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“Stay with me now, this is complicated but kind of fun.”
–Animation and Comic writer Dwayne McDuffie

The world of television is, almost by definition, a very imaginative place.  Over the last 60 years or so, in everything from I Love Lucy to Fringe, various shows have created worlds and characters designed to excite, intrigue, and amaze us.  What most people don’t recognize about all of this wonderful entertainment we’ve had through the years is that, in some ways, it’s really all connected, and not just through our common viewing experience.

Television has come up with numerous ways in which to reference itself, to relate to its own past (or present), and to feature characters in places where you might not otherwise think to see them.  While the more skeptical among us might see this as a scarcity of originality, those of us who love TV also love the chance to see our beloved characters in new and unusual ways.

I thought I was a guest on your show?

There’s a curious phenomenon called the “crossover” episode, and in this case, I’m not talking about Fringe and its multiple worlds.  I’m talking about where a character from one series “crosses over” into an episode of another.  At times, it’s just been a brief cameo where shows sharing the same creative team thought it would be fun to have an actor show up in an unexpected place.  Other times, there’s been a deliberate team-up for promotional purposes, such as when Thomas Magnum of Magnum, P.I. ended up on the same murder case as Jessica Fletcher from Murder, She Wrote.  Fans of each show would tune into the other to see their favorite, and networks hoped audiences would not only be large, but people would become hooked after a taste of the “new” show.

Shows that skewed slightly older took advantage of the possibilities afforded by nostalgia as well, with Dick Van Dyke’s Diagnosis: Murder featuring a plotline bringing the lead character of the 1970 Mannix  series into the late ’90’s.  Murder‘s Dr. Mark Sloan (Van Dyke) is searching for the answers to a long-unsolved case originally investigated by Mannix, allowing Mike Connors to recreate his Mannix role.  Fans loved tuning in to see an old friend in a new venue, and rekindling an old viewing relationship.

The years may change, the character stays the same

Paul Reiser’s character from Mad About You was a filmmaker, and one storyline had him working on a documentary about a fictional 50’s TV hit called The Alan Brady Show.  Now, there never was such a television show in reality, but it was the background show for the writers’ room in the original Dick Van Dyke Show, which featured Carl Reiner as the Alan Brady character.  Reiner reprised his performance on the Mad About You episode, winning an Emmy and linking two shows that were in production over thirty years apart, just as Van Dyke himself had featured Connors in linking Diagnosis: Murder and Mannix.

Same actress (Lisa Kudrow), different characters, different shows

As a promotional device, the crossover has been used extensively.  NBC was a master at this for a while, having sitcom casts appear in “theme nights” on different shows.  Whether brief mentions or full-fledged guest spots, characters from Mad About You, Seinfeld, Caroline and the City, and Friends were seen to know and interact with each other.  Kramer on Seinfeld had rented his apartment from Paul’s character on Mad About You; Phoebe Buffay on Friends and Ursula the waitress on Mad About You were revealed to be estranged twin sisters, appearing on both shows.  Of course, it helps when Lisa Kudrow played both parts!

Even brief cameo spots were nice little “easter eggs” for viewers (and you never knew what NBC characters were going to be calling into the radio self-help line on Fraiser).  Lt. Hunter (James B. Sikking) from Hill Street Blues shows up silently in the squad room after a musical number in Cop Rock, and lawyers Victor Fuentes and Abby Perkins from L.A. Law (Jimmy Smits and Michelle Green) appear in the following episode.  All three shows were Stephen Bochco productions, and apparently all existed in the same universe.  Anyone could show up almost anywhere… and even when they didn’t show up, they got mentioned.

On Fox’s Strange Luck (paired on Fridays with The X-Files), Chance Harper’s long-lost brother mentions to him in passing that, if anything unusual should ever happen to him, to get in touch with a FBI agent named Mulder, linking the two shows in the minds of the viewers.  There was supposed to be a crossover episode between, of all things, The X-Files and Picket Fences, with Mulder appearing on both shows investigating cattle mutilations, but that got shot down at the last minute for the simple fact that the two shows appeared on different networks, and some of the higher up brass didn’t think it was proper to be essentially promoting a different network’s show.

