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'History Detectives' probes origins of slide found by Severna Park woman

From her push-up bra to her square-cut bangs, the woman in the photograph is somehow both squeaky-clean and, in a sexual sense, a little bit dirty.

Her undergarments are crafted from black lace. She's wearing 7-inch platform heels and an utterly unforced smile. She's bending forward, but not too far. Her arms are held behind her at an awkward angle as if her wrists are bound.

When Claire Sharp of Severna Park fished the slide from the pocket of an old suitcase last year, she immediately recognized the subject as Bettie Page, the 1950s pinup queen. Sharp and her discovery will be featured Tuesday night on PBS as "The History Detectives" begins its 10th season.

"I put the slide in an old projector that had belonged to my mother," says the 44-year-old Sharp, who for two decades has been collecting old suitcases. "The slide showed up as a negative and I thought, 'Oh, my dear, this could be something.'"

Sharp wondered whether she might be holding one of the lost negatives from the studio of Irving Klaw, a filmmaker who also ran a thriving mail-order business of risque photographs. To avoid a possible jail sentence in 1957 on a charge of mailing obscene materials, Klaw, who was labeled America's "Smut King," agreed to burn his bondage and pinup negatives. About 80 percent of his images were destroyed.

But Klaw's sister, Paula — who shot most of the photographs — secreted away several negatives, and Sharp couldn't help speculating that she might have found one of them.

Sharp's husband, Brian Lutz, had purchased the suitcase for $20 about seven years ago at the Crumpton Auctions. Sharp now owns about 13 vintage pieces of luggage, using them for decoration and storage.

"When my son was about 3, he decided that booster seats were for babies," Sharp says. "So we put this on his chair instead."

The day came last year when young Jack really was too big for a booster. So, over her morning coffee, Sharp took a long-overdue look inside.

"There were maybe 100 old slides inside," she says.

"Most were of a safety nature, as if for a PowerPoint presentation. There were people falling off ladders, running away from fires, things like that. This slide was the very last one I pulled out. It was kind of like it was hidden in the back. As soon as I saw the bangs and the pose, I knew the woman was Bettie Page."

The couple are big fans of "History Detectives," and Lutz suggested that Sharp write to the show's producers to see whether they could track down the slide's provenance.

"I thought it was a cute story, but I didn't know if they'd be interested in Bettie Page," she says. Most of the other story lines on the show are about baseball or American presidents or war. I didn't know if they'd be into '50s retro pop culture."

Certainly, the odds were against her.

Gwendolyn Wright, a Columbia University professor and one of the experts in the rotating pool of "History Detectives," says that just a few of the pitches that producers receive make it on the air.

"People come to us with about 1,000 potential stories a year, and we broadcast between 20 and 40 per season," she says.

"We reject stories because they don't open up any leads that we can follow. Or we'll reject stories that may be historically interesting but are so text-based that they can't be told visually. They have to have complexity and excitement, what I call the 'So what? factor.' We want stories that ask questions about American life."

Producers were intrigued by Sharp's find, Wright says, because the saga of Page and the Klaws unfolded as the U.S. courts were struggling to craft the nation's first legal definition of pornography.

And though "The History Detectives" may reject a project because the answer to a mystery can't be found, Wright says the show never throws out a story just because the answer that investigators found won't please the artifact's owners.

"We're always telling people on the air that they're wrong," she says.

"They might think that their family members were deeply involved in some important event, and we tell them that they had nothing to do with it. I think it's unusual in American television to have that kind of open-endedness. Not everything on 'The History Detectives' gets tied up with a bow."

In Sharp's case, it turns out that the slide wasn't exactly what she and her husband initially thought it might be. But the little square of cardboard and celluloid turns out to be surprising and informative in a wholly unexpected way.

As it happens, it's not a negative; it's a copy of a 3-D slide, according to Ira Kramer, Klaw's nephew, who ran a family-owned shop, Movie Star News, for 36 years.

He says on "The History Detectives" that he'd never seen Page in that particular pose before. As far as he knows, it's one of just two images that exist from a photo shoot with Paula Klaw that Page made late in her career.

"I'm not disappointed at all that it's not a lost negative," Sharp says.

"It's the end of a legacy, a wonderful piece of history that's been hidden away. The slide is something we're going to hold onto for a long time."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

'The History Detectives'

"The History Detectives" starts its 10th season at 8 p.m. Tuesday on MPT, channels 22/67. The episode featuring Claire Sharp of Severna Park is at 9 p.m.

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