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True to the West : After 26 Years and $34 Million, Gene Autry Gets His Dream Museum

<i> Grover Lewis, author of "Academy All the Way," is at work on a novel about Hollywood, "The Code of the West." </i>

SEPTEMBER WAS a slow month at Melody Ranch, but then things have been slow at Gene Autry’s Newhall spread for 26 years now. On a tour of the property, Henry Crowell described the way it used to be when Melody Ranch was the hallowed ground of Western movies.

Crowell, a bluff, muscular man of 62, lives with his wife and infant daughter in one of the two habitable houses left on the old movie lot. He has worked for Gene Autry more than half his life, first as a trampoline artist with Autry’s traveling show in the 1950s, then, since 1963, as caretaker at the ranch.

What’s left of the ranch, that is. It has dwindled from 68 acres to 10, with the rest sold off as residential lots. You can stand at the main gate, under the arched “Melody Ranch” sign, and look directly across the road into somebody’s front yard and carport. The neighborhood is an upscale bedroom community now, and the sound of traffic along nearby Placerita Canyon Road forms a constant, subliminal drone.

Crowell struck off across the pasture for the fake-adobe mission church. Along with a crumbling Spanish stockade at the opposite end of the field, it is the last vestige of the lot’s “Mexican street.” The building is charred in spots, and in the rear is a neatly raked pile of masonry rubble--the bell tower toppled during the big quake of 1971. Crowell’s dog, Cochise, frisked around him. A flock of crows made clattering noises in the scattered stands of oak and chokecherry trees.

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Walking back slowly through the ranch lot, Crowell stopped beside a pile of rusty steel rails, the remnants of a miniature railroad Autry had installed in the 1950s. The train had once crisscrossed the property for a mile and a quarter. Crowell pointed out the sites of now-vanished landmarks. The Western town had run for more than a block along the fence line, with the Mexican street parallel to it. There had been a group of log cabin sets, a sawmill, production huts and several indoor sound stages.

Hollywood was making shoot-'em-ups in Placerita Canyon as early as 1915. Hoot Gibson and William S. Hart worked here, along with such later stalwarts as Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea, John Wayne and a million or so now-forgotten “B” cowboy stars. Autry made his first movies on the lot when it belonged to Monogram Studios in the 1930s. In 1952, after Monogram folded, he bought the place and maintained it as a movie and TV production facility. Autry streamlined the operation; he filmed his TV program on the lot and leased production time to “Gunsmoke,” “Wyatt Earp” and many of the other network Westerns of the 1950s.

All that was before the great fire, which struck in late August, 1962, and burned more than 11,000 acres on a front from Saugus to the upper San Fernando Reservoir. Crowell remembers the flames roaring over the hill behind the stables and torching Melody Ranch within minutes. Fifty-four structures, valued at $1 million, were destroyed, along with Autry’s collection of original stagecoaches, Indian relics, antique guns (including a set used by Billy the Kid), mementos of early Western stars, Autry’s film wardrobe and an archive of 17,500 recordings. “He had hoped to start a museum,” his first wife, Ina Mae Autry, said at the time. “People would have loved seeing something like that.”

It was quiet in the hazy, boiling sunlight. The ground along the fence line was brown and bare, with thin patches of thistle. Nothing remained of the Western town. The sound of slapping leather was long gone, the thundering hoofs had passed.

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Crowell led the way to a wooden barn and a horse standing in the corral. “This is Champion III,” Crowell said. “He’s 38 years old.”

The handsome old horse nuzzled Crowell’s hand. The original Champion (“the world’s wonder horse”) had lived for 23 years. Champion Jr. (no relation) appeared in Autry’s postwar movies. Champion III had been featured in the 91 episodes of Autry’s CBS-TV show. He was slightly swaybacked now, but still sleek and alert--still a star.

Crowell spoke to the horse and made him “smile” on command. Then he led Champion out into the corral and got him to rear up in his classic pose. Champion stepped back to the fence and hung his head over the railing. I patted his neck and he “smiled” for me, too.

