On this episode of Uncommon Convos Dennis talks with two very talented men. Rowan Joseph and Shane Partlow are business partners who have had some great successes together over the years, which we will certainly explore. But separately and individually, they have each had amazing careers in the entertainment industry.
This week on Uncommon Convos, Dennis sits down with New York based Costume Designer and three-time Emmy Award winner, Brian Hemesath. Tune in to Brian’s Uncommon Convo to hear about growing up on a dairy farm, discovering his love for theater, finding the right College, radio-inspired cartooning, designing his first show, inspiration icons like Tony Walton and Coco Chanel, adventures at Carnegie Mellon, choosing between New York and LA, his fourteen seasons on “Saturday Night Live”, working with Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island, heading up the “Human Department” on Sesame Street, Broadway, filming John Wick 2 in Rome, the reimagining of West Side Story, and so much more!
For more from Brian Hemesath:
To learn more about Uncommon Convos, leave comments, suggestions, and watch the video version of each of our episodes visit UncommonConvos.com or Vlaw.com.
Full Episode Transcript
Dennis V (00:02)
What does it take to win three Emmy Awards? Stick around and find out when we talk to Brian Hemesath, our next guest on Uncommon Convos. Hi, I’m Dennis VanDerGinst. Join me in a series of entertaining and interesting conversations with entertaining and interesting people. We’ll explore various aspects of the human experience and what makes life more fun. This is Uncommon Convos. Welcome to Uncommon Convos. I’m your host, Dennis VanDerGinst, and before I introduce our guest today, I want to encourage you to subscribe to rate and review Uncommon Convos on your favorite podcast platform. It’s completely painless. I promise. Quick, easy and free. And when you subscribe, you’ll automatically be alerted to when new episodes are available. Plus, you’ll get our eternal gratitude, so you have that going for you. Also, don’t forget, you can learn more about Uncommon Convos, leave comments, suggestions, watch the video version of our episode simply by visiting UncommonConvos.com. Lastly, I want to thank our sponsor, VanDerGinst Law. If you’ve been injured on the job or due to the wrongdoing of another, VanDerGinst Law would be honored to help. Simply go to vlaw.com for more information. And now I get to introduce one of my favorite people.
Dennis V (01:36)
Brian Hemesath is a New York City based costume designer for film, television and theater. He is continually involved in a variety of projects, but his current day job is as the costume designer for Sesame Street. For his work on Sesame Street, Brian has received three Emmy awards and seven nominations. And for eight years, he designed for NBC’s Saturday Night Live, which saw him work on over 100 digital shorts, including memorable favorites such as Dick in a Box, Laser Cats and Mother Lover. He’s worked on Broadway and on Off-Broadway and film projects such as two of the John Wick movies and the Steven Spielberg remake of West Side Story. He also happens to be the best friend of my lovely fiancé, who you can get to know in episode eleven of Uncommon Convos. So, Brian, thank you so much for being here.
Thank you for having me. I’m very excited about it.
Dennis V (02:37)
I am, too. It’s always fun but a little bit daunting to interview someone you know, because I already know the answers to a lot of the questions. Sometimes I just assume everybody else knows, so I have to remember to ask those really pointed questions that is on the tip of everybody’s brain. So, to start, we’re going to go way back into your childhood and examine you from a little bitty boy. And then I want to kind of take things from there so people can get an understanding as to what it takes to succeed in something that they’ve had a passion for. And before I get to that point, I don’t know, that was always your passion from what I’ve read about you today. I’ve known you now through Kim, and I’ve loved getting to know you, but I learned an awful lot about you today that I didn’t know, so I want to ask you a little bit about that too, but I do want to talk about your childhood. I have had the great fortune to meet most of your family, so tell us about that growing up.
I grew up on a little dairy farm, actually just outside of Calmar, Iowa, which is probably the closest town anyone would know there would be Decorah. That’s where my parents live now. They were farmers my entire time growing up. They sold the dairy cows the day after I left for college. I am the oldest boy, and I think when my father realized that none of us really were planning to go into farming, he decided it was probably time to change course. He went back to school and was going to college, actually, at the same time I was.
Dennis V (04:44)
Yeah. He started college as a young man, was drafted into the army. When he got out of the army, he took over the farm, and so he had never really finished his education. So it was kind of cool that both of us were going to college at the same time. I had big dreams of going to the East Coast and getting a theater degree, but growing up, I wanted to be a veterinarian.
Dennis V (05:20)
That’s what I learned today. Yeah.
I actually had no idea, growing up in a little town of a thousand, that you could even have a job like the job that I have. I watched TV, and I knew that there was a lot out there, and I participated in theater in college or in high school and in some local community shows, but I really thought the only jobs you could have were an actor or a director. And so it was not until later that I even sort of found out that this was where I wanted to be.
Dennis V (06:01)
Well, let’s hold later for later because I want to explore some of this a little bit. You mentioned wanting to be a veterinarian. I’m assuming that’s because you worked on a dairy farm.
They had the coolest job. They got to go around and see everybody’s farm and help animals, and it seemed like it was never boring. I’m sure it’s not, because you never know what you’re going to be dealing with that day. And so it also seemed really cool to me that they could come and fix an animal that was dying or distressed and be able to help that, and that always seemed really cool to me. Growing up, we were about, I don’t know, four or five miles outside of town, so it was really us. There were five kids, and the neighboring farms did not have a lot of young kids on them, so we had to make our own fun, and we became our own friends. I think that we did all sorts of crazy things. We would take the cows and hitch them up to wagons and we played all sorts of ridiculous things. I can’t believe all those poor animals survived them. But we had a good time, and I think that’s probably why I thought it would be really great to do that.
Dennis V (07:36)
Yeah. And did that focus change before you got to high school or during high school? Because obviously you mentioned you performed in high school, and I know that you ended up going to Ambrose, St. Ambrose in Davenport and had a major in theater and art. So when was it that you got that bug?
I think I was excited about going to high school and the opportunities that were there. It was a small school. You could go out for sports in junior high, which I did, and it was not memorable for anyone. I went out for football and wrestling, and it was, well, an experience. I’m glad I did it, but, in high school, they had a play and a musical every year, and I was so excited to be able to try out. And so, my freshman year I tried out. They were doing Oklahoma, and I didn’t know as freshman what I would get. I ended up getting the role of Ali Hackem, which is an ethnic role and let’s face it, I’m not terribly ethnic, but nobody else wanted to do this role, and I was super excited about it. I got my own song, and it was the first time I had ever performed on stage, and I was hooked. I loved it. I think I was in every production that I could be in, and it was exciting, and I helped a little bit with back stage stuff, and I certainly put costumes on, but it never occurred to me that somebody was really doing that.