It’s not just actors that create connections.  Whenever the various Law and Order series need a newspaper shown, they use The New York Ledger.  But then, the short-lived series Deadline was about a reporter working in New York… at The New York Ledger.  But this phenomenon doesn’t show up just in a newspaper.  You’d figure after a major disaster like the crash of Oceanic 815 on Lost, the airline might cut back a little on its flights, but watch and see at least seven different shows (including the aforementioned Diagnosis: Murder) use Oceanic as their airline of choice.  The real reason:  it’s a name that’s legally cleared and easy for producers to use.  But it’s more fun to believe that the airline exists in all those shows, although I probably wouldn’t fly on it!

Icons of 70s TV: Fonz and Mork

Other “creative” connections became a way of launching potential new series ideas as crossovers, and they became quite a well-used (and cost-effective) method for many years.  “Backdoor” pilot episodes were done on various series, presenting possible guest stars and premises on already established shows.  This was done in order to gauge audience reaction to potential new series… or just make sure viewers were aware of shows that were about to premiere.  The first television appearance of the Mork character from Mork and Mindy was… in Ritchie Cunningham’s dream sequence on Happy Days (Mork shows up in a later Happy Days episode for “real”, and not just as a dream).  More direct spin-offs were done by taking regular supporting characters from one show and giving them their own chance to shine (or fail), such as Gloria from All in the Family, Flo from Alice, and The Tortellis from Cheers (Frasier worked, The Tortellis didn’t… this method is not a guarantee of success by any means).

Classic Star Trek -- in an episode of Deep Space Nine

A variation of the spin-off is the direct sequel, such as the extensive Star Trek franchise.  From the original Star Trek to Star Trek: The Next Generation, ST: Deep Space Nine, and ST: Voyager (all three taking place roughly 70 to 80 years in the future of the original series), these newer versions could all build on mythology created in the original (or stumble on it when those “facts” were ignored or forgotten by producers, and fans cried “foul”).  Star Trek: Enterprise did this in reverse, becoming a prequel series that, especially in its final season, provided background on some of the concepts shown in the original series that had aired thirty years earlier.

Like the Star Trek franchise, other shows have built upon basic ideas and expanded their style and universe into multiple shows.  The long-running Law and Order franchise from producer Dick Wolf has begat L&O: Criminal Intent, L&O: Special Victims Unit, and other similarly designed shows.  (There’s even a British version now airing on BBCAmerica here in the states.)  Characters from one Law and Order have appeared on the others occasionally, and a few characters have made the jump from regulars on one show to become regulars on another, an example of a character spinoff rather than a spinoff to create a series.

Det. John Munch (Richard Belzer)

The actor/character who has become king of the crossover is Detective John Munch, played by Richard Belzer.  Starting as a regular in Homicide:  Life on the Street, Belzer showed up on no less than TEN different shows as the same character.  Munch (and Belzer) were featured on many of the Law and Order shows (becoming a regular on Special Victims Unit after the demise of Homicide), plus the character turned up on shows as varied as The X-Files, The Wire, and is mentioned in the BBC production Luther.  He even appeared in comedies, both on the Fox series Arrested Development and NBC’s 30 Rock.  Detective Munch’s character has turned up across five different networks, plus other mentions and parodies elsewhere (including as a Muppet, of all things).  Counting up episodes, Belzer has appeared over 300 times in the character, and still counting.  (And the surprising thing is, the character has never been the lead in his own series… but then maybe this kind of longevity is better for an actor’s career!)

Homicide:  Life on the Street was also on the receiving end of this type of crossover behavior.  A character from NBC’s medical show St. Elsewhere appeared on Homicide (Dr. Roxanne Turner, played by Alfre Woodard), although it was long after St. Elsewhere had ended production.  St. Elsewhere characters also had a habit of either showing up in other programs, such as Cheers (also set in Boston), or simply mentioning acquaintances from the past (one character rather seriously claims Dr. B.J. Hunnicut from M*A*S*H is an old Korean war buddy).  Other famous TV doctors are mentioned in passing on the hospital PA system, although they aren’t really commented on by the characters themselves.

The extensive crossover instances of Homicide:  Life on the Street and St. Elsewhere with other shows brings up a rather interesting and unique idea.  After some research (by someone with much more time than I have to spend on such things), 282 different shows (and counting) have been “linked” together by the various methods shown in this article.  Character appearances, cameos, offhand mentions of common knowledge and such have all combined to create, like the old Kevin Bacon “six degrees of separation” game, a way to go from one series to another through common character threads.

