exterior has been painted. Last summer, its empty units were under renovation. A real estate listing read: “Come live where Matt Damon filmed the movie Downsizing!”

Having glimpsed behind the magic curtain, Ethan Evans says, “I sort of watch movies differently now.” Although he’s certain that he’ll forget the mechanics of cameras, mics, booms, and clappers when he finally sees Downsizing.

One of the duplexes on Douglas Street where filming occurred.

Leo Adam Biga is the author of Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film. Read more of his work at leoadambiga.com.

This article was printed in the November/December 2017 edition of Omaha Home.

The Man Who Invented the College Football Playoff

December 28, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

There are scripts,but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation. It’s improv. You get into character and run with it.

Larry Culpepper is either delusional or a consummate bullshitter, claiming, among other whoppers, that he created the College Football Playoff. He is raucous, chippy, and self-absorbed. His hair, shirt, visor, and flip-up glasses scream 1976. He’s a guy you’d buy a pop from, but likely shy away from having a beer with.

But Culpepper, the fictional character brought to life by actor/improv pro Jim Connor, is an increasingly beloved traveling minstrel who now transcends the Dr. Pepper brand he was created to peddle. Three years after his birth in an ad campaign with a potentially short leash, Culpepper now is mobbed by fans during live appearances; is part of a 10-part, football-season-long ad series; is the face of Dr. Pepper’s $35 million sponsorship of the College Football Playoff; and, increasingly, is a media darling beyond the confines of paid advertising slots.

For marketing purposes, Culpepper is from nowhere in particular. But in late August, Culpepper appeared on ESPN’s College Football Live and was asked to give his prediction for the playoff’s final four teams. His answer: Alabama, Clemson, LSU, and Nebraska (fresh off their losing season).

“Nebraska?” One commentator scoffed, before asking a cohort, “Is he from Nebraska or something?”

larryculpepper2Culpepper isn’t, but Connor is. For the Omaha native and Husker fan, that moment on ESPN illuminates why he has enjoyed playing Culpepper so much. “There are scripts, but there’s also all kinds of room for improvisation,” Connor says during a call from his home in Los Angeles. “It’s improv. You get into character and run with it. It’s a great time.”

Connor, the youngest of seven children (“which explains my personality right there,” he says), attended Creighton Prep, where, along with classmate Alexander Payne, he performed with the school’s improv acting troupe. He remembers one gig in particular that fueled his passion for the rush and satisfaction of successfully winging it for a crowd. “It was for a local service group,” he says. “We did some silly birthing scene, and the women in the group—you know, who had some experience with such a thing—really had a good time with it. It’s so cool when you connect with an audience.”

Connor was a gifted ham and public speaker. He served as vice president of the student council at Prep, wrote and acted in pep rally skits, and even placed first place for Humorous Interpretation at the National Forensic League’s National Speech Tournament in Minnesota.

After what he described as a “difficult” freshman year at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (“it just wasn’t for me”), he transferred to Saint John’s University in Minnesota. After college, he moved to Boston and worked as a carpenter while performing in theater and short films, then moved to Denver to pursue his MFA in acting at the famed National Theatre Conservatory.

The goal, “was never to get famous,” he says. “I just wanted to make a living being an actor. I wanted acting to be my full-time job.”

A dream of tens of thousands who have moved to Los Angeles. And while at 54, Connor is no household name, he has succeeded at stringing together enough commercials and small parts to make acting his career.

Besides nearly 150 commercials, his film credits include Watchmen, Meet Dave, Blades of Glory, The Onion Movie, Home Invasion, and Horrible Bosses 2. Alexander Payne asked his old friend to give the drunken wedding-reception toast in About Schmidt.

He also had numerous recurring roles in television comedies such as Parks and Recreation, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Scrubs, and The King of Queens.

In 2014, Connor and about 500 other actors auditioned for the role of the Dr. Pepper concessionaire in a national ad campaign targeting college football fans. Actors were given latitude to define the character and riff. Connor created an amalgam of “a lot of people I’ve known” to create Culpepper, a loud, proud, gregarious huckster who seems to actually believe—in the face of constantly presented information to the contrary—that he created the four-team college football playoff system.