There was a position for making clothes, not just putting clothes on. And so I think that’s sort of when I got excited about theater and decided that I really wanted to go and pursue that. And the year before I graduated, there was a young lady who went to Yale on a basketball scholarship, and I decided that I was going to apply. And so I was accepted and went there with a scholarship and financial aid. And that is when, as I said earlier, my parents sold the dairy herd. And so at the semester, things changed wildly because it looked like our income was very different than it had in the beginning. And also, I don’t think I was quite prepared for the East Coast. I’d never been off that farm for more than three days at a time. And let me tell you, New Haven is not Calmar.
Dennis V (10:41)
Right. Oh, I’m sorry.
Dennis V (10:48)
Well, I know I’ve met most of your family. I have not met Matthew, who is also a costume designer, correct?
Yeah, he’s a copycat.
Dennis V (11:00)
Was there anyone else in the family besides he and you that were theatrically inclined or what do you think it was that kind of helped you develop that interest?
My grandmother, my mom’s mom, taught home ec and sang in the Methodist choir and played piano, and I think she grew up in the Depression. She was a very practical woman. Her name was Doris. She was amazing, loved her. And I think we got a lot of our theatricality from that. Also, my dad’s dad was a farmer, but also played the banjo and played in Shirley’s Concertina Band. Of course, they played polkas. I think we also got to see him perform and thought that was kind of great. And although I wasn’t necessarily a musician, I think that was something that was, the performance that seemed like it was a great thing, and we got to see someone that we knew do it.
Dennis V (12:28)
Right. So you originally wanted to be an actor when you well, I guess I know you told me that before, but I didn’t realize that you’d gone off to Yale for a semester, but then you ended up at St. Ambrose. Correct?
I came back. The only other place I applied was the University of Iowa. So I went to the University of Iowa for the second semester my freshman year.
Dennis V (12:48)
Okay. All right.
Also, it’s a great school. It was not right for me. New Haven is crazy. Yale itself is a small school, and then you go to a state school like the University of Iowa, and it was also not what I was interested in. And my friend Barb had gone to St. Ambrose, told me how great the program was. She, I think, had taken an art class there. She knew Kristin Quinn and Cory Johnson was newly hired into the theater department, and Barb was her work study. And she just told me how great this school was. In addition to being a great school, my mother, who is a registered nurse and had gone back to school to get her degree in counseling, was working at Upper Iowa University, which affiliated with St. Ambrose. And they have a tuition reimbursement program between, I don’t know how many schools there are, but between those two schools, for sure.
Dennis V (13:58)
I didn’t really understand that when I first came there, and I just assumed that there would just be unlimited spots. There are not unlimited spots. I believe there are, like, three per year or something like that. I get one of them that sort of seals the deal. And I decided that St Ambrose was the place to go.
Dennis V (14:22)
And like I mentioned, you were interested in acting at first, so what was it at Ambrose that converted you into the direction that you obviously took afterwards?
So I was a theater major at Yale. I mean, a semester, but still theater major and I was at University of Iowa. Admittedly, a semester, but still. And so I went, at St Ambrose, I really wanted to do both of those things, and I still thought that I wanted to act but one of the theater classes, Cory Johnson was teaching a costume design class. So I took it as an elective, thought it was going to be great. And it was a great combination of those two things. I always loved to draw as a kid, I would draw and growing up in the dairy farm, they used to have long rolls of, like, paper towel that you could cut them off into smaller pieces. But I would unroll this paper towel. We would listen to radio programs while we milk the cows, and I would draw out, like, cartoons of these different radio shows. And so I’ve always loved to do art. And so this seemed like a really great combination of those two things. So I started to think that that might be a great way of going about things. And because it was a new program, there was not a costume shop manager.
And I had work study hours to do, and there were work study hours that I could be paid for. And so after this class, I sort of became the costume shop manager for lack of a better word as a student and help sort of set things up and organize that with Cory. And then I decided that I would start, I wanted to design a show. The first show that I did was a children’s show called The Frog Prince. Kim was my assistant. We still joke about it. It was pretty entertaining. She, as you may know, still does not have a lot of stitching prowess.
Dennis V (16:59)
I believe that to be true.
We mostly had a good time. I did a lot of sewing. She and I did a lot of laughing. And because we were not doing the class any longer, I was able to do that for independent study. And I designed several other shows, from there decided that that’s what I wanted to do. I continued to act in the productions there, but I don’t think I ever acted in anything I designed the clothes for. That was the introduction, and that was me sort of understanding that this actually could be a career. And so that gave me the understanding that I needed to go to graduate school to learn how, but also to make connections with people.
Dennis V (18:01)
Sure. And I can vouch for the fact that you and Kim have continued to do a lot of laughing together. And by the way, those of you who are not watching this podcast but are just listening, if you check out the video over Brian’s shoulder, you can see some of those drawings that he has apparently been working on. I don’t know if those are recent vintage or if those have been around for a while.
These are all Sesame Street.
Dennis V (18:32)
Yes. And he’s sitting in his office, his Sesame Street office as we speak, which is also very cool. We’re going to talk about that. It’s funny when I think, I’m obviously not in the Biz. I’m associated with the biz. I suppose I have as much a fondness for the various art forms as any non-Biz professional. But when I think of costume designers, there’s only a couple that come to mind. The first and probably, I would assume that most of the viewers and listeners would not even know who I’m talking about, when I say Edith Head. But if you watch any old movies, you’ll see Edith Head. I’m sure she was not necessarily that active in some of them, but Edith Head or her company or whatever, is just, like, all over the place. Bob Mackie is another, I guess, that comes to mind. Are there costume designers that have been influences on you? Were you aware of any costume designers when you, kind of, made that transition into that path?
Well, I think certainly growing up when I did, the Carol Burnett Show was such an iconic show, and it really made Bob Mackie a household name because it was a show about costumes. I mean, it wasn’t about costumes, but the costumes were characters in that show, in a very big way. And I think that that was something that was always exciting to me, to be able to see that sort of thing. And, of course, Edith Head. Walter Plunkett, who is the designer for many of those epic films in the 40’s. Adrian. They’re all sort of inspiring. Costume design was very different then. It was less about telling the story, and really, a lot of it was about making people look good, whether or not it was appropriate for their character or not.