Fans of old TV love this sort of thing, as it becomes a game to see what show can link with something totally different (which links Batman with Hogan’s Heroes, even though they’re set years apart, through an in-character cameo appearance by Werner Klemperer as Colonel Klink in a Batman wall-climbing sequence).  Since All in the Family had no less than 7 different shows as spin-offs (some successful and some not), these links can be both direct and obscure.  But thanks to the ending of one particular show, there’s yet another really strange feature to this inter-connected world of television.

And it’s all due to a boy named Tommy Westphall.

Just imagine the possibilities....

Tommy was a minor character on St. Elsewhere, played by Chad Allen.  The autistic son of the lead character Dr. Westphall (Ed Flanders), Tommy was featured in few episodes, yet played a significant role in the final installment of the series.  In that episode, the camera shows snow falling gently on the main location of the show, St. Elegius hospital, then the scene turns to a small apartment.  Westphall comes home, although his dress and manner suggest he’s been working at a job more similar to construction or manual labor than being a doctor.  Tommy is playing with something on the floor, and Westphall comments to his father (Tommy’s grandfather) about the difficulty in raising an autistic child, and how he wishes he could just understand what goes on inside his child’s mind.  Finally gathering the family for dinner, Westphall takes the toy out of Tommy’s hands and herds him toward the table.

The toy, as the camera closes in upon it, turns out to be a snowglobe, shaken just before Westphall takes it and places it upon the television set in the apartment.  Inside the snowglobe is St. Elegius hospital, in a shot that mimics the previous winter scene of the venerable hospital, setting for the entire series.  Many fans interpreted this to mean that the entire series was simply the manufactured dreamings of Tommy’s autistic mind….

But, if we take that as a given, then we also have to assume that each of the appearances of the St. Elsewhere characters on other shows were also merely thoughts in Tommy’s mind… which means Cheers and Homicide: Life on the Street both were creations of his concepts and ideas.  Which means that those 10 different shows in which Detective Munch appears were also part of Tommy’s dreamings… as were the “theme night” crossovers from Cheers, the cameos on Frasier, and so many, many other shows that became inter-connected along the way… from, as intimated in the beginning of this article, I Love Lucy to Fringe.

282 shows, all together thanks to Tommy

Fifty years of television, all connected, and perhaps all in the mind of a single child.  An interesting way to look at this amazing world of television, if nothing else.  You can visit the Multiverse of Tommy Westphall (which includes both a graphical and text interpretation of all the connections made by 282 different shows).  And if you’re just interested in crossover-type appearances that aren’t necessarily in Tommy’s mind, there’s Poobala’s site full of spinoffs and all types of cross-pollination.  For any student of television, it’s a wonderful journey through history… which is what this website, and the articles I write, are all about.

“Someone did the math once… and something like 90 percent of all television took place in Tommy Westphall’s mind.  God love him.”
St. Elsewhere writer Tom Fontana

Of course, there are some holes in this theory.  But that’s fine.  As an exploration of television, it’s at least a fun diversion and an interesting mental exercise to see the wonderful and strange ways so many shows from so many different eras and settings can connect.  But when you suddenly realize in your explorations that the original Star Trek and Happy Days, supposedly centuries apart, have only the one series Mork and Mindy connecting them (thanks to a brief cameo by William Shatner as Captain Kirk), you see how much television references itself.  When you can discover for yourself the somewhat convoluted string that links BBC’s Torchwood and forty-five years of Doctor Who continuity with both the 20 years of the American based Law and Order and the short-lived existence of The Tortellis, “surprising” doesn’t begin to describe what our viewing experiences have brought us.  The shared experience of everyone watching the same shows is reflected by those who make those very shows, and their desires to connect and relive all the things they love (now and in the past).  And all of us at home get to enjoy that process with them.

282 degrees of separation, but only one mind.  And it’s not Tommy Westphall’s… it is the collective mind of all us viewers at home, and the comfort and recognition of our shared experiences.  It may be the Tommyverse, but we all get to explore it, one episode at a time.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

Another general piece this week, in which I talk about more than one show.  In fact, if I wanted to talk about ALL the shows I could touch on this week, there’s 282 of them!  No, I don’t mention them all, but I do take note of more than a few, and what they all shared along the way… from the ’50’s to current day, and a great many in between.  Five quotes:

“Stay with me now, this is complicated but kind of fun.”