For all of Culpepper’s failings, he’s also affable, wide-eyed, and childlike in his zeal for the job and the game, appealingly un-self-aware, and extremely clever. “Larry is a real guy, he’s a smart guy,” Connor says. “He’s just got some unusual ideas sometimes.”

larryculpepper1Among myriad other reasons why he claimed the Cornhuskers would make the playoffs: “Nebraska runs that classic passive-aggressive offense,” he told the ESPN crew. “They’re playin’ real nice, and then you’re like a puddle on the 50-yard line.”

It was inspired nonsense, which is the foundation to good improv, which is what Connor would love to spend the rest of his career getting paid a living wage to do.

Indeed, as Culpepper increasingly becomes a star beyond the confines of college-game broadcasts, as Dr. Pepper continues to expand the ad campaign (Connor’s character is now essentially the spokesman in football matters for the company, which AdWeek magazine estimated paid at least $35 million to be a “championship partner” in the College Football Playoff).

He is hoping to land more significant movie and television roles, especially in one of the increasing number of loosely scripted, improv-heavy comedies.

“I’m not going to get cast for scripted stuff in front of a studio audience,” he says. “That’s not what I’m built for.  Shows like Parks and Recreation—where you have space to work more freely with a talented group—that’s where I belong. That’s where I love to be.”

Visit larryculpepper.com for more information.

Rachel Jacobson

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Before former Dundee Theater owner Denny Moran decided to sell the iconic Dodge Street structure, before the Sherwood Foundation purchased it, and before Film Streams was chosen to keep it alive, Rachel Jacobson had thought about how adding another screen or two would help the art house better meet the needs of its public.

Responses from Film Streams’ annual survey indicated moviegoers wanted the nonprofit to hold films longer, and also bring more foreign films and documentaries to Omaha.

“We couldn’t address both of those issues without having additional screens,” says Jacobson, Film Streams founder and executive director. “So we felt like we needed a third and potentially fourth screen to do this.”

Jacobson had thought about it. She had researched it. Board members had articulated the need for additional screens in a 2013 strategic plan. They had even mused over the thought of the Dundee Theater located at 50th and Dodge streets becoming that additional screen. But not until Moran articulated his decision to sell in fall of 2015 did that possibility become real.

“I felt like it would be our responsibility to run it,” Jacobson says. “We had built an organization and institution that would make it possible for us to operate it. We had relationships with distributors, a donor base, and a member base. Everyone in the community told us, ‘you guys are the ones.’”
This year, the year of Film Streams 10th anniversary, it has become evident to everyone that they are indeed ‘the ones.’

dundeetheater1The Sherwood Foundation, which has had ownership of the theater and surrounding properties since early 2016, will transfer the theater and Old Dundee Bar to Film Streams as soon as the renovations begin, which Jacobson hopes will be as early as late January or early February of 2017. Meanwhile, the nonprofit is working with Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture on the design, interviewing contractors, and is in the midst of a private, multi-million dollar capital campaign with major donors to raise support for the renovations. If all goes according to plan, the new Film Streams at the Dundee Theater will open later this year.

“Alexander [Payne] has a new movie coming out in fall of [2017], and we would love to open it in conjunction with that,” says Jacobson.

The renovated Dundee Theater and everything it will offer will not replace anything that Film Streams is doing at the Ruth Sokolof Theater downtown. Rather, it will complement and expand upon everything the organization is doing, in an effort to further its mission.

It’s merely a sequel to everything Jacobson and the Film Streams staff, supporters, and board members have accomplished so far.

In its first 10 years, Jacobson says the Ruth Sokolof Theater has welcomed more than 500,000 visitors, including an average of 5,000 students per year to its educational programs. Its budget has grown from $890,000 when the organization opened in 2007 to $1.9 million in 2017 (with an estimated $2.4 million budget for 2018 when the Dundee will have been open for a full year). The administrative staff doubled in 2016 to nine full-time staff members and two part-time staff members in anticipation of additional operating and educational responsibilities.

The numbers speak for themselves, but it’s not just about the numbers, says Jacobson. What she’s the most proud of is not necessarily one specific event over the past 10 years but the collective experiences the organization has provided for Omahans.