It would have been any boy’s dream back in the days when trusty old Champ galloped to the rescue, kicked in the door of the outlaws’ lair and, with his teeth, picked the knots from the wrists of the Singing Cowboy. It was sweet formulaic hokum--a little ridin’ and romancin’ and a nice tune or two along the way. The Autry stories were hybrids, tales with all the Western trappings but inexplicably modern. After chasing down the rustlers, Autry would be shown warbling a tune in a 1930s radio station. The Autry shows and movies never pretended to Western realism or any other sort of realism. Everything was black hat and white hat. Autry may have been a patchy actor and a bland singer, but his Hollywood version of the cowboy myth pleased millions and made millions.

We left the corral and found a shady place to sit for a minute. Crowell took off his cap and swung it between his knees. He said that his duties are pretty light nowadays and that his main job is taking care of Champion: Autry maintains this valuable acreage solely to provide for Champ’s upkeep.

“It was a helluva place in the old days,” Crowell said, gesturing toward the pasture. “After the fire, Gene . . . well, it hit him hard. Since his hip operation, he doesn’t get around too good anymore and we haven’t seen him much lately. He was out here, oh, a year or so ago to pick up some stuff for the museum.”

Crowell pointed toward a nearby residence that had recently sold for $950,000. “When Gene’s gone, or Champ’s gone. . . .” He waved his hand at the ranch as if he could see it all disappear.

We walked toward the Spanish stockade, passing a weathered Sierra ore wagon and a vast cactus cluster bearing apples. At the gate house, Crowell pointed out the damage inflicted on the building by rock-throwing neighborhood kids. Local vandals and marauding Western film buffs are the bane of his life, he said. The film buffs want a tangible piece of the Melody Ranch myth and boldly carry off whatever they can pry loose. He said “Gene Autry nuts” often telephone in the wee hours to yodel to him.

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Miles away, an ambitious and expensive Western history museum bearing Autry’s name was preparing to open on a stretch of public parkland in Los Angeles. The trail to that new museum had started out here on that long-ago day of the fire, when the miniature train had stopped in its tracks and Billy the Kid’s pistols had gone up in smoke.

A week later, in his office in Hollywood, Autry explained that he had been about to open Melody Ranch to the public when it burned. “It would have been the same type of thing they’ve got at Universal now,” he said. “You’ve been out there on the Western street where they do those fights and all of that kind of stuff.”

I asked him if the fire had broken his heart.

“Well, naturally, yes,” he said. Autry took off his white hat and laid it on his desk.

MELODY RANCH WAS THE DREAM that didn’t work out. Today, Autry’s later and larger dream has been actualized: the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, scheduled to open Tuesday in Griffith Park. The 140,000-square-foot, $34-million, three-level tile-and-stucco structure sits on a 13-acre tract in the Pine Meadows section of the park, midway between the Los Angeles Zoo entrance and the Golden State Freeway.

Near the museum’s entry, Autry and Champion are represented in a heroic-sized bronze sculpture. Inside, the contents are organized around Spirit of the West themes, with seven permanent galleries celebrating discovery, opportunity, conquest, community, romance, imagination, and the cowboy. The Spirit of Romance gallery, for example, showcases the Western image as expressed in the writings of Owen Wister (author of “The Virginian”) and Teddy Roosevelt, the art of Charles Russell and Frederic Remington and the Wild West shows of Buffalo Bill Cody. Autry’s films and music will be showcased in the Spirit of Imagination section.

The Spirit of Conquest gallery addresses the experiences faced by those who pioneered the West, focusing on such items as the telegraph and stagecoach and equipment used by soldiers and Indians. An eighth gallery--covering 7,000 square feet--will accommodate changing exhibits.

The curator, James H. Nottage, has nearly 20 years’ experience as a Western history museum professional. At 38, he has worked his way up through the curatorial ranks, starting in 1969 at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne, then moving to the Kansas Museum of History and the Kansas State Historical Society.

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The Autry museum is the largest dedicated to Western history and, unlike others of its kind-- the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, for example, and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo.--it will not emphasize Western art, Nottage says. “We are getting more into three-dimensional artifacts, real pieces that give people the sense of the everyday lives of Western people,” he says. “Also, a small portion of our space is devoted to the role of television and motion pictures. That’s something that none of the institutions have gone into at all, so we will be the premier collection without a doubt.”