Fans loved tuning in to see an old friend in a new venue…

…but that got shot down at the last minute for the simple fact that the two shows appeared on different networks…

…plus other mentions and parodies elsewhere (including as a Muppet, of all things).

An interesting way to look at this amazing world of television, if nothing else.

Come look into the very strange world of television (and where so much of it might start) this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central!

–Tim R.

“I had three different separate shows running with three different writing crews, shooting crews, and casts. I would go into my dailies to see the filming from the day before and I’d be in the dailies for like three hours. It was really hard, but we had a great time””
–Producer/Creator Kenneth Johnson on making Cliffhangers

Welcome to the thrilling days of yesteryear!  Pay your nickel admission to the theater, and sit back with popcorn in hand to watch this week’s exciting adventures of heroism and dastardly villiany!  And when it’s all over, make sure you come back next week… you don’t want to miss seeing how our hero (or heroine) gets themselves out of their terrible predicament, because (of course) all good serials end with a terrifying cliffhanger!

OK, that’s from the movie screens of the thirties and forties, and Saturday afternoon serials like the original Buck Rodgers and The Perils of Pauline… but since this is a television site, I’ll have to settle for a show that tried to harken back to those days, the 1979 series Cliffhangers!

Three shows in one

Even though it was a throwback to an earlier time, Cliffhangers was unique for a television format.  It featured three very different “shows” during each hour, with each part finishing, of course, on a cliffhanger ending.  Like the old Saturday movie serials, an installment of each continuing story was featured every week.  So, viewers would see roughly 20 minutes of a modern-day globe-trotting action-adventure show, followed by a strange hybrid of sci-fi western, and finally a good old NEW gothic horror story, all in an hour program.  Something for everyone, NBC hoped.

And NBC rested a lot of hopes on Cliffhangers, as it was a spring replacement series in 1979, after NBC’s ENTIRE new fall line-up had been canceled before the previous November was out.  They were willing to try anything at this point, and in Cliffhangers, the network tried three different things… all at once.

CHAPTER 1:  Stop Susan Williams starred actress Susan Anton as the title character, a news photographer whose reporter brother had apparently been killed.  The incident was thought by most to be an accident, but Susan had received a frantic and urgent call from her brother just before his death, which led her to believe there was more to this story.  She convinced her editor Bobby Richards (television veteran Ray Walston) to send her after clues left in an address book she found in her brother’s apartment… just before someone tried to kill her.

Susan and Jack

What ensues is a world-wide journey (on the Universal back-lot, of course) from Marrakesh to Nairobi to Washington, D.C. with threats to Susan’s life at every turn.  She meets up with Jack Schoengarth (Michael Swan), a scoundrel who happened to know her brother in the past, and is periphially involved in the events the brother was investigating (and Susan is now trying to stop).  They find various clues along the way, as Jack is busy saving Susan each week from exploding cars, deadly cobras, and even rampaging elephants about to stampede!

Basically, what’s being emulated here is the classic The Perils of Pauline from 1933, just updated to a present-day setting.  NBC thought that Susan Anton was “the next big thing”, so much so that she was not only featured on Cliffhangers, but she had her own weekly variety series airing elsewhere on the schedule at the same time.  Unfortunately, the network’s love affair with Susan wasn’t shared by television audiences, and both shows were gone before the next season.  But that’s giving away the ending, and we’re supposed to be wondering what’s going to happen next….

“Don’t touch that dial!  It’s time for chapter three of The Secret Empire,  portions of which are in beautiful black and white!”
–The voice-over narration on the FIRST installment of The Secret Empire

Sheriff Jim Donner

CHAPTER 2: The Secret Empire was a definite departure from Stop Susan Williams.  In the beginning a traditional western, it soon became something quite different.  Basically a remake of a relatively unknown 1935 Gene Autry movie serial called The Phantom Empire, it combined cowboys with science fiction (showing that Firefly wasn’t the first… just the best).

