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If at first you don’t succeed … call Peter Jackson

Jim Korkis shines a spotlight on Hollywood’s first attempt to turn J.R.R. Tolkien’s literary masterpiece into an epic film series: Ralph Bakshi’s animated “Lord of the Rings.”

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I got an opportunity to meet with Ralph Bakshi before the release of his animated version of THE LORD OF THE RINGS. I had been warned of his sometimes overpowering personality where he often assumed the persona of the “new” Disney who was going to save animation from the children’s ghetto of Saturday morning television or kiddie matinees at theaters.

Meeting him in person for the first time, revealed a man whose quotes might appear blunt and abrasive on the printed page but when he was saying them out loud, he was actually very sincere and passionate about animation and it was easy to see how animators could be seduced by his vision. Nobody ever starts out doing an animated film thinking that they are going to produce a terrible final product. Especially in animation since so much of your life is spent working on it, you try to make it the best you can.

However, some films like the animated LORD OF THE RINGS turn out to be more than mere disappointments. They seem to serve as a tribute to lost possibilities and talented people who wasted those skills. With the success of the live action LOTR trilogy, Bakshi’s animated version was re-released and is easily available. One of the major criticisms at the time was that audiences were unaware that the film was only part one of the epic story.

I dug out my old notes from that over two decade old interview so you can read Bakshi’s own thoughts about the film before it was released. As you read his words, I can tell you that when I heard them for the first time I was absolutely convinced that Bakshi believed every single syllable and was not in the least trying to hype something substandard.

Ralph Bakshi’s rise in animation had been phenomenal. Immediately after graduation from the High School of Industrial Arts in Manhattan, Bakshi began working for CBS Terrytoons. Starting as an inker, he was quickly promoted to becoming the youngest animator on staff, then the youngest director and finally the youngest studio director. He was running Terrytoons at the age of 26.

“In 1956, the Tolkien books were given to me by a director at Terryoons to read. In 1957, I started trying to convince people that the books could be animated and tried to obtain the rights,” stated Bakshi. The film rights, held by Walt Disney for ten years, eventually passed to United Artists in 1968 where both Stanley Kubrick and John Boorman failed in their respective attempts to put together a workable screenplay. Bakshi began making annual trips to United Artists to find out when the film rights would be available.

Bakshi soon partnered with Steve Krantz to produce Robert Crumb’s FRITZ THE CAT, the first X-rated animated feature film. (During production, some older animators walked out rather than handle the suggestive subject matter.) FRITZ was followed by other animated features which highlighted contemporary material for an adult audience which pulsed with a street energy like HEAVY TRAFFIC (a semi-autobiographical film), COONSKIN (an updating of the Uncle Remus stories) and HEY GOOD LOOKIN’ (about life on the streets of New York in the Fifties). For a variety of reasons, these controversial films received only limited distribution and so Bakshi decided to find a somewhat more commercial topic for his next film.

WIZARDS is an entertaining if disjointed version of the classic battle between Good and Evil featuring fantasy characters that might have felt at home in the world of Tolkien. Produced with a limited budget (Only $1,100,00 as compared to the animated LOTR’s $7,000,000) and obviously borrowing influences from comic books, WIZARDS became enough of a success to establish Bakshi as a commercial filmmaker.

“WIZARDS was a comic book for a young audience,” Bakshi explained, “It was Sword and Sorcery for kids. People accused the film of shortcutting but I really loved it. I felt Mike Ploog’s drawings in the beginning were terrific. It was like comic books. I love comic books. I loved that sequence. We also used the rotoscope in WIZARDS but we didn’t have the time to put in the detail. I didn’t have RINGS in mind when I was doing WIZARDS.”

Publicity for the animated LOTR announced that Bakshi had created “the first movie painting” by utilizing “an entirely new technique in filmmaking”. That new technique was patented by its inventor Max Fleischer on October 9, 1917 and was called the rotoscope. At its most basic level, the process is that an animator traces live action film frame by frame for later inking and painting.