And a lot of those early films really were more about making the actors look good than being very true to any period. And I think that that’s something that has changed over the years and it makes those old movies amazing and fun to watch because there’s so much glamour and there’s so much excitement that you don’t have in films now, generally, but also they don’t make one bit of sense.
Dennis V (21:22)
Yeah. But those people, definitely…
Dennis V (21:25)
…but they’re fun.
They’re super fun. And I think a lot of us look at them to get ideas because they are iconic in people’s memories. Those were definitely inspirations for me in the theater world. There are also a few amazing designers, some of whom I’ve been lucky enough to become friends with. Tony Walton, who was married to Julie Andrews, did the costumes for, among many other things, the original Mary Poppins. And he also did scenery and the Patti LuPone revival of Anything Goes. He did the scenery and the costumes. I mean, he was everywhere and won an Academy Award for directing All That Jazz. He’s an amazing individual, and I look to him as an inspiration. There’s a book out there, I think it’s just called Costume Design. Lynn Pecktal is the person who put it all together and it really has so many iconic designers of theater, some of whom also did film. Ann Roth, who has done a lot of film, started in her 20’s doing theater. And she is well into her 90’s and still designing. She just won an Academy Award for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom last year, I think.
Dennis V (23:20)
I didn’t realize it, but some other notables that have, I’m assuming, had their beginnings doing custom design include, like, Coco Chanel. And I think there were some other folks in that same genre that I became aware of, having done some costume designing at one time or another.
With Isaac Mizrahi. But a fashion designer does costumes. I think in the time of Coco Chanel, it was sort of, again, that idea that you’re taking fashion and putting it on screen and less about storytelling and more about a beautiful spectacle. And it still happens now. A lot of times, Isaac has done more ballet and opera and things that are generally a little more theatrical, a little more grand in scale. And I think that is an easier transition for a fashion designer to go into what this is.
Dennis V (24:37)
Sure. Now, I know after Ambrose, you went to Carnegie Mellon, which is a very prestigious school. Was that a costume design program there? Okay, so he’s shaking his head “yes” for those of you who have audio only. What’s the application or the selection process like to get into a program like that? Is there some type of audition or do you submit drawings or how does that work?
So, it’s a portfolio review and an interview. I don’t know what it is now. That’s what it was in 1994. I went there in the spring and interviewed there and also interviewed at Yale for their graduate program. So I believe that you had to have at least two fully realized shows that you could show research sketches and examples of photos of the final product. What was great about that was that I had to learn to put a portfolio together. In those days, it was a hard portfolio, which is funny to think that you can say that. And I don’t feel like it could have been that many years ago. But now my portfolio is digital on my website, and I can’t imagine showing somebody an actual hard copy of my portfolio. It’s just completely foreign to me at this point.
Dennis V (26:19)
It is so primitive. Then it was just nerve racking to try to put that together. So, yes, I had that process and because Carnegie has an undergrad program as well as a graduate program, the graduates were for more or less, sort of teachers assistance. And so they gave us, the first year, I think we had 60% of our tuition taken care of. The second year, 75, and the third year, I think, 85 or something in that zone. So, in addition to being educated there, we were also part of educating the undergrads who were taking the same classes as we were. They just didn’t have as much life experience as we did. But only a couple of years.
Dennis V (27:23)
As I think back on it, I think, oh, well, we thought the undergrads were so much younger. They were probably 3 years younger than us.
Dennis V (27:31)
Yeah, you got a great deal out of it.
There were non-traditional students as well.
Dennis V (27:38)
That’s what the selection process was. And they took, I think that there were four costume designers in my year and four scenic designers and four lighting designers. So we all had to take classes in those other genres. I had a scenic painting class. I somehow managed to get through there without taking drafting or AutoCAD. I actually regret that now, but it didn’t work out at the time. I was thrilled! So it was a three year program. The first year there, you sort of worked on other productions. The second year, you were given one main stage production and one sort of studio production, if they felt you were ready. And the third year, everyone in that program had a main stage, and a few of the graduating seniors would get a main stage production as well. I think they had four. Plus they had something they called TV Project, which was teaching us a little bit more about how to set up film and TV. And there are elements that are similar, but it is a very different beast.
Dennis V (29:02)
Sure. And I’m going to talk about that with you in a little bit. But after getting done there at Carnegie Mellon, eventually you end up with Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street and other projects. But the one question, I don’t know if we’ve ever discussed before, but it occurs to me in ‘the biz’, you have two obvious choices, if you really are serious about it. Either LA or New York. You are and have been in New York. Did you ever spend any time in LA, and if not, why not? How is it that you ended up deciding New York was the place for you?
Well, Carnegie Mellon is in Pittsburgh. We would go back and forth when we did shows, and I had friends who were in the classes above me, so I came in with them, if I was the assistant. We would shop for fabrics in New York and then go back. You could take the train and it was about, I don’t know, 8 hours on the train, or you could drive. It was about 6 hours driving. So I got a little more familiar with New York, and a lot of my classmates went to California. In fact, I would say almost all of them did and I did go out there. There’s a portfolio presentation they do on the West Coast as well as on the East Coast for graduating graduate students. And I did want to go out there and just sort of see what it was like. It was interesting, but it felt isolating and everybody, you’re in your cars. I think if maybe I had gone and gone to a film set or something, initially, I might have had a little different idea of what that really was. But it didn’t feel like a place that I felt comfortable.
And what was nice about New York was that you have the subway and you can get anywhere you need to. Everything’s open all the time. I mean, you could drive, you could take the train, you could walk, you could do whatever you need to do. Also just the city felt right to me. And Kim and I went round and round about it because she loves Los Angeles and I told her in no uncertain terms I would not be going there, and tried to convince her that of course, the East Coast was the better coast.
Dennis V (31:46)
Well, that’s so funny because I was just going to tell you, and she may have mentioned this to you, that she and I have been watching, well, we just finished the Kaminsky method. Have you seen it?
Dennis V (32:00)
And one of the dialogues that took place was where, I can’t remember the circumstances, but somebody, I think it may have been Morgan Freeman talking to Michael Douglas’s character, saying, oh, you must have grown up in New York, or you must have worked most of your work life in New York versus LA. Which is where they were because it was a much more supportive theatrical community in the New York versus the LA areas. Would that seem to have been true to you as well as with respect to costume design and just the business in general?