In the Spirit of Community gallery, Nottage pointed to a glass display of frontier law-enforcement artifacts. The staff, he said, calls it the “Stinking Badges” case. In the Spirit of Romance room, Nottage indicated a carpeted wall where Thomas Moran’s painting, “Mountain of the Holy Cross,” would hang. “It’s one of our most important pieces--a gift from Mr. Autry.”

The museum also houses the Silsby firefighting steam pumper, used in Virginia City, Nev. (circa 1874, and purchased for $110,000); Roosevelt’s ranch rifle; Cody’s saddle; Wyatt Earp’s revolver; a Remington bronze, “The Bronco Buster,” and assorted historic spurs. It also includes a 174-piece Colt Industries firearms collection with weapons dating back to the 1830s. In all, only about 100 of the museum’s 16,000 artifacts come from Autry’s own collection.

A courtyard, known as Trails West, features tableaux of Western environments with the appropriate vegetation and wildlife--a slice of the High Rockies, grasslands, a desert scene. These environments were created by Walt Disney Imagineering, whose special-effects team designed all the museum’s exhibits. Nottage said a double waterfall eventually will spill down the far wall of the grotto.

The Disney installations range from the traditional showcasing of artifacts to media presentations. For example, to experience the making of Western movies, visitors can climb on a saddle and, with film of, say, a buffalo stampede, running behind them, take a “screen test” for an Autry-style oater.

The driving force behind the museum is Autry’s second wife, Jackie, who, after their marriage, began taking an active part in Autry’s business affairs. She is the administrator of the Autry Foundation, a charitable trust created after the death of Autry’s first wife, Ina Mae, in 1980. The foundation finances the museum.

Jackie Autry says that from the outset she wanted the museum to be fun. “So many of the museums I’ve been through have fantastic artifacts, but because of the way they’re displayed, it becomes boring. I mean, you’ve seen one pot, you’ve seen enough pots. The Disney people have a very unique ability to light artifacts so that they almost come alive. . . . And yet we have a serious Western history museum, not just a collection of movie memorabilia.”

From the modest dream destroyed in Placerita Canyon to this polished museum--it has been, as the Western ballad goes, a long, long trail a-winding.

WHITE HAT

GENE AUTRY MET Jackie Ellam in 1964 at a bank in Palm Springs, where he had gone to seek a loan. He wasn’t down on his luck, although he had retired as a movie and TV star, and it had been years since he’d jumped Champion through hoops of fire in public. The post-Saturday-matinee generation knew him by then as the millionaire owner of the California Angels, the media baron who owned six radio stations, including KMPC-AM, and two TV stations, including KTLA. Now he wanted to buy what would become the Gene Autry Hotel in Palm Springs.

In Palm Springs and Cathedral City, Ellam had a reputation as a business executive who could get things done. She had grown up in rural New Jersey, near Morristown, as something of a tomboy--fishing, hunting and playing cap-gun games with a younger brother in the woods. At 17, she left home for college in California. But before enrolling at UC Berkeley in 1959, she found a $225-a-month job in Palm Springs as a switchboard operator at Security First National Bank, the forerunner of Security Pacific Bank. Deciding to pass on college, she became an assistant bank manager by the age of 24, a manager at 30 and a vice president at 32.

In a 1982 interview, she recalled her courtship by the widowed Autry: “It was the first date he had ever asked a woman to go out on in 48 years. He was very nervous. He called me about two weeks before New Year’s Eve and he said, ‘I’d like to invite you as my guest for our New Year’s party. If you have a date, you’re welcome to bring him.’ I’m not really sure whether he knew if I was married or dating someone or whatever.

“As it turned out, I accepted and had a very lovely time, and it proceeded from there.”

Autry and Ellam were married on July 19, 1981. He was 73, she was 39.

For Autry, the marriage ended the siege of loneliness that had followed the death of his first wife 14 months earlier. Orvon Gene Autry, from Tioga, Tex., and the former Ina Mae Spivey, a one-time Oklahoma schoolteacher, had been married 48 years. When they met, he was a telegrapher for the Frisco Railroad, and he credited her support with helping him make the jump to a singing career--first on a Tulsa radio station and then at WLS in Chicago. During their time together, he parlayed his $8 mail-order guitar into vast riches, which she shared.