Marshall Jim Donner (Geoffrey Scott) is on the trail of the Phantom Riders, masked horsemen who’ve been stealing gold shipments in 1880 Wyoming.  What starts as a typical western, complete with love interest/frontier doctor Millie Thompson (Carlene Watkins), shortly turns into a science fiction epic.  Donner stumbles upon the Phantom Riders hideout, a hidden cave containing an elevator leading to a futuristic underground city.  As the serial progresses, Donner discovers the evil leader of the city, Thorval (Mark Lenard), whose cunning plan is to brainwash the citizens above and take over their world.

To do this, Thorval needs gold to power his “compliatron”, hence the gold robberies.  The brave lawman uncovers not only the evil plot, but finds a resistance movement trying to stop Thorval, who’s already used his machine on many of his citizens.  “Donner Jim” (as the resistance calls him) rallies the rebels in order to help save both the underground city and his own people… and he ends up captured and re-captured multiple times along the way.  Donner’s serial cliffhangers include traditional western endings like his horse jumping a cliff (into a previously unseen river), and sci-fi threats like being attacked by a monstrous green creature from the underground (he’s “rescued” when the creature turns out to be friendly), and being “shot” by a futuristic ray gun (which merely immobilizes him, instead of killing him).

As if those aren’t enough, in later episodes Donner’s old and new friends end up in the Cliffhangers endings (both above and below ground), with Donner rescuing them to become the rightful hero of the piece.  All this was designed to evoke the feelings of the traditional movie serials, and in this respect The Secret Empire really couldn’t lose, since it was also the one most closely based on an actual serial from that era.  There was a distinct lack of updating done on this segment of the show (other than eliminating Autry’s “singing cowboy” schtick), and it was probably the most traditional, even if the hybrid subject matter was also the most unusual.

The underground city

The really unique feature  of The Secret Empire was the deliberate decision to show all the “old western” above-ground adventure in “beautiful” black and white (with a slight sepia tinge), while the underground futuristic environment was shown in color.  The dichotomy actually worked rather well, and was an excellent nod to the early 30’s origins of the Cliffhangers genre.  Unfortunately, there was one other inadvertent nod to that type of storytelling:  the series only lasted long enough to almost get to the end of the story, with both Stop Susan Williams and The Secret Empire left as REAL cliffhangers, at least on the network run.  More about that later, because now, it’s time for our final exciting Cliffhangers tale….

“How would you like to be alive 100 years from now?  As young and vital as you are, 200 years from now?  To behold the earth in 500 years and beyond? (…)  I am offering you something no one else can… immortality.  Like the eternal sea.  Think of it.  The ceaseless tide….  I know you are beginning to feel it. (…)  When you fully comprehend the gift only I can give… I will be waiting.”
–Dracula (Michael Nouri) seducing his potential victim Mary (Carol Baxter)

Michael Nouri as Count Dracula

CHAPTER 3:  The Curse of Dracula was the only truly original tale featured on Cliffhangers, even though the idea of Dracula, horror stories and gothic romance had been around for quite a while.  Using the traditional vampyre mythos, creator Kenneth Johnson crafted a modern-day story concerning Kurt Van Helsing (Stephen Johnson), the grandson of the famous vampyre-hunting Van Helsing, and Kurt’s girlfriend Mary Gibbons (Carol Baxter).  They were on the trail of Dracula (played with distinctive flair by Michael Nouri), who by now had lived over 500 years and was apparently teaching Eastern European History at a local college (night classes only, of course).

Yes, this all sounds rather campy, and yet this was the one story where camp took a back seat to atmosphere and style, and although there were occasional deliberate laughs (Dracula runs a light, and tells the belligerent officer “I know red when I see it.”), the series was never played as anything but honest and serious (which, if you think about it, is rather hard to do with a mythology rife with possibilities for being overplayed).  Nouri shines as a villain who seems tortured by his existence, yet still understanding of his legacy, no matter what it may have cost others.  And even though the traditional story is about Dracula and Van Helsing, it’s Mary who pays the emotional cost.

The Count and his intended, Mary

The Curse of Dracula was the most popular of the three serials on Cliffhangers, and it was probably the best acted and written.  Viewers loved the emotional struggle of Mary, who at one point is a vampire hunter and at another becomes romantically attracted to this denizen of the night.  Far in advance of today’s vampire versions found in Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and Moonlight, Nouri’s portrayal of the ageless Count was one of the first on prime-time television to be a romantic lead, even if he was ostensibly the villain of the piece.  This was one of the highlights of The Curse of Dracula, as at times Dracula was the threat in the cliffhanger, and at times he was actually the one saving someone else from his jealous minions.