I think so, yes. Again, I moved here in ’97 and there was some film and TV going on, but not like there is now. It was a very different animal. So a lot of what I did in the beginning was work in regional theaters, and I did live theater for a good portion of the first few years that I was here. And so that is always a different sort of support group. I mean, you’ve seen the people in those with Kim and certainly other people, you form a little family. Although that happens somewhat in film, it’s not the same because you don’t have that rehearsal process, you don’t have that amount of time together. People on the day that they’re going to film and probably they have had some discussion with the director. And probably they’ve had a costume fitting. And probably they’ve been to hair and makeup. They probably have never met their co-stars. It depends on if they’d done anything else together or they know each other. Like they literally show up and have that happen. And the same is true, again, behind the scenes. There’s a core group of people, but so many people are just hired in. Like, we’re having big scenes for three days. We’re going to have people in for three days. They’re there and then they’re gone, and you never see them again for the whole movie. So very different set up, and I can see why that’s appealing to some people. It just was never appealing to me.
Dennis V (34:21)
Right, okay. You mentioned the regional theater that you did for a while, but eventually you end up at SNL, and you were there for 14 seasons? Is that right?
I was there for about 14 years, yeah.
Dennis V (34:35)
Okay, so let’s talk about how did that come about, first of all.
I was working at a costume shop. I had become the manager of the workroom, which was a great day job. And one of the people who was working there worked at SNL. And someone had, there was an accident. Somebody was unable to come in, and it was Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer’s last season there. Britney Spears was hosting, and they needed someone to come in and make hoop skirts for a sketch called The Hip Hop Epic. They had to have these hoop skirts that they would shuck them off, and then they had mini skirts on underneath them. And so I went in there, after I worked. It was a Friday. I’d worked all day on Friday at this shop and finished. And then I went immediately to Radio City or to Rockefeller Center and went there and then worked until midnight that night. Went home and slept, came back the next morning at 9:00 and then made this. And I guess I must have done a job that they were happy with because they asked me to come back the next week. So that was in January, I think, and the show usually finishes by the end of May. Most weeks they needed me the rest of that year.
And so I continued to work that day job. During the summer, the wardrobe supervisor called me and there was a full time position there that was someone who put stock away and was just there four or five days a week, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then clean up on Sunday. So five days. Offered me this job, so I said yes. And luckily I was still able to design a lot of regional stuff while I was doing that. If it happened in the summer or if it happened close enough, I could go back and forth. But yeah, that’s how I started. I started in the wardrobe department there. The very first show, I did that Hip Hop Epic, made those clothes. Then on that Saturday night, I’d never dressed anybody before in my life for a live show. SNL is kind of amazing because it’s sort of like a combination of live theater and film and TV at the same time. And those changes really are real. At least I think they maybe are doing it live for the West Coast now, as well. They didn’t used to, but used to be live for East Coast and for Central.
And when you had to change someone, you had two minutes to change them because that camera was going to be on and they were going to be live, and if they didn’t have their clothes on, they were still going on there. So I dressed Chris Parnell, who’s been in a million things, but he had 6 sketches that night, and I was in a panic, but it was a trial by fire. It was great and I never looked back. For many of those years, I would dress as well as go off. When I first started working there, they would do spoof commercials, which they still do somewhat. They would film those at the beginning of the season, and they wouldn’t do, like it was just a live show during the week. And with Andy Samberg and Lonely Island coming, they started to do them weekly. They did that first one that they did by themselves, Mr. Pibb. It was a hit, and then Lorne wanted them every week. The way that everything was set up, there was no one to design them. So I got to take over that from really after the second one that they did. The first two I think they did by themselves. After that, I started to just do that. So I would do that during the week and then dress on Saturday, clean up on Sunday.
Dennis V (39:00)
So you were doing both the design for those digital shorts, I’ll call them, and you were doing the wardrobe on the Saturdays. I know you eventually quit doing the Saturday nights, right?
Yes, but not for many years.
Dennis V (39:17)
For a long time, I just did all of that. They write this show on… They pitch ideas on Monday, they write all day Tuesday, on Wednesday they have read through and they read probably 35 to 40 sketches, and they choose about twelve of them that they produce. And so on Wednesday evening at about eight, nine o’clock, you find out what the show is going to be. And sometimes there were weeks, once they started rolling with those digital shorts, they didn’t have them written all the time, but then they started to do commercials in the week. Rather than doing them at the beginning, they would do them in the weeks that we would do them. So we would find out on Wednesday what was happening for the rest of the week. And sometimes they would shoot something on Thursday morning, and so we would have to just go and it would have to be something that we had in stock or were able to get, because the stores would already have been closed and we would leave early morning, so there’s no way to do anything about it. Usually what happened was they would film something on Friday morning, something else on Friday evening that would film until Saturday morning.
So it was a great way to learn to not be afraid of anything because…
Dennis V (40:29)
I could imagine.
And what the wardrobe supervisor always used to say is like, Saturday night’s coming. Whatever’s here is what’s going to be there, and it’s going to be right. And nobody else is ever going to know what else it could have been. They’re just going to know what was there. And if it looks right, then we did our job.
Dennis V (40:48)
You know, one of the questions I always had when I watched, by the way, that had to be surreal to start working at Saturday Night Live. It’s such an iconic show. Yeah. I mean, I look back, I remember when it first began and I’ve seen the various incarnations over the years. Some better than others, of course. But one thing that always struck me was that sometimes when they had a guest on, you’d see those digital shorts or those commercials, and the guests would actually be in them. Sometimes it would just be cast, but sometimes it would be with the guests, too. So I imagine that when the guests were in them and if it was being pre-produced, they had to commit to a longer, more time.
Oh, yes. I don’t know how we survived it, because there were nights when we would shoot a digital short with the Lonely Island Boys, and they were usually on Friday because it was never written on Wednesday. So we would film all night on Friday and then the host would have to be back at noon for rehearsals on Saturday. So the idea would be to do everything with the host first. But the cast still had to be back at noon as well, so it didn’t really matter. Somebody was getting screwed.
Dennis V (42:16)
Somebody’s going to be tired.