She is proud of the First-Run Films program, which offers American independents, documentaries, and foreign films making their theatrical premieres in Omaha and the surrounding region, for the diversity of voices it has brought to the city. “This program is so important to our mission because film is such a great window into other people’s experiences,” Jacobson says.

She is proud of the classic films the organization has brought to the big screen because of the special experiences it has offered to families, children, and local “cinephiles.” And she is especially proud of the organization’s community development program, which involves working collaboratively with other local nonprofits to bring in national or international films followed by a discussion led by leaders from the partnering nonprofits.

“We talk to people in Omaha who are working on these issues, allowing people to walk away with knowledge of their own community beyond what they’ve learned from the film itself,” Jacobson says.
The past 10 years have not been completely without challenges. The College World Series was one Film Streams didn’t see coming when it established itself as a 365-day operation. The organization quickly found out one wants to be indoors during that time, and regular patrons don’t want to deal with the crowded parking. So now, Film Streams closes for at least a week during the annual event. And while the organization has very faithful donors, busy schedules and family activities sometimes prevent even the most dedicated patrons from seeing a movie in the theater as often as they would like.

Jacobson is hoping the location of the Dundee Theater will help with some of that, especially for people who live a little farther west. Renovations are also designed to make the Dundee more of a community gathering place, with a book store, café, and event space designed to coax people out of the house even if they aren’t coming for a movie.

And the theater itself—which will include a main screen with about 300 seats and a 25-seat micro theater—will enhance what Film Streams is already doing, allowing the organization to bring at least “50 percent more” titles to the area, building on the 180 titles per year the nonprofit averages now.
The end goal is to create more unique experiences around film and influence more and more people in our city to make time to go to the movies.

“I just want to see more and more people know who we are, care about us, and care about film as a result of us,” Jacobson says. “I just want us to continue to be a vibrant and important part of the cultural life of our city.”

Visit filmstreams.org for more information.

*Correction: Errors in the spelling of Alley Poyner Macchietto Architecture and Film Stream’s budget growth figures have been corrected from the January/February 2017 print edition.

Location Scout and Producer Jamie Vesay

October 11, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

When it comes to shooting video, Jamie Vesay of Omaha is a handler, facilitator, fixer, procurer, and—as his LinkedIn site puts it—“minutia wrangler” and “chaos killer.” He works on television commercials, music videos, and feature films. His location scout credits include Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and Downsizing.

Whether doing logistics or scouting locations, Vesay says he is “a creative collaborator” helping filmmakers “realize their vision.” He also aspires to make his own films from scripts and stories he’s writing.

The Pottsville, Pennsylvania, native worked odd jobs back East when he got an interview for the special effects (FX) crew on a 1989 Baltimore film shoot. Vesay’s experience as a machinist provided the fabrication skills needed in the FX profession. That first gig came on Barry Levinson’s major studio project, Avalon.

More FX feature jobs followed, as did a move to Los Angeles, before the work dried up and he relocated to Omaha. His talents made him in-demand on shoots. He added location scouting to his repertoire on projects near and far. Payne’s frequent location manager, John Latenser V, got Vesay day work on About Schmidt. But it wasn’t until Nebraska that Vesay worked extensively with Payne. Latenser couldn’t join the project at the start, so Vesay took the reins.

“You have to have that ability to bob and weave, change and adapt to the director you’re working with. Alexander is so smart about life, let alone the industry. At his core, he’s a guy who will say to you, ‘What do you think?’ And he’s sincere–he wants to know what you think.”

-Jamie Vesay

Vesay broke down the script’s locations. Having scoured the state for years, he had mental and digital files of countless sites. Since the story revolved around a road trip by father-son protagonists Woody and David, an excursion was in order. Payne, production designer Dennis Washington, and Vesay made the Billings, Montana, to eastern Nebraska trek themselves in an SUV. With steering wheel in one hand, 35-millimeter camera in the other, and legal notepad and pen on his lap, Vesay documented possible locations they came upon. Everyone voiced an opinion.