“I was told,” commented Bakshi, “that at Disney the actor was told to play it like a cartoon with all that exaggeration. In LORD OF THE RINGS, I had the actors play it straight. The rotoscope in the past has been used in scenes and then exaggerated. The action becomes cartoony. The question then comes up that if you’re not going to be cartoony, why animate? I think it’s the same reason Howard Pyle illustrated. Why illustrate? Why not just take a photograph? The reason is that there is an energy there and that’s important.”

“In THE LORD OF THE RINGS,” Bakshi continued, “it is the traditional method of rotoscoping but the approach is untraditional. It’s a rotoscope realism unlike anything that’s been seen. It really is a unique thing for animation. The number of characters moving in a scene is staggering. In THE LORD OF THE RINGS, you have hundreds of people in the scene. We have cels with a thousand people on them. It was so complex sometimes we’d only get one cel a week from an artist. It turned out that the simple shots were the ones that only had four people in them.”

“I didn’t start thinking about shooting the film totally in live action until I saw it really start to work so well. I learned lots of things about the process, like rippling. One scene, some figures were standing on a hill and a big gust of wind came up and the shadows moved back and forth on the clothes and it was unbelievable in animation. I don’t think I could get the feeling of cold on the screen without showing snow or an icicle on some guy’s nose. The characters have weight and they move correctly.”

When I asked Bakshi was he was trying to accomplish with this film, he smiled and replied, “What was I trying to do? I wanted to bring another level to animation. I wanted to try to get away from the WIZARDS cartoon work. The goal was to bring as much quality as possible to the work. I wanted real illustration as opposed to cartoons. I visited Tolkien’s daughter and his executor and a biographer in England. I spent time in Oxford to find out what her father thought. Of course, things had to be left out but nothing in the story was really altered. Tom Bombadil was dropped because he didn’t move the story along. Descriptions were dropped because you actually see it in the film.”

“It’s not that important to me how a hobbit looks. Everyone has their own idea of what the characters look like. It’s important to me that the energy of Tolkien survives. It’s important that the quality of animation matches the quality of Tolkien. Who cares how big Gandalf’s nose is? The tendency of animation is just to worry about the drawing. If the movie works, whether you agree about Bilbo’s face or not, the rest becomes inconsequential.”

“No contemporary illustrators inspired me on this film. The major influence was guys like Pyle and Wyeth. It’s very classical. Actually, the film is a clash of a lot of styles like in all my films. I like moody backgrounds. I like drama. I like a lot of saturated color. Of course, a big problem was controlling the artists so they drew alike. How do you have 600 people draw one character alike? The tendency is to want to let the artist have some freedom but then someone would leave off a hat or horn on a hat on a character.”

“The only joy you get during the year is seeing the background paintings. Johnny Vita has painted the backgrounds on all my films. He’s about 65. He does 15-20 paintings a day. He’s worked for me for seven years. I met him at Terrytoons. He paints better than Frazetta and Jones.”

“Making two pictures in two years is crazy. (The live action reference and the actual animated feature.) Most directors when they finish editing, they are finished; we were just starting. I got more than I expected. The crew is young. The crew loves it. If the crew loves it, it’s usually a great sign. They aren’t older animators trying to snow me for jobs next year.”

“I love the medium very much and when it starts to work, it’s fantastic. I’m now interested in building an animation company and I’m certainly amazed at the belief these younger guys had in me that we could do it. I think we’ve achieved real illustration as opposed to cartoons. Artistically, we can do anything we want. Maybe FRANKENSTEIN. Who knows? I’d like to see ten animated features a year. Ten live action films fail a month but if one animated film fails, there is the belief it failed because it was animated. This film is an awful big gamble. I’m glad it is nearly over.”

“The directorial problem was directing an epic. Epics tend to drag. The biggest challenge was to be true to the book. LORD OF THE RINGS was done with honesty. You can’t buy the love that went into the project. It’s the finest thing I’ve done. It probably could be the highlight of my life. I spent two years with Tolkien and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

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Jens Dahlmann of LongHorn Steakhouse has lots of great tips when it comes to grilling

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Sure, for some folks, the Fourth of July is all about fireworks. But for the 75% of all Americans who own a grill or a smoker, the Fourth is our Nation’s No. 1 holiday when it comes to grilling. Which is why 3 out of 4 of those folks will spend some time outside today working over a fire.