Autry’s first major record, “Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” was released in 1931, and he appeared in his first movie, “In Old Santa Fe,” in 1934. He made 95 films, starred on the “Melody Ranch” radio show on CBS from 1939-55 and became the first major motion-picture star to enter television with “The Gene Autry Show,” which aired from 1950-55. Musically, he was a hit machine--especially in Middle America--and his records sold more than 40 million copies. “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” alone sold more than 10 million.

True to his white-hat tradition, Autry volunteered for the Air Force during World War II, and when he returned to civilian life, he began to invest his show-business fortune in radio and TV stations, hotels and real estate. With Ina Autry as his confidante and behind-the-scenes adviser, he developed his reputation as a handshake man--the kind of businessman whose word was as good as his bond. In his younger days, Autry had done a little drinking--what cowboy star hadn’t?--but no taint of serious scandal ever marred his professional or domestic life. Ina Autry continued to serve as a director for many of his companies until she died. The terms of her will required that Autry sell off her portion of their community property and put her share of the money in a charitable trust, the Autry Foundation.

Jackie Autry kept a low profile in his business affairs for a while. But she helped Autry negotiate the 1982 deal in which he sold KTLA and acquired the liquidity to buy out the Signal Co., the California Angels’ minority owner. Autry had bought KTLA-TV for $12 million in 1964. He sold it for $245 million. The deal increased Ina Autry’s portion of their community property; the Autry Foundation grew from $10 million to $70 million.

Three years later, Jackie Autry would say: “My husband has always wanted three things in life. He has wanted a World Series ring, he has wanted an Academy Award and he has wanted a museum. I know I can’t get him the first two, but I think I can get him a museum.”

Making the Dream Come True

AS HER HUSBAND’S sole heir, Jackie Autry began to take an increasingly active part in running the Autry enterprises. When she took the reins of the Autry Foundation, she set out to fulfill his third wish.

In 1984, as a first step, she enlisted Joanne D. Hale, a recently retired businesswoman and the wife of former cowboy star Monte Hale, Autry’s longtime friend. “My husband and I were having dinner one evening with Gene and Jackie,” remembers Hale. “Monte said, ‘Gene, one of your dreams was always to build a museum, give something back to the public. Why don’t you do something about it?’ ” It was Jackie Autry who followed up. “Put your bodies where your mouths are,” she told the Hales. “Come on to L.A. and let’s talk about this.” Within two months, the Hales packed up their Santa Barbara home and Joanne Hale signed on as executive director for the museum project.

Another social connection, Burbank Councilman Larry Stamper (who as the city’s mayor had married the Autrys in 1981), provided the next big push. In 1984, at his urging, the City of Burbank offered Jackie Autry a site in Buena Vista Park, on land Burbank was leasing from the City of Los Angeles. Jackie Autry proposed a 70,000-square-foot building to house $3.5 million worth of Western movie memorabilia. The Autry Foundation would finance the museum’s reported $12-million to $15-million construction costs on land leased to it by the city. The negotiations, she urged, should begin “as soon as possible.”

Burbank agreed, but jurisdiction in the matter fell to the Los Angeles Recreation and Park Commission. Jackie Autry’s proposal received a cool response when the park commission took up the issue in February, 1985. “My inclination is that this is the wrong thing to put in a city park,” Commissioner Mary D. Nichols said. Commissioner William R. Robertson asked what would be done with money generated by the proposed admission fees of $4.95 for adults and $3.95 for children once the construction costs were paid off.

With no action on the proposal by March, Jackie Autry began to show signs of impatience. “I would like to have my husband see this during his lifetime,” she said. The Autry Foundation was by then committed to spending $5 million to acquire museum items. She gave the commission 45 days. Then, Autry said, she would take her proposal elsewhere.

The city so far had received 58 letters opposing the project and only one in support--from the City of Burbank. Neighbors of Buena Vista Park and environmental groups said the facility would destroy the park. Hale called the chances “very slim” that construction would proceed.