“My goal is to present options to the director,” Vesay says. “Many things we’ll drive by, Alexander will say, ‘OK, slow down, stop the car–I want to look at this.’ Sometimes you let him discover it. Other times you guide him. As I’m presenting the options, he’s seeing what’s available and saying, ‘Well, maybe it’s that.’ He’s a rare filmmaker willing to change with what’s available and use a location different from his original vision.”

The Nebraska script called for a Wyoming truck stop but Payne didn’t like any. With the SUV’s gas tank nearing empty. Vesay pulled into a combo gas station, bait-tackle shop, and bar that Payne loved. On Downsizing, Payne rejected South Omaha duplexes for one of his old haunts, Dundee.

“You have to have that ability to bob and weave, change and adapt to the director you’re working with,” he says. “Alexander is so smart about life, let alone the industry. At his core, he’s a guy who will say to you, ‘What do you think?’ And he’s sincere–he wants to know what you think.”

Vesay found the abandoned farmhouse the family visits in Nebraska. Payne called it “perfect.”

Instinct and experience help Vesay find things. Besides, he says, “I know where they’re hiding.”

A location’s look might be right, but it must also safely accommodate cast and crew. Access, sight lines, and noise are other considerations.

Choosing locations is just the start. Protocols require filmmakers to secure signed permission from property owners. During production Vesay does owner relations.

Looking to the future, Vesay urges the state to do more to attract film projects that provide steady work to local professionals.

Visit jamievesay.com for more information.

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Newsmaker Becomes Newsgatherer

August 23, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Our committee at the Omaha Press Club meets several times a year to discuss who will next be honored as the club’s “Face on the Barroom Floor.” When the committee’s chairman, Tom O’Connor, was nominated this year, only one committee member voted “no.” It was O’Connor.

O’Connor argued that the honor is meant for people who have made a difference in the community. It’s how people who cover the news give recognition to those who make the news.

For 14 years, he has chaired the committee that selects the Faces, the people whose illustrated caricatures end up on the walls of the Press Club. Everyone agrees he’s done a stellar job.

“Tom, over the years, helped make the Face an icon for Omaha,” says OPC Executive Director Steve Villamonte, who nominated the longtime member.

Tom-OConnor1Over his protests, O’Connor was roasted and toasted in February in front of a sold-out crowd. His was the 148th Face since the ritual began 45 years ago with Mayor Gene Leahy as the first honoree.

“One of the ways he has helped with awareness is with his contacts in the media world,” notes Villamonte.

O’Connor, who is senior associate director of public relations at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, says knowing the community’s newsmakers is right up his alley.

“The Faces are the who’s who of Omaha,” he says. “It’s like winning the Heisman Trophy.”

Another recognizable Face is movie producer and Omaha native Alexander Payne, whose roasters included actor Will Forte. “It was one of the funniest roasts we‘ve had,” says Villamonte. “And to get someone of Forte’s stature as a roaster, well…”

The largest crowd during the Faces’ 45-year history came to salute Creighton basketball coach Greg McDermott and three-time All-American Doug McDermott who at the time played on his father’s team. The crowd was so large that O’Connor moved the dinner and roast to another venue. And the second largest was for…Tom O’Connor.

The third largest “Face” event was held in 2007 for Husker fan Dan Whitney, also known as comedian Larry the Cable Guy. I remember “Larry” dressed up for the occasion by adding sparkle to his trademark sleeveless plaid shirt.

Another Tom—Osborne—was a Face on the Barroom Floor in 1979. Since then he has returned to roast other newsmakers such as NFL greats Gale Sayers and Ahman Green. The former UNL football coach and athletic director was a roaster in May for UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts.

An Omaha Press Club member for 38 years, O’Connor is a past president (2001), past board member, a member of the marketing and newsletter committees, and he heads the Shatel Sports Lunch series.

“Tom has made the Face on the Barroom Floor a premier event,” says Jim Horan, the artist who has drawn the illustrated caricatures since the first one in 1971 (the artist is also my husband). “He took the roast concept to a new level, which has turned the night into 100 percent fun.”

O’Connor explains: “I tell people we’re the club with a sense of humor, the Face event is all about having fun and entertaining people. You’re always going to leave laughing.”