But here’s the thing: Though 14 million Americans can cook a steak with confidence because they actually grill something every week, the rest of us – because we use our grill or smoker so infrequently … Well, let’s just say that we have no chops when it comes to dealing with chops (pork, veal or otherwise).

So what’s a backyard chef supposed to in a situation like this when there’s so much at steak … er … stake? Turn to someone who really knows their way around a grill for advice. People like Jens Dahlmann, the Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef for Darden Restaurant’s LongHorn Steakhouse brand.

Given that Jens’ father & grandfather were chefs, this is a guy who literally grew up in a kitchen. In his teens & twenties, Dahlmann worked in hotels & restaurants all over Switzerland & Germany. Once he was classically trained in the culinary arts, Jens then  jumped ship. Well, started working on cruise ships, I mean.

Anyway … While working on Cunard’s Sea Goddess, Dahlmann met Sirio Maccioni, the founder of Le Cirque 2000. Sirio was so impressed with Jens’ skills in the kitchen that he offered him the opportunity to become sous-chef at this New York landmark. After four years of working in Manhattan, Dahlmann then headed south to become executive chef at Palm Beach’s prestigious Café L’Europe.

Jens Dahlmann back during his Disney World days

And once Jens began wowing foodies in Florida, it wasn’t all that long ’til the Mouse came a-calling. Mickey wanted Dahlmann to shake things up in the kitchen over at WDW’s Flying Fish Café. And he did such a good job with that Disney’s Boardwalk eatery the next thing Jens knew, he was then being asked to work his magic with the menu at the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill.

From there, Dahlmann had a relatively meteoric rise at the Mouse House. Once he became Epcot’s Food & Beverage general manager, it was only a matter of time before he wound up as the executive chef in charge of this theme park’s annual International Food & Wine Festival. Which – under Jens’ guidance – experienced some truly explosive growth.

“When I took on Food & Wine, that festival was only 35 days long and had gross revenues of just $5.5 million. When I left Disney in 2016, Food & Wine was now over 50 days long and that festival had gross revenues of $22 million,” Dahlmann admitted during a recent sit-down. “I honestly loved those 13 years I spent at Disney. When I was working there, I learned so much because I was really cooking for America.”

And it was exactly that sort of experience & expertise that Darden wanted to tap into when they lured Jens away from Mickey last year to become LongHorn Steakhouse’s new Vice President and Corporate Executive Chef. But today … Well, Dahlmann is offering tips to those of us who are thinking about cooking steak tips for the Fourth.

Photo by Jim Hill

“When you’re planning on grilling this holiday, if you’re looking for a successful result, the obvious place to start is with the quality of the meat you plan on cooking for your friends & family. If you want the best results here, don’t be cheap when you go shopping. Spend the money necessary for a fresh filet or a New York strip. Better yet a Ribeye, a nice thick one with good marbling. Because when you look at the marbling on a steak, that’s where all the flavor happens,” Jens explained. “That said, you always have to remember that — the higher you go with the quality of your meat — the less time you’re going to want that piece of meat to spend on the grill.”

And speaking of cooking … Before you even get started here, Jens suggests that you first take the time to check over all of your grilling equipment. Making sure that the grill itself is first scraped clean & then properly oiled before you then turn up the heat.

“If you’re working with a dirty grill, when you go to turn your meat, it may wind up sticking to the grill. Or maybe those spices that you’ve just so carefully coated your steak with will wind up sticking to the grill, rather than your meat,” Dahlmann continued. “Which is why it’s always worth it to spend a few minutes prior to firing up your grill properly cleaning & oiling it.”

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of heat … Again, before you officially get started grilling here, Jens says that it’s crucial to check your temperature gauges. Make sure that your char grill is set at 550 (so that it can then properly handle the thicker cuts of meat) and your flattop is set at 425 (so it can properly sear thinner pieces of meat).