In May, 1985, Jackie Autry withdrew the museum offer. In a letter to the Burbank City Council, she wrote that she and the Autry museum board of directors “after due consideration . . . do not feel Burbank is the appropriate location.”

She retrenched, altering plans for the museum in the first of many deal-sweetening upgrades. “We had an opportunity to buy a major private collection in Temecula,” Hale remembers. “With about 10,000 artifacts, we jumped immediately to a 130,000-square-foot museum. Then (former L.A. Councilwoman) Pat Russell offered us the present site, and our whole thought changed. I had attended my first American Assn. of Museums meeting and come back with the idea that it must be AAM-accredited, it must be a full cultural and educational center. . . . If we were going to provide the energy, the time, the years involved, then it had to be a world-class museum.”

After the Griffith Park site was suggested, the fate of the Autry museum passed to yet another City of Los Angeles committee, the Board of Referred Powers, this time because of a potential conflict of interest--a park commissioner’s husband worked for the Autry Foundation’s law firm. In August, 1985, the board, composed of five Los Angeles City Council members, unanimously approved Jackie Autry’s proposed $25-million, 100,000-to-135,000-square-foot facility for the Pine Meadows section of Griffith Park. “We should get down on our hands and knees and thank God for Mr. Autry bringing this to Los Angeles,” Councilman John Ferraro said.

Not everyone agreed. During the monthlong public review period, the city received 114 letters on the project, 112 of which expressed objections to it. A public meeting the following March turned into a heated question-and-answer session. Park neighbors complained that parking problems and traffic would increase drastically. The museum would presage more construction in the park. How could admission be charged in a park that belonged to everybody? The Sierra Club demanded an environmental-impact report.

And there were doubts about the appropriateness of the whole enterprise. “Most initial reactions were, ‘Ho, ho, Gene Autry’s memorabilia,’ ” said one former park commissioner.

Jackie Autry and Hale responded with promises to add 330 parking spaces and obtain an environmental-impact report. By this time, the museum was slated to cost closer to $30 million and would include classic Western art and artifacts, instead of just movie memorabilia.

The Board of Referred Powers eventually accepted the environmental-impact report, which concluded that there would be no adverse effect on traffic, open space or parking. The board recommended that the city staff negotiate a lease for the museum and turned the matter over to the City Council for final approval. Amid continued grousing, the Autry museum got the go-ahead in a unanimous vote. In October, the city agreed to lease 13.2 acres of Griffith Park land to the museum for $1 a year for 50 years in return for a self-sustaining museum that would draw about 500,000 visitors a year (that projection has increased to 1.5 million). The estimated cost of the project had risen to $34 million, and it now included a research library and archive, a 225-seat theater, and an education center, with a director to work with school systems.

“We received letters from cities all across the country--free land, just come with your museum,” Jackie Autry says. “But when we talked about it with Gene, his whole concept of the museum was that he’d derived his living out of Southern California--primarily the Los Angeles area--since 1934. He felt he wanted to give something back to his fans and to the community.”

Ground-breaking took place Nov. 12, 1986. In February, 1987, the Autrys celebrated with a black-tie benefit dinner for the museum acquisition fund at the Century Plaza Hotel. Tickets ranged from $250 to $2,500 and 1,055 people attended, for a net total of $790,000. Among the guests were actors James Arness, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, L.A. County Sheriff Sherman Block, Mayor Tom Bradley and Councilmen Ferraro, Marvin Braude and Gilbert Lindsay. Entertainment was provided by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis and Rosemary Clooney.

Twenty-five years earlier, Ina Autry had lamented that “people would have loved” to see a Gene Autry museum. Now, with her money and the second Mrs. Autry’s business acumen, Gene Autry’s longtime dream was about to be realized in consummate style.

Adios, Melody Ranch

A WEEK AFTER I had petted Champion’s neck, I talked to Autry at Golden West Broadcasters in Hollywood. His office is a burnished, masculine retreat decorated with Western art. The centerpiece is a large replica of the bronze statue of Autry and Champion in the museum’s central plaza. The man himself was dressed with cowboy elegance in a dark brown Western suit and boots, topped off, of course, by a pearl-white hat. A circle of us, including his wife and Hale, waited in his office as he entered, walking with the aid of a polished crook cane. He seemed frail but steady, and he brought a presence into the room. Like Champion, he shows his age, but is still handsome, still possessed of star quality.