But yes, as much as possible, they like to try to put either the host or the musical guest in most of those, which made them feel very much of the moment and of that show. Occasionally they would do them without that, or if the host wasn’t interested, or they would use somebody else. And sometimes they brought in other celebs, like for Mother Lover, we did it with Susan Sarandon.
Dennis V (42:47)
I can’t think of who the other person was, but anyway, that was great. The third one of those, It’s Not Gay if it’s a Three Way. The golden rule is Lady Gaga was hosting, and so she was on in that one, as well. Patricia Clarkson was the other one. And neither of them were hosting that week, but they just happened to be the two actresses who said yes to being Justin and Andy’s moms. So Justin must have been home.
Dennis V (43:27)
Yeah. You mentioned Lonely Island Boys, which I guess I never heard that reference before. That’s Andy Samberg.
Akiva and Jorma. So Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer and Andy Samberg, they all went to school together and had this company. Akiva directed most of them, although Jorma directed a few and they would write them all together. And then I think Jorma did a lot of the editing, in addition to also coming up with ideas. And he’s done a fair amount of directing himself. They also wrote all of the MacGrubers. Their production company now has produced both the film and that series with Will Forte. They came in as that. They also released a couple of albums that myself and the person in charge of the hair department styled. The first album, which was super fun. I don’t know whether we did the second one or not, I can’t remember. Those boys were inseparable and they really functioned as a unit.
Dennis V (44:59)
But Andy was the only one that actually performed in the shorts.
I mean, you would see the others in it. Jorma frequently was if they needed somebody to do a bit part or a specialty part or something specific, he usually was the person who did that. And I guess maybe occasionally Akiva was in them, but I don’t really remember him being in any of them.
Dennis V (45:29)
Now, which of those did you do the costumes for? I mean, did you do the costumes for Dick in a Box?
Yeah, that was one of the first ones. But any of those period ones when we did the Mother Lover stuff, that was all Kris Kross stuff. A lot of it was rented or found.
Dennis V (46:05)
I think one of the first ones I remember because it was just so ridiculous, was Laser Cats.
Dennis V (46:14)
Were you involved in that one, as well, or did that come before you?
No, I was there for that. The amazing thing about SNL is that it is really so writer driven.
Dennis V (46:29)
I was going to ask about that.
The writers often really know what they want and so they come with the ideas. Although I got to put my spin on things, they already knew, they really wanted Laser Cats to be super low tech and they wanted a terry cloth cape and they wanted a football helmet with cardboard on it. I think the first one that we did was with Jake Gyllenhaal, and he was the villain. I was trying to come up with something and they’re like, no, it needs to be really low tech. We need it to be made out of aluminum foil. We made his costume out of aluminum foil. We literally wrapped aluminum foil around, we wrapped these other things in aluminum foil. A peppermint patty for his eye patch, and that’s what it was supposed to be. They were like, it has to look super low tech. It has to look like it’s junior high students making this awesome film.
Dennis V (47:39)
That was the genius of it. It’s what made it work.
But I mean, also we had Steven Spielberg in one of them. We had Sigourney Weaver in one of them. It was unbelievable who came and was a part of that?
Dennis V (47:54)
Those were great. I was going to ask you, you mentioned, of course, Andy Samberg and Will Forte. Who are the main cast members during your time on SNL?
Well, it went through a lot of them. Will Ferrell and Ana Gasteyer, it was their last season. Amy Poehler was there. And Maya Rudolph and Tina Fey and Jimmy Fallon and Darrell Hammond was there. Kenan Thompson and all of them have gone on to amazing things. Kristen Wiig came in shortly after I started. I feel like she and Andy came at the same time and Bill Hader and oh, boy, I’m sure I’m forgetting lots of them. As I said, Chris Parnell was there in the very beginning and was there for a little while. Tracy Morgan. I was there up until, I guess, 2015, 2014. I was there for part of a season while I was waiting to go and do Honeymoon in Vegas. That was when Kate McKinnon was there. And some of the people who are still cast members were there.
Dennis V (49:31)
Sure. So out of the group you mentioned or others, who would you say are your favorites or were you close to any of the cast members?
Well, I used to dress Tina Fey when she did the news. She was the head writer, so she did a few smaller parts. And then when she left, I dressed Seth Meyers, who is also a good friend of mine. He was at my wedding. And I was close with Jimmy when he was there and I still occasionally see Maya. I worked with her a couple of years ago when she and Martin Short did the Maya & Marty Show. I came and did her clothes, as herself, for that. She’s a friend of mine. Love Amy Poehler. Really, I think it’s a great group. I love Will Forte. They really are all just good humans. And Kristen Wiig. I mean, she’s brilliant and super fun. Yeah. I don’t know. I’m closer with some of them than others. But again, the ones that I dressed, I dressed Kristen for a while. I dressed Jimmy for a little while. So you get to know them a lot more when you are in that situation with them.
Dennis V (51:07)
So you’re going to be able then to call them all up and say, hey, you got to be a guest on my buddy’s podcast. I’ll be like, “Oh, yeah! Uncommon Convos. We’ve been waiting for that call.” So now here’s a tougher question. He’s probably not going to answer it, but who’s the biggest dick you worked with?
Well, there’s a lot of … I’ll just say that.
Dennis V (51:39)
I’ll leave it at that. I’m not going to put you on the spot. While you were there, well, actually, I guess this would extend to all your experiences. Have there been people that you’ve worked with or met, at least on set, that you just went, “Oh, my God! I cannot believe I am meeting this person.” Just so awestruck or star-struck that you just couldn’t even believe that it was real.
Yes and no. The good thing about starting all this with SNL is there were celebrities there all the time and you got to see them, and they were scared out of their minds to go do a live show. So you got to see them as real people. And on Sesame Street, everybody’s here because they want to be here. You get to see them as real people and not as performers. And what’s nice about Sesame I’ve seen lots of great people. Like Jason Sudeikis has come to host here and Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan, and they’ve all been on the show. Kate McKinnon has been here. So it’s been a lovely sort of crossover with that. It’s nice to be able to see them as people. I will say probably it was kind of amazing to meet Angelica Huston. I’m not going to lie about that. When she came for her fitting for John wick, I was like, this is pretty cool.
Dennis V (53:11)
I could imagine.
And I got to meet Betty White on SNL.
Dennis V (53:15)
Oh, Betty White. You got to meet Rita Moreno.