Okay. Once you’ve bought the right cuts of quality meat, properly cleaned & oiled your grill, and then made sure that everything’s set at the right temperature (“If you can only stand to hold your hand directly over the grill for two or three seconds, that’s the right amount of heat,” Dahlmann said), it’s now time to season your steaks.

“Don’t be afraid to be bold here. You can’t be shy when it comes to seasoning your meat. You want to give it a nice coating. Largely because — if you’re using a char grill — a lot of that seasoning is just going to fall off anyway,” Jens stated. “It’s up to you to decide what sort of seasoning you want to use here. Even just some salt & pepper will enhance a steak’s flavor.”

Then – according to Dahlmann – comes the really tough part. Which is placing your meat on the grill and then fighting the urge to flip it too early or too often.

“The biggest mistake that a lot of amateur cooks make is that they flip the steak too many times. The real key to a well-cooked piece of meat is just let it be, “Jens insisted. “Of course, if you’re serving different cuts of meat at your Fourth of July feast, you always want to put your biggest thickest steak on the grill first. If you’re also cooking a New York Strip, you want to put that one on a few minutes later. But after that, just let the grill do its job and flip your meat a total of three or four times, once every three minutes or so.”

Of course, the last thing you want to do is overcook a quality piece of meat. Which is why Dahlmann suggests that – when it comes to grilling steaks – if you’re going to err, err on the side of undercooking.

“You can always put a piece of meat back on the grill if it’s slightly undercooked. When you over-cook something, all you can do then is start over with a brand-new piece of meat,” Jens said. “Just be sure that you’re using the correct cut of meat for the cooking result you’re aiming for. If someone wants a rare or medium rare steak, you should go with a thicker cut of steak. If one of your guests wants their steak cooked medium or well, it’s best to start with a thinner cut of meat.”

Photo by Jim Hill

As you can see, the folks at Longhorn take grilling steaks seriously. How seriously? Just last week at Darden Corporate Headquarters in Orlando, seven of these brand’s top grill masters (who – after weeks of regional competitions – had been culled from the 491 restaurants that make up this chain) competed for a $10,000 prize in the Company’s second annual Steak Master Series. And Dahlmann was one of the people who stood in Darden’s test kitchens, watching like a hawk as each of the contestants struggled to prepare six different dishes in just 20 minutes according to Longhorn Steakhouse‘s exacting standards.

“I love that Darden does this. Recognizing the best of the best who work this restaurant,” Jens concluded. “We have a lot of people here who are incredibly knowledgeable & passionate when it comes to grilling.”

Speaking of which … If today’s story doesn’t include the exact piece of info that you need to properly grill that T-bone, just whip out your iPhone & text GRILL to 55702. Or – better yet – visit  ExpertGriller.com prior to firing up your grill or smoker later today. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, July 4, 2017

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Brattleboro’s Strolling of the Heifers is a sincere if somewhat surreal way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont

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Some people travel halfway ‘around the planet so that they can then experience the excitement of the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona. If you’re more of a Slow Living enthusiast (as I am), then perhaps you should amble to Brattleboro, VT. Where – over the first weekend in June – you can then join a herd of cow enthusiasts at the annual Strolling of the Heifers.

Now in its 16th year, this three-day long event typically gets underway on Friday night in June with a combination block party / gallery walk. But then – come Saturday morning – Main Street in Brattleboro is lined with thousands of bovine fans.

Photo by Jim Hill

They’ve staked out primo viewing spots and set up camp chairs hours ahead of time. Just so these folks can then have a front row seat as this year’s crop of calves (which all come from local farms & 4-H clubs) are paraded through the streets.

Photo by Jim Hill

Viewed from curbside, Strolling of the Heifers is kind of this weird melding of a sincere small town celebration and Pasadena’s Doo Dah Parade. Meaning that – for every entry that actually acknowledged this year’s theme (i.e. “Dance to the Moosic”) — …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something completely random, like this parade’s synchronized shopping cart unit.

Photo by Jim Hill

And for every piece of authentic Americana (EX: That collection of antique John Deere tractors that came chugging through the city) …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there was something silly. Like – say – a woman dressed as a Holstein pushing a baby stroller through the streets. And riding in that stroller was a pig dressed in a tutu.