“Good morning,” he said with a wave.

“Good morning to you, sir,” Jackie Autry said, smiling. “You look splendid today.”

A gentleman of the old school, Autry shook hands with two visitors, embraced his wife, let her take his cane, then kissed Hale ceremoniously on the cheek.

I asked Autry if he was excited about the opening of the museum.

“Well, we’ve been working on it--I should say, Jackie and Joanne have been working on it--for two years, so I hope that they can get it to open up on time now.”

“Try four years, honey,” Jackie Autry said.

“Four?”

“Yeah, time goes fast when you’re havin’ fun, right?”

“I didn’t want a museum just for me,” he explained. “I wanted a museum that really represented our country. I wanted to leave something behind for our next generations to see what happened 100 years back from us.

“A lot of the young people today, you know, don’t know too much about what started this whole Western country in the first place. Outside of the early settlers that came on the Mayflower and those people, why, you don’t hear too much about what happened after that, the Louisiana Purchase and then Texas, you know, and on to the West. . . . The Southwest has been pretty good to me.”

“Ask the questions louder,” Jackie Autry said to me.

I called out: “I hope you’ll laugh at this. If you could trade the museum for a baseball pennant, which would you take?”

Autry let out a hearty laugh. “I’d take the museum because it will be here a lot longer than I will or a lot longer than baseball will be. Baseball’s gonna be our national pastime for a long, long time, but there’ll be an awful lot of changes in it.”

“Wonderful answer,” Jackie Autry said. She gave me a reproachful look.

Autry moved across the room to his desk and sat down. I leaned across it and asked what his days were like.

He spoke with a slight quaver, but his attention was sharp and clear. “Well, actually, I go to the ballgame every day. I used to come in this office every morning, but I said the hell with that. I said Jackie is down here every day till they finish the museum. But I like to come in at least once a week.”

I asked about his health.

“Oh, I’m in pretty good shape. Two years ago, I fell and broke my left hip, so I don’t get around and run as fast as I used to. But I took a physical just a couple of months ago, and they couldn’t find anything wrong with me.”

We reminisced for a while about Melody Ranch. “Trem Carr built that lot--remember Trem Carr, the head of Monogram?” he said. “Joel McCrea made pictures out there, and Randolph Scott used it, John Wayne, and I guess just about everybody else sooner or later.

“I never made the frontier type of pictures, but I wish I had. Yes, the part I played was a sort of fantasy character to a certain extent. I guess I was the first of the singing-type cowboys. But then somebody else could have started it just as easy as I did.”

“Mr. Artery,” Jackie Autry called in a mock drawl from across the room, “would you mind coming back over here for just a minute?”

“Well, I don’t know,” he teased.

“Please, Gene. Bring your hat, honey.” Autry is precisely the same height as his wife when he is wearing his hat.

Autry sat by the bronze statue for a photograph with the women standing behind him.

“Don’t tickle me,” he said to his wife.

Looking on, I thought about how Autry was a man in double focus. He was, after all, a real person named Gene Autry who had played a fantasy called “Gene Autry.” The question was, who was who? Where did “Gene Autry” leave off and Gene Autry begin?

Yet even after his show-business career ended about the time he acquired his baseball team in 1960, it was still the Singing Cowboy who kept getting richer and richer from his investments. At every photo opportunity, it seemed, Gene Autry was dressed in high-heeled boots and a suit with tiny arrows embroidered in the corners of the pockets.

At the museum in Griffith Park, the two personas come together once and for all--the canny entertainer / businessman and the white-hat cowboy star, the former’s millions and the latter’s memory. The Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum even manages a realistic edge, as did those frontier movies Autry says he regrets never making. But it also encompasses the Hollywood concoctions that made him famous.

As the photography session wound down, I made several passes at saying goodby to Autry. “Thank you,” I said to him. “Shall I print the legend, Gene?”

I wasn’t altogether certain he’d heard me, but he gripped my hand in a farewell shake.

“Oh, yes, yes,” he said. “That’ll be fine with us.”


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