I mean, I got to meet Rita Moreno on West Side Story, also. Betty white was one of my favorites. My friend Donna dresses the host. There was a fitting. We needed to come in, for pictures that they were doing. They do those pictures before the show at SNL. She had this jacket that had three buttons, and it was kind of not laying the way they wanted it to. And they needed someone to come in and just stitch in-between those, so it laid nice and flat. And so there I was, on my knees in front of Betty White, sewing her into there, and my friend Donna was like, “Betty, isn’t it nice to have a young man on his knees in front of you?” And without missing a beat, she said, “Yeah, that hasn’t happened in ten minutes.”
Dennis V (54:06)
I love hearing that. It’s great to hear that Betty White was as real as you hear from so many people. That’s great.
She’s on it. She didn’t miss a beat.
Dennis V (54:19)
I think she was as scared as anybody else to be hosting that show. She was 85. I love how they had it, so many celebrities coming back that year. But it was funny. I was like, you’re Betty White. You are television.
Dennis V (54:33)
Yeah, no kidding.
Even Betty White was like, this is a lot.
Dennis V (54:38)
That’s crazy. Well, speaking of iconic and all that. We’ve alluded to it, but I want to talk about Sesame Street. I know for some period of time you worked both Sesame Street and Saturday Night Live at the same time. But can you tell me how you got, how you got to Sesame Street. I had to.
Also, people would be upset with you. You’d be getting angry emails if you hadn’t done it. I came here because I knew the two gentlemen who were the previous designers, Bill Kellard and Terry Roberson. They were a couple, and Bill had been designing the show since it’s inception. And when I was working at that same costume shop that brought me to SNL, they had come to rent clothes, and then they needed some things built. So I sort of became friends with them. And after that, I just made a lot of the stuff for them when I left that costume shop, and they just came to me to have things made. And so I made some specialty costumes for them when they would need it, because they needed it turned around quickly. Usually it’s harder to get a shop to do that than an individual. And so I became friends with them. They were talking about retiring, and they really said that they wanted me to take over here. Unfortunately, Bill was diagnosed with brain cancer, inoperable brain cancer, and he made it about 18 months. I think he was in his 60’s when he passed away. It was two weeks before the end of season 40 of Sesame Street, and the producers asked me to take over for that last two weeks, and then I’ve just been here ever since. I think that was 2010.
Dennis V (56:42)
What season is it now for Sesame Street?
I think we just filmed season 53.
Dennis V (56:48)
Wow. I remember as a kid. It must have been, what, ’68, ’69 when it started?
October ’69 is when it started.
Dennis V (57:01)
That had to be another just surreal moment. I assume you watched Sesame Street growing up, right?
Absolutely, and what I will say is that because I had been making costumes for the show before that, I mean, it was a daunting prospect. It still is a daunting prospect to know that what you do affects that number of people. There’s more content out there for kids now, but it definitely is something that kids will remember their entire lives. So that is both exciting and terrifying at the same time.
Dennis V (57:46)
I can imagine, and I want to ask you a little bit about that as far as distinctions between Sesame Street and SNL and whatnot. One thing that occurs to me, too, is there are a lot of guests on Sesame Street, a lot of celebrity guests on Sesame Street. Do they freak out? I mean, I could imagine if I were on Sesame Street as a guest, I would just be, you know, if I met Big Bird and we had to interact in a scene, I would just be giddy as I’ll get out.
They are. Samuel L. Jackson just came on. Samuel L. Jackson! He’s Samuel L. Jackson, for God’s sake! He came on and did a little guest spot with us and was surrounded by the puppets. And you would have thought that this man had just won the lottery. It was amazing to see this person who is an accomplished actor. He’s literally done everything, and he was giddy as a school kid around these puppets.
Dennis V (58:52)
It is everything that you think it’s going to be. I mean, there are aspects to it that I never thought about. I work very closely with the Education Department, and we talk about the best way to tell the story and let the teaching happen, and the best way to make the teaching happen. But it is amazing. I’m particularly excited every time Snuffleupagus shows up. He’s a personal favorite. But it’s brilliant, all of it. I mean, the puppeteers are great. The producers are amazing. The writers are fantastic. It’s a great place. I am only sad that we do not film 52 weeks out of the year.
Dennis V (59:42)
Yeah, I could imagine. Now, you have referred to them as puppets. Is that a distinction from Muppets? I know there are two different groups, but they’re all part of Henson Productions, correct?
Technically, we call them puppets. The Muppets are more …
Dennis V (01:00:05)
…and that whole group is generally known as the Muppets. And so these are, we call them puppets, but they are, mostly we call them by their names whether we’re addressing the puppeteer or the puppet. Yeah, it’s a great place. And I will tell you that some of those smaller puppets, you can really see the performer. Like, you can’t see the performer inside of Big Bird, and you can’t see the performer inside of Snuffleupagus. But you can and we all talk to the puppet.
Dennis V (01:00:45)
That’s funny. That is so funny. You do not dress or design for the puppets, though. You design for the humans.
I just do the humans. I work with the puppets then because a lot of times we do things that there’ll be, like, a group of people doing something, whether they’re superheroes or they’re playing that they’re in a submarine or that they’re building a rocket ship or anything like that. A lot of times, the human performers will be part of that group, and then we just have to, you know, we need to make sure that they all look appropriate together. But no, I don’t do the puppet costumes.
Dennis V (01:01:29)
I only do the costumes for the people who talk back.
Dennis V (01:01:34)
So I can’t imagine two seemingly more diverse and iconic shows, SNL and Sesame Street. Are there similarities between the two? What would the similarities be? And where are the distinctions between two shows of that nature?
Well, when I first started Sesame, we were still doing an hour long show. The part that I do is read story, and so it was like a third of the show, and they’re a little bit shorter now than they were. What I think is a distinction about the two of them is that they are both writer driven. And I think that’s part of the reason why they’ve both been so successful is they both are driven by the writing. And that is, I think, what makes both of them really sing. And we all support that. And that is something that doesn’t necessarily happen, like a lot of times in theater, things go a different way because a director has an idea for it or a producer or something. And here, it’s so much about what’s on the page, because that is what teaches kids. And with SNL, it’s always been about the writers. And so I think that’s the only thing that I can say that it’s similar about the two of them most of the time.
Dennis V (01:03:13)
What about the production schedule and the number of episodes? Is that dissimilar?