His quest for fun continues, as does his enthusiasm for honoring Omaha’s best. He has invited Bill and Ruth Scott to be Face No. 150 on Sept. 22. “They are unsung heroes who have transformed the city and the state with their incredible generosity. Being able to recognize great people like the Scotts, that’s what the Face on the Barroom Floor is
all about.”

He jokes that his wish list for future Face on the Barroom Floor honorees includes Pope Francis and Michael Jordan. Knowing O’Connor, I think it just might happen.

Visit omahapressclub.com/faces for more information.

Bravissimo! The Holland Performing Arts Center

August 10, 2016 by
Photography by provided

Dick and Mary Holland didn’t sit in their well shaded home all summer, waiting for the grand opening of the performing arts center that bears their names. By early May, they’d toured construction progress a dozen times.

But the privilege of joining them on a progress tour in late August proved that they see the great effort with fresh eyes on each visit. Both Dick and Mary asked pointed questions of project manager Steve Smayda, and Holland had friendly greetings for the men laboring on the job.

He’d recently treated the workers to ice cream, hiring three of those ding-dong trucks and sending them to the 11th and Dodge work entrance. “I’ve never been around guys so damn proud
of what they are doing,” he says. He’d long since donned his yellow hard hat to become the first to sing from the new concert hall stage.

“La Donna Mobile?” “No, something from Faust,” he jokes, but more like scales. The former member of the Opera Omaha chorus then offered a few baritone notes.

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Make no mistake, the Hollands are enjoying their singular involvement, starting with a major gift and a hand in planning the $92 million Holland Performing Arts Center at 13th and Douglas. Any discomfort comes from their more specific roles in that Oct. 21 grand opening performance, emceed by Oscar-winning actor Richard Dreyfuss.

A news story reported that Dreyfuss was chosen partly because of starring in the movie, “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” That got a groaning “I hope not” from Omaha’s Mr. Holland. As for that opening night, “We’re certainly going to be there, but I haven’t asked for anything.”

Such reluctance won’t surprise anyone who has followed the story of the Hollands and their “enormously successful” investment with Warren Buffett. When the Omaha World-Herald ran a big spread on their philanthropy (“Giving Their All”) a few years ago, it was noted that they don’t talk about their fortune “and declined to be interviewed” for the article.

When questioned by this writer last year for the University of Nebraska at Omaha magazine Alum, Dick added to the basic account in a Buffett biography. Married a month after his 1948 graduation from then Omaha U., Holland took over his father’s advertising agency and the newlyweds moved into their present home near 80th and Pacific in 1957.

That left him short of funds when he found Buffett, the first person he’d met whose investment ideas “made sense.” So Dick borrowed $10,000 on his life insurance policy and Mary contributed a “significant” amount from her own resources. The rest is history oft-told by biographers of “the Oracle of Omaha”: The insightful ones who invested $10,000 with Buffett in 1957 and let it ride through the founding of Berkshire Hathaway, Inc., saw it grow to roughly $280 million.

Still, the Hollands remained in that same modest house, but gave away millions to causes ranging from the fight against poverty to arts organizations. Last year, $43 million remained in their charitable foundation, despite the many gifts.

Anyone tempted to second-guess their large contribution to the Holland Center must challenge two points: “Our top giving goal is to raise a whole lot of people,” especially children, “out of poverty.” And they both place great importance on the arts.

Born in Dundee and a graduate of Brownell Hall, Mary majored in childcare at Mills College in California. Dick, who grew up near 60th and Pacific, and Mary had attended the same Brownell dances, but didn’t meet until after World War II, when he returned to studies at Omaha U. “Mary still loves to dance,” Dick says, “and she’ll dance till the stars fall out of the sky.”

On music, “We’re all over the map,” he observes. “I like the modern Russians, Mozart, Brahms, some Beethoven. Mary likes some things I don’t particularly like, those compositions full of approaching doom. We go to some Broadway shows twice. We always go to Fiddler on the Roof twice, but this last time we were in Arizona.”

Mary puts it this way: “Life isn’t just reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s more than that. Music penetrates the soul. It causes us to reflect. Painting, dance and creative writing work that way, too. Observe the joy it brings. Not just the applause and cheers, but the quiet pleasure.”