The Curse of Dracula actually got an ending on television.  Supposedly, we joined each serial “in progress” and Curse started with Chapter Six… in the premiere episode.  The Curse of Dracula also benefited from a “recap” special when Dracula ’79 aired part-way through the season, as the numbering caused some viewers to believe they’d missed installments (they hadn’t).  Dracula ’79 was simply a re-edited version of the story so far, airing halfway through the series run, in an attempt to allow viewers who had missed the beginning of the series to catch up.  This unfortunately didn’t attract enough people to the show to save it, and so, with a resolution to The Curse of Dracula and apparent cliffhanger endings for both Stop Susan Williams and The Secret Empire, Cliffhangers ended most appropriately.

Cliffhangers isn’t available on commercial DVD, although there are rough bootlegs out there.  Some of these include the missing “final” episode, which contains no Curse of Dracula, but the last episode of Stop Susan Williams book-ended by the final two installments of The Secret Empire.  In reality, all three stories had a conclusion, but NBC canceled the series and left one installment unaired, making certain that Cliffhangers really did live up to its name.  All of the stories were re-edited into movies for sale in syndication and abroad.  Stop Susan Williams became The Girl Who Saved the World, while The Curse of Dracula became The World of Dracula (since there was already a movie by the Curse title).  There’s a couple really great websites, one with lots of background on the show, and another with more specific installment-by-installment information, and both are filled with an amazing amount of knowledge on Cliffhangers.

“Well, I’ll tell you why nobody remembers it.  It’s because we were on opposite Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley when they were getting forty shares in reruns.  It was the absolute nightmare timeslot of all time and it’s funny because Cliffhangers was, at the time, the most expensive one-hour show ever made for television.”
–Kenneth Johnson

NBC in 1978 was a sinking ship, having canceled their entire new September lineup within three months of their premieres.  Spring series like Cliffhangers got a chance only because everything else had fared so poorly, but it took more than just a season for NBC to recover from their previous terrible Fall.  NBC was desperate to be rescued by almost any show, as the only hit they had at the time was Little House on the Prairie.  But with nothing to build upon, it would take a lot longer than Spring for their fortunes to change… it would take years.  And Cliffhangers apparently wasn’t the show (or “shows”, if you want to look at it that way) to come to NBC’s rescue.

Unfortunately, as many critics rightfully pointed out, Cliffhangers was based on the “filler” material that was shown between old-time movies, and perhaps more effort should have been focused on “feature” entertainment than “filler”.  But that belittles all those who loved (and still love) that kind of entertainment, and not everything is going to be Citizen Kane and Gone With the Wind.  There will always be a place for excitement, chases, and heroes (and heroines) facing dire peril and doom…

…until the next death-defying chapter, and the thrill of the rescue!  Bring on the Cliffhangers!

Vital Stats

10 aired episodes — one unaired episode
NBC Network
First aired episode:  February 27, 1979
Final aired episode:  May 1, 1979
Aired at Friday 8/7 Central?  No, but probably anything NBC aired at any time would have ended just like Cliffhangers.  Something had to go Tuesdays at 8/7 Central against Happy Days, and this was it.

Comments and suggestions appreciated, as always.

–Tim R.

A really strange format featured this week:  only one series, but it had three different “shows”.   Menace!  Surprises!  Romance!  Death-defying action!  Astonishing adventures into the unknown!  (And all that was just in the opening credits!)  SIX quotes, a pair for each featured “show”:

…clues left in an address book she found in her brother’s apartment… just before someone tried to kill her.

What ensues is a world-wide journey (on the Universal back-lot, of course)…

“…portions of which are in beautiful black and white!”

There was a distinct lack of updating done on this segment of the show…

“When you fully comprehend the gift only I can give… I will be waiting.”

…this all sounds rather campy, and yet this was the one story where camp took a back seat…

A photojournalist, a U.S. Marshall, and a vampire… how’s that for a set?  Find them all this week on Friday @ 8/7 Central!

–Tim R.

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