This is shorter, we film like 25 new episodes a year, so it’s shorter here. Generally, we film in sequence here, which is very unusual. That doesn’t usually happen anywhere. And so the beginning at the beginning and the end at the end is weird. Nobody else. I think the very first thing that we filmed for the West Side Story revival movie well, reimagining, not revival, was everybody going to the Rumble. The very first thing we shot, and I don’t think we shot the prologue until the last week of filming it was, you know, always disjointed that way. So I think that that is unusual here, because of how they set up SNL, they film in sequence, too.
Dennis V (01:04:17)
Gotcha. Yeah, I kind of glossed over this, but I want to revisit it because you left SNL. I don’t know if it was because of, but at the time you were starting on your first Broadway production, that was Honeymoon in Vegas. Right? And I know obviously that’s a completely different beast, too, because now we’re back talking theater. But how was that to do your first Broadway production?
It was amazing. And to have it be a musical was even better. I mean, it really was spectacular. I was really fortunate. Unfortunately, it was relatively short lived. I thought it was a great musical based on the movie, but, yeah, it was everything I wanted it to be. At that time, we opened before the holidays. We had ten weeks of previews, and so SNL was already playing. So I started that season with them, and I needed to leave in order to be able to focus on that. I think in probably October, I left. And after that was done, I sort of felt like I had done what I could do. SNL was something, and the people who are there are at the top of their game. They don’t leave, and there isn’t any reason for them to leave. And after Andy left, it wasn’t as much fun, for me personally. Andy, Akiva and Jorma, when they all left, it didn’t feel the same. So it felt like a good time to just finish that. And that January, I started working on John Wick.
Dennis V (01:06:26)
Okay. Right. And I want to talk about John Wick, but before I leave Sesame Street, because obviously you’re very happy there and enjoy it. And from a professional standpoint, you have had seven Emmy nominations and three wins, is that right?
Something like that.
Dennis V (01:06:53)
Who’s counting? I know. Well, speaking, I know you don’t. And this is why I wanted to get Kim on here, because folks that are listening, I can attest to this. Brian is just so humble and down to earth and he doesn’t think about these things, but Kim as his best friend, is definitely going to sing those praises for him and bring that out. And in fact, I was going to ask you, you have designed the Tony Awards.
Yes. The opening number.
Dennis V (01:07:25)
The opening number and you have won Emmys. Have you ever actually attended the Emmy Awards ceremony or was that.. Okay? Well, good. I wasn’t sure because I could see you just staying at home saying, send it to me. Thank you very much.
I went the very first year I was nominated and was fortunate enough to receive an Emmy that year. And so I was very happy to go that year, but I went to one.
Dennis V (01:08:05)
Not so happy when you go and you didn’t win.
I went to one. The problem is they used to do them, and sometimes they would have them in New York and sometimes they would have them in Los Angeles, and then they started having them only in Los Angeles. And so it was harder to get back and forth when it was time for them to happen. They changed things around, too, and how it works. So this year we have a new category and actually a new Emmy ceremony. The children’s television now, rather than just being on regular daytime Emmys, has its own category now and award ceremony, which will happen, I think, in December this year. Two years ago, we changed things over because it used to just be costume design and styling. The daytime television soap operas, daytime dramas would have their own category, and then everybody else was in the other categories. So Sesame Street was up against the View and Drew Barrymore and Ellen and those sorts of things, which was always sort of an odd group to be put in.
Dennis V (01:09:35)
Not really apples to apples.
Two years ago, they changed it to be there was a styling and then there was what they call special effects costumes, makeup and hair. And so a lot of the stuff that I do that we submit for is like the guest celebrity stuff and not for the regular styling that we do. And even the regular clothes that we have are not regular clothes. Most of them we build from scratch. We were more that other category. And I don’t really know how they’re separating out the design category because this is the first year they’re doing it this other way.
Dennis V (01:10:16)
Yeah, it’ll be interesting to see.
Yeah, we’ll find out.
Dennis V (01:10:19)
Yeah. So let’s go back to John Wick. You mentioned that you worked on the second and third John Wick.
My brother was the assistant on the first John Wick. I came and did the initial fitting with Keanu Reeves for figuring out what his suit was supposed to look like, a fit for his suit. I did a little bit there and I met him there and he’s lovely. All the good things you hear about Keanu are 100% true. Then I was the assistant on the second John Wick, which was great. We shot most of it here and then shot for six weeks in Rome, which was great. My first experience filming outside of the country, a very different animal, as well. And then I worked on the third John Wick, the New York portion of it, but because of how the timing fell, I either had to not do Sesame Street or I had to not do the Morocco portion. So my brother did the Morocco portion of that and I came back here and did Sesame Street.
Dennis V (01:11:38)
Keep it all in the family. That turned out pretty well.
And because he did the first one, he knew the designer, he knew all the players.
Dennis V (01:11:47)
And he’d worked on the other two, as well. So it was actually really kind of great. Neither one of us were involved in John Wick 4, which filmed during the pandemic in Germany. Im anxious to see what that looks like when it comes out.
Dennis V (01:12:03)
Yeah. Well, it’s nice to hear that what you hear about Keanu Reeves is true. He really seems to be a genuine and great guy.
Dennis V (01:12:16)
I want to talk before I let you go and I know I’ve been taking a lot of your time, but we got to talk about West Side Story, the reimagining, as you mentioned, from Steven Spielberg. And of course, you and I know that Spielberg is Kim’s favorite director. I to have share this story. So, Brian and some of the cast and crew couldn’t be at the Oscars. So of course, The West Side Story had been nominated for costume design and Best Picture and whatever else it had been nominated for. So the day before the Oscars, Steven Spielberg had a zoom meeting to congratulate everybody and thank them for their work on the film. And so, Brian was at our home on this zoom meeting with Steven Spielberg. And Kim, again, who is a huge fan of Spielberg, puts a plant in front of her face and moves herself into the frame of the zoom so that she could see Spielberg and Spielberg could see this dancing plant on the side of Brian’s head. So that was kind of funny.
It was pretty funny. The funny part is there were 50 people on that Zoom. I’m sure he never saw the plant but we got a big kick out of it.
Dennis V (01:13:39)
That’s right. I got a picture and a video of it. But I will say this. I’m a traditionalist by heart and I love the original, but I probably liked this version better. It’s obviously much more real, much grittier than the original. As real as I suppose you can get with having a bunch of gang bangers out there singing and dancing in the streets. But that aside, I just thought it was amazing. What was that experience like for you, working with Spielberg? Working on a production of that magnitude?