Though Dick’s singing in the Opera Omaha chorus was his most recent performance participation in local arts activity, he came close to a career as an artist. His father, Lewis, had been a talented painter, and Dick won an art award while playing football at Central High School.

“Growing up,” he recalled, “I was nuts about Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. Now I like the contemporary—the Jackson Pollock is the best art at Joslyn.”

He started college planning to be a chemical engineer, like his older brother William, but military duty in that field turned him to art on his return to the classroom at Omaha University, the alma mater of Dick and his three siblings. “I never carried it far enough,” Holland explained. “I was just learning to draw, to paint, but I was still an amateur.”

He dreamed of going to the Art Students League in New York City, but then met Mary. “She wasn’t going with me, and I needed to make money” to support her “in even half the style to which she was accustomed.”

That explains the goal, one he now calls “tasteless,” that ran beneath his senior photo in the university yearbook: “To have money and a business in art and advertising.”

That business, for many years, was known as Holland, Dreves and Reilly, second only to Bozell and Jacobs in its advertising/public relations heyday. (Valmont, UniRoyal and Omaha National Bank were prime accounts.)

Dick didn’t entirely abandon art when he delved into vocal music. He tried some life drawing, some painting. “The thing about it,” he notes, “is I’m just so totally into myself when working on canvas,
so absorbed.”

But football and fencing gave way to golf. The tall man shot in the upper 70s in his prime at the Omaha Country Club, and freely advised fellow golfers. And painting gave way to five years of voice lessons, studying with the Germanic Josie Whaley.

“She’d say, ‘Meester Holland, if you keep doing the baaaa, the scales, you’ll have a remarkable voice.” In Dick’s words, “Keep training and your range is raised a hell of a lot.”

In the course of their board work and their contributions to the opera and the symphony, the Hollands and others developed a vision that led to the Performing Arts Center opening in October. Joan Squires, in her third year as president of Omaha Performing Arts, cites that vision and “Dick’s perseverance for eight years or more” as a key to the center’s completion.

She has toured construction with the Hollands and “wished I had a tape recorder and a camera. It’s a thrill every time thru with them.” She joined them again, along with their daughter, Andy, when this writer shared the experience.

In particular, Squires recalls Dick’s first reaction to the downtown center: “It’s so big.”

Yes, that was a surprise, he admits, having viewed it first in model form. He’d visited other arts centers and the committee headed by World-Herald publisher John Gottschalk added sites as far as Vienna and Lucerne to their tours.

The Hollands helped engage architects famed for the renovation of Carnegie Hall and design of the Clinton presidential library, along with the Fisher Dachs Associates as theater consultants who’d done work for the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Radio City Music Hall in New York City. Even more intriguing were the acousticians from Kirkegaard Associates.

“I had to learn how to pronounce AK-u-stishun,” Holland noted. And, of course, to test their talents by singing that passage from “Faust.”

He stood on that 64 by 48 feet stage in the classic shoebox configuration of the main concert hall, 80 feet wide by 180 feet deep, where 2,000 will hear sounds ranging from soloists to full orchestras. Later, the Hollands will sit sans hard hats in what the architects call a surrounding of “warm, fine-grained woodwork.”

Concert-goers won’t see that the hall is “sheathed in zinc,” but before entering they’ll eye the great illuminated glass lantern above and they’ll see that the acoustically isolated hall is clad in limestone. A thousand will sit at orchestra level, with 400 in the mezzanine, and 600 in the upper balcony.

Squires is quick to remind that the $75 to $150 tickets are just for opening night, with early activities including two or three free events, plus tours, and other performances in the $35 and $45 range.

The “black box” recital hall will seat 450, and the terraced courtyard, designated as a third performance venue, will hold 1,000. The Holland Center will house parties and educational activities as well. The Orpheum, fully equipped with stage rigging, will remain home for Broadway musicals and other events.

Squires, who came to Omaha from the Phoenix Symphony, commented on the wide range of upcoming performances. “One of the reasons it’s a joy to work with the Hollands is because they bring such broad understanding and interests,” she says. “They’re eclectic, but don’t impose their taste. It’s a low key, quiet influence, and we respect their desire to stay out of the spotlight.”