Photo by Jim Hill

And given that this event was being staged in the Green Mountain State & all … Well, does it really surprise you to learn that — among the groups that marched in this year’s Strolling of the Heifers – was a group of eco-friendly folks who, with their  chants of “We’re Number One !,” tried to persuade people along the parade route not to flush the toilet after they pee. Because – as it turns out – urine can be turned into fertilizer.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of fertilizer … At the tail end of the parade, there was a group of dedicated volunteers who were dealing with what came out of the tail end of all those cows.

Photo by Jim Hill

This year’s Strolling of the Heifers concluded at the Brattleboro town common. Where event attendees could then get a closer look at some of the featured units in this year’s parade…

Photo by Jim Hill

… or perhaps even pet a few of the participants.

Photo by Jim Hill

But as for the 90+ calves who took part in the 2017 edition of Strolling of the Heifers, once they reached the town common, it was now time for a nosh or a nap.

Photo by Jim Hill

Elsewhere on the common, keeping with this year’s “Dance to the Moosic” theme, various musical groups performed in & around the gazebo throughout the afternoon.

Photo by Jim Hill

While just across the way – keeping with Brattleboro’s tradition of showcasing the various artisans who live & work in the local community – some pretty funky pieces were on display at the Slow Living Exposition.

Photo by Jim Hill

All in all, attending Strolling of the Heifers is a somewhat surreal but still very pleasant way to spend a summer’s day in Vermont. And that’s no bull.

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, that could be a bull. To be honest, what with the wig & all, it’s kind of hard to tell. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Sunday, June 4, 2017

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Looking to make an authentic Irish meal for Saint Patrick’s Day? If so, then chef Kevin Dundon says not to cook corned beef & cabbage

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Let’s at least start on a positive note: Celebrated chef, author & TV personality Kevin Dundon – the man that Tourism Ireland has repeatedly chosen as the Face of Irish Food – loves a lot of what happens in the United States on March 17th.

“I mean, look at what they do in Chicago on Saint Patrick’s Day. They toss all of this vegetable-based dye into the Chicago River and then paint it green for a day. That’s terrific,” Kevin said.

But then when it comes to what many Americans eat & drink on St. Paddy’s Day (i.e., a big plate of corned beef and cabbage. Which is then washed down with a mug of green beer) … Well, that’s where Dundon has to draw the line.

Irish celebrity chef Kevin Dundon displays a traditional Irish loin of bacon with Colcannon potatoes and a Dunbrody Kiss chocolate dessert. Photo by Tom Burton. Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Green beer? No real Irishman would be caught dead drinking that stuff,” Kevin insists. “And as for eating corned beef & cabbage … That’s not actually authentic Irish fare either. Bacon and cabbage? Sure. But corned beef & cabbage was something that the Irish only began eating after they’d come to the States to escape the Famine. And even then these Irish-Americans only began serving corned beef & cabbage to their friends & family because they had to make do with the ingredients that were available to them at that time.”

And thus begins the strange tale of how corned beef & cabbage came to be associated with the North American celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day celebration. Because – according to Dundon – beef just wasn’t all that big a part of the Irish diet back in the 19th century.

To explain: Back in the Old Country, cattle – while they were obviously highly prized for the milk & cheese that they produced – were also beasts of burden. Meaning that they were often used for ploughing the fields or for hauling heavy loads. Which is why – back then — these animals were rarely slaughtered when they were still young & healthy. If anything, land owners liked to put a herd of cattle on display out in one of their pastures because that was then a sign to their neighbors that this farm was prosperous.

“Whereas pork … Well, everybody raised pigs back then. Which is why pork was a staple of the Irish diet rather than beef,” Dundon continued.

So if that’s what people actually ate back in the Old Country, how then did corned beef & cabbage come to be so strongly associated with Saint Patrick’s Day in the States.? That largely had to do with where the Irish wound up living after they arrived in the New World.