I mean, it was crazy. When I first heard about it, I thought I was like, Why? But having seen it, I understand why. Because the first one really did feel like you were watching a theatrical performance and this felt like a film. So that was the part that I really appreciated about it, is that it felt real. You felt like you were in it rather than watching something on a sound stage. That, I think, was amazing. I had never worked, the Wick films are huge and they have a never ending stream of stunt people that have a never ending stream of costumes that need to happen. So that part felt sort of normal, but because we had to make so much of the stuff so that we would have multiples of it because they wear the same thing, but it has to get dirty. It has to get paint on it. It has to get this, so figuring out with the wardrobe supervisor, Paul Tazewell who was the head costume designer for it. We needed to figure out how many of each thing we needed. Those prolonged costumes, we had to have, I think, six matching of all of them.
It wasn’t like we could use vintage things, we had to make them and we had to make all the jeans because we needed jeans that stretched and were the right shape. That was amazing, just that machine of making that happen. And once it was done, it wasn’t done because then it went to the ager/dyer to be distressed so that it didn’t look new. And they all had to match one another, so they all had to be there so they could do the same thing to all of them. It was an amazing group of people but it also was such a learning tool in organization. Everybody had to be on their game because you had to make sure that things got accomplished in the time they needed to be able to go where they needed to go. Not only did we have to have them made, they had to be distressed. The shoes had to be made, they had to come back, they had to be rubber, they had to be distressed. The performers had to use them. And unlike most films, this film, they did rehearse for a month before, with all of the main 65 people generally who, all the dance was rehearsed.
So that was very different from a regular film because they all became very close because they were there every day working on this project. And we were with them a lot, and that made this a really magical production. And Steven Spielberg was there with them. That was very unusual. It was great. Just the volume of background people, the thousands of background people that all had to be dressed and had to be ready. There were days when we had 400 people in a day that had to be ready. They all had pre-fits, but they all had to come in. We had to get eyes on all of them, made sure everybody looked appropriate. And it was so blazing hot that summer. Nobody wanted to wear clothes
Dennis V (01:18:04)
I feel like I could do a podcast with you, an episode just on that movie, because I think it’s fascinating. I think anybody who is even remotely interested in that aspect of the biz could learn so much from the different things that had to go into the thought process and the organization, like you mentioned, something of that magnitude. I mentioned Kim… I promise you, I’m wrapping it up here. I mentioned Kim, but speaking of significant others, Drew is just amazing. And I have to imagine that you have to have a very patient spouse in order to succeed in this business. So how important has Drew been to you in this journey?
Well, I mean, Drew is just great in general. But what is great about Drew is that Drew also, although he isn’t in the business, understands the business and has performed and sort of gets it. I think that you have to have someone who is secure enough in their own life and their own personality that they understand. When I work on a film, I work no less than 10 hours a day. And when we’re filming, it’s 12 to 14. And then I come home and I sleep and I leave. And I come home on the weekends. It is hard. When I started with SNL, I was working on SNL and Sesame Street when I met Drew. He and I met at the closing night party of a production of Hairspray that I had done at a regional theater that was close to here. So I was still doing all three things. So I guess the good part is that he came into my life with all of that stuff happening. It doesn’t seem odd to him.
Dennis V (01:20:18)
He knew what to expect then. He knew what he was getting himself into.
I tell him all the time. He was warned repeatedly.
Dennis V (01:20:24)
That’s right. Well, that’s great. Well, okay. So between SNL, Sesame Street and all these other projects that you’ve done, you have to have a million great stories. What is a story that very few, if anybody knows about a good story that few people know about that you can share.
Let’s see. I did a benefit with Carol Channing. She was 90. It’s recorded. I don’t know where it is, but they filmed this. She was being honored at the Kennedy Center that year. And she had someone in California who was making clothes. And at the time she had a jumpsuit. She had a look. Jumpsuit, this sort of organza jacket that went over the top of it. And so I have to talk to her about what she’s going to wear for this benefit performance. She’s telling me this person makes these things. She has one in black, she has one in red. She’d really like one in white. Like, great. “Can you send it to me?” “Yes, but Brian, we need to look at these because this jumpsuit grabs a woman where no woman wants to be grabbed.” I was like, I’m on the phone with Carol Channing. She needs me to fix something very intimate. Just putting it right out there.
Dennis V (01:22:06)
You do a pretty good Carol Channing there, I must say, too.
Luckily it all worked out and I made an exact copy of what she wanted. And I also got a different jacket that I thought she would like. And she ended up wearing the jacket that I made for her, which I was very happy about. Yeah, but it was a pretty funny story.
Dennis V (01:22:31)
That is funny.
That happened after Betty White had hosted so I talked to her for a little bit and she said, “Oh, that Betty. She gets people in trouble. She got me in a cage with this orangutan. They all have funny stories, but ‘grabs a woman where she doesn’t want to be grabbed…’
Dennis V (01:22:57)
That’s great. I know there’s a million others that we could get into, and maybe I can have you back sometime. But what’s next in store? Any upcoming projects that you can share?
I have been working with my friend Bill Sherman, who is the music director here at Sesame Street and produced the Hamilton album, was one of the writers on In the Heights and worked on the Tick Tick Boom film as a music producer. He is doing a children’s, it’s partially animated and partially human. And so I’m working with him on this new project called Jam Band.
Dennis V (01:23:45)
That sounds like it’ll be good. Sounds fun.
I hang out with a lot of characters, with a lot of musicians. And I get to hang out with my friends, which is there’s nothing wrong with that.
Dennis V (01:23:56)
You can’t beat that. Speaking of hanging out with friends, thank you so much. I could do this all day. And I know we both have day jobs that we have to get back to, so thanks for indulging me. I love you for it and I had a lot of fun. Now, don’t go away. I’m going to say a few more words. Don’t leave because I want to thank everybody else for joining us again. Be sure to subscribe to rate and review Uncommon Convos on your favorite podcast platform and visit Uncommon Convos to watch the video version of this and every other episode, as well. Be sure to join us next time. Also check out Legal Squeaks, if you get an opportunity. Learn a little bit about various aspects of the legal system. You can catch that on your favorite podcast platform, as well. But join us next time, and until then, stay safe and I love you all.
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