“We won’t attend all the early events,” Dick adds, “but there are some we’ll definitely see.” They especially anticipate Renée Fleming’s appearance with the Omaha Symphony on Dec. 9. “I was president of Opera Omaha when she first sang here.” He also takes pride in their presenting of the great Beverly Sills, but notes that the biggest local paycheck of $100,000 went to Placido Domingo.

But now comes that grand opening with Dreyfuss, the other “Mr. Holland,” and a program that includes Oscar winner Alexander Payne, U.S. poet laureate Ted Kooser, bandleader Branford Marsalis and others, including the symphony and the opera chorus. Squires takes pains to point out even this higher-priced event is not black tie, but cocktail attire.

Tickets went on sale in mid-August and began to sell quickly. A pre-event cocktail party sold out almost immediately.

Lest purists fear that Dick Holland’s brief aria was the only pre-testing of the acoustical marvels, it must be noted that an extensive “tuning” process gave professional musicians ample opportunities to experiment with the new concert hall, even before a long rehearsal period.

During the run-up to the grand opening, acousticians “tuned” the hall. Musical ensembles of varying size and style (classical, symphonic, chamber, pop, rock and jazz) performed during the weeks of late September. At each performance, acousticians positioned each of the moveable acoustic reflectors and panels, matching the reverberations to the size and sound of each group. The positions were locked into preset configurations, which could be used for future performances with ensembles of that size and style.

That’s fine by Holland who recalls his first piano lesson: “Auto stop, I’m the cop, drivers take warning.” The memory brings a smile and makes him happy to give the stage to the pros while he sits back with Mary in Row P of the Holland Center and enjoys their talents.

It’s not just a new asset for the performing arts. It enriches the city where both were born and where they stayed to make good use of their “enormously successful” investment.

Flying Over Hollywood

July 29, 2016 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Jim Fields is a self-taught auteur, a busy English teacher, and a Nebraska-nice filmmaker trying to finish his latest project whenever he can find time. The film, Life After Ex, is a romantic comedy about a gay couple’s divorce.

Fields’ Objectif49 Films—named after the film society that spurred the French New Wave—has been busy for more than a decade making independent films with a Midwestern vibe. If Fields’ name doesn’t resonate as loudly as Mr. Payne’s, give it time.

His oeuvre of films includes one that should be on every Husker fan’s watch list: Bugeaters, a documentary about the first decade of Nebraska football. Not only entertaining and informative (having taken a year to research), Bugeaters won Best Documentary at the 2011 Estes Park Film Festival in Colorado.

In 2006, Fields released his first documentary, Preserve Me a Seat, about the preservation and demolition of historic movie theaters throughout America. It began as a film about the impending demolition of Fields’ first love, the majestic Indian Hills Theater—now a parking lot near 84th and Dodge streets.

JimFields1“Going to the Indian Hills in the mid-`60s to `70s made a big impact on me,” says Fields. “Reserved seats, ultra-wide screen, souvenir programs. When I saw 2001: A Space Odyssey in 70mm, it was the first time I had seen a film as opposed to a movie. I saw it over and over. It’s my favorite.”

Back then, Fields says the public expected films to be made in Hollywood, not Nebraska.

“You had to go to film school out there or in New York. The thought that someone could make low-budget movies in Nebraska seemed impossible. I went to Chicago in 1984 and didn’t even last a semester. I had no concept of how expensive it was going to be.”

Fields thought his dream was dead after a brutal Windy City eviction on Thanksgiving Day put him and his belongings on the street. He came back to Omaha, forlorn but resilient. A decade passed before he rekindled his dream in the late `90s.

“When digital video was invented, I got really excited,” Fields says. “I started doing research on it and went to a lot of workshops.”

At the world-famous Donna Reed Festival, Fields met and struck up a correspondence with Gary Graver, cinematographer on Orson Welles’ unfinished The Other Side of the Wind.

“He was a great resource,” Fields says. “You couldn’t research these things like today. There were no YouTube videos on making a film. He was very encouraging and gave me great advice.”