“When the Irish first arrived in America following the Great Famine, a lot of them wound up living in the inner city right alongside the Germans & the Jews, who were also recent immigrants to the States. And while that farm-fresh pork that the Irish loved wasn’t readily available, there was brisket. Which the Irish could then cure by first covering this piece of meat with corn kernel-sized pieces of rock salt – that’s how it came to be called corned beef. Because of the sizes of the pieces of rock salt that were used in the curing process – and then placing all that in a pot of water with other spices to soak for a few days.”

And as for the cabbage portion of corned beef & cabbage … Well, according to Kevin, in addition to buying their meat from the kosher delis in their neighborhood, the Irish would also frequent the stores that the German community shopped in. Where – thanks to their love of sauerkraut (i.e., pickled cabbage) – there was always a ready supply of cabbage to be had.

“So when you get right down to it, it was the American melting pot that led to corned beef & cabbage being found in the Irish-American cooking pot,” Dundon continued. “Since they couldn’t find or didn’t have easy access to the exact same ingredients that they had back in Ireland, Irish-Americans made do with what they could find in the immediate vicinity. And what they made was admittedly tasty. But it’s not actually authentic Irish fare.”

Mind you, what Kevin serves at Raglan Road Irish Pub and Restaurant at Disney Springs (which – FYI – Orlando Magazine voted as the area’s best restaurant back in 2014) is nothing if not authentic. Dundon and his team at this acclaimed gastropub pride themselves on making traditional Irish fare and then contemporized it.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

“Take – for example – what we serve here instead of corned beef & cabbage. Again, because it was pork – rather than beef – that was the true staple of the Irish diet back then, what we offer instead is a loin of bacon that has been glazed with Irish Mist. That then comes with colcannon potatoes. Which is this traditional Irish dish that’s made up of mashed potato that have had some cabbage & bacon mixed through it,” Kevin enthused. “This heavenly ham – that’s what we actually call this traditional Irish dish at Raglan Road, Kevin’s Heavenly Ham – also includes some savory cabbage with a parsley cream sauce as well as a raisin cider jus. It’s simple food. But because of the basic ingredients – and that’s the real secret of Irish cuisine. That our ingredients are so strong – the flavors just pop off the plate.”

Which brings us to the real challenge that Dundon and the Raglan Road team face every day. Making sure that they actually have all of the ingredients necessary to make this traditional-yet-contemporized Irish fare to those folks who frequent this Walt Disney World favorite.

“Take – for example – the fish we serve here. We only used cold water fish. Salmon, mussels and haddock that have been hauled out of the Atlantic, the ocean that America and Ireland share,” Kevin stated. “Not that there’s anything wrong with warm water fish. It’s just that … Well, it doesn’t have the same structure. It’s a softer fish, which doesn’t really fit the parameters of Irish cuisine. And if you’re going to serve authentic food, you have to be this dedicated when it comes to sourcing your ingredients.

Copyright Mitchell Beazley. All rights reserved

And if you’re thinking of perhaps trying to serve an authentic Irish meal this year, rather than once again serving corned beef & cabbage at your Saint Patrick’s Day Feast … Well, back in September of last year, Mitchell Beazley published “The Raglan Road Cookbook: Inside America’s Favorite Irish Pub.” This 296-page hardcover not only includes the recipe for Kevin’s Heavenly Ham but also it tells the tale of how this now-world-renown restaurant wound up being built in Orlando.

On the other hand, if you happen to have to the luck of the Irish and are actually down at The Walt Disney World Resort right now, it’s worth noting that Raglan Road is right in the middle of its Mighty St. Patrick’s Day Festival. This four day-long event – which includes Irish bands and professional dancers – stretches through Sunday night. And in addition to all that authentic Irish fare that Dundon and his team are cooking up, you also sample the fine selection of beers & cocktails that this establishment’s four distinct antique bars (each of which are more than 130 years old and were imported directly from Ireland) will be serving. Just – As ucht Dé (That’s “For God’s Sake” in Gaelic) – don’t make the mistake of asking the bartender there for a mug of green beer.

“Why would anyone willingly drink something like that?,” Dundon laughed. “I mean, just imagine what their washroom will look like the morning after.”

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Friday, March 17, 2017

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