Fields’ 2004 documentary 416 (about Nebraska’s constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage) won Best Feature and the coveted Audience Award at the Central Nebraska Film Festival, Best Documentary of 2004 at Hardacre Film Festival, and was the Fargo Film Festival’s Second Place Documentary in 2005.

His other films include a comedy-drama called Flyover Country about a friendship between two college students, one straight and one gay, and how they are perceived. A definite release date for his latest film, Life After Ex, has not been announced.

Not bad for a man with deferred dreams of film school.

Visit objectif49films.com for more information.

Nebraska in Black and White

June 29, 2015 by

Article published in May/June 2015 Omaha Magazine.

I was one of the millions of rabid Breaking Bad fanboys and girls who tuned in for the inaugural episode of Better Call Saul, the show’s prequel that follows sharp-tongued and ethically challenged attorney Jimmy McGill (alias: Saul Goodman).

Here at the magazine, there was extra excitement to see that first show. Some months back, our creative director, John Gawley, received a call from the show’s producers. The series begins where Breaking Bad left off—with Jimmy in his new life-on-the-lam managing a Cinnabon in Omaha (very long story). For this opening scene, producers wanted an Omaha Magazine sitting on the counter of the Cinnabon to, you know, make the Cinnabon look like it was in Omaha (it actually isn’t).

At two minutes and 28 seconds into the first episode—as Jimmy stands at the counter watching what could be a U.S. Marshal or cartel enforcer approaching him—you see copies of Omaha Magazine sitting on the countertop display.

Check it out online. You might have to play it in slow motion, squint, rewind a couple times. But I swear it’s there—three whole seconds of big-time screen time (Or 1/300th of one’s allotted 15 minutes of fame).

What was obvious from the first second of this opening scene, though, was a free plug for us, was actually a pretty harsh dis on Omaha. Most notable: The Nebraska scene is shot in black-and-white—not that Ansel Adams “capture the essential beauty” type of black-and-white, but rather that less-defined black-and-white that adds up to the grays of a Nebraska February. Jimmy had been banished to a colorless purgatory called Omaha.

Lighten up, right? Already have, I promise. It’s art, and it’s damn good art. Period. Same with Alexander Payne’s Nebraska, shot in a black-and-white that also ended up saying gray. It fit. It worked. But, argue all you want, Alexander: It was still a dreary and depressing landscape.

When Nebraska isn’t being shot in black-and-white, it is most often shrouded in overcast winter grays. Same diff, at least for me. Until being corrected recently, for example, I had remembered the Academy Award-winning Boys Don’t Cry, based on the murder of Tina Brandon near my hometown in southeast Nebraska, as having been shot in black-and-white. In fact, it’s a color film, I was reminded.

Fascinating. In my own mind, I had turned that movie black-and-white, likely because it matched my emotional response to the film. And, in my defense, the film certainly rarely ventured from gray.

It actually was Omaha filmmaker Nik Fakler who corrected me about Boys Don’t Cry. But Fackler, the director of Lovely, Still, a color film based in Nebraska starring Martin Landau and Ellen Burstyn, agreed that the mood of Boys Don’t Cry fits the historical stereotype of this landscape.

“The themes of Nebraska from the beginning have been bleak loneliness, Fackler said. “It’s an endless cold island in the middle of a vast lonely ocean of plains. There are no mountains, no jungles, or oceans.  Its emptiness and nothingness.”

Fackler himself went to the jungles of Africa to shoot his latest film, Sick Birds Die Easy, which may be the American film most unlike Lovely, Still. It’s a wicked fevered acid trip of a film—a sort of Fear and Loathing in Gabon. It’s probably wise that Fackler’s artistic doppelganger avoided choosing Wahoo for the film’s location.

But, he’ll likely be back when his mood and the mood of his subject mellows.

“In Lovely, Still, I tried to make Omaha quaint and colorful,” he said. “But being bleak and lonely is just Nebraska’s wheelhouse” for many people.

There is another overused stereotype, he noted. But, we tend not to mind this one as much: Nebraska tends to be perceived as “simple,” he said. “It’s not glamorous. But that is its charm and I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing. To me, it’s just all about the poetry you put behind it.”

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