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Staying in Shapely

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Postwar pinup girls like Betty Grable and Jayne Mansfield used to have to camp out in grease-stained garages or on the insides of lockers. But though she too donned form-fitting leotards, fishnet stockings, and stiletto heels, Cleveland workout queen Paige Palmer was invited to stroll right into the living room and boss everybody around.

"Stretch, pull, and back," she'd say, smiling for the television camera as her stable of pasty young women on exercise mats tried to keep up. "Keep that head up . . . that's what I want. Now, let's rock on our tummies." The music would shift from the rollicking strains of "Sailing, Sailing," to the nursery-rhyme tinklings of "Lightly Row," and Palmer would work the room, stopping to correct improper posture or adjust an untucked derriere.

While Jack Lalanne was still busy lifting dames with one finger on Muscle Beach, and Richard Simmons had yet to acquire the tonnage that would so famously melt away, Palmer was fighting the war on flab with a fresh coat of lipstick and ten deep knee-bends. Today her hygienic legacy is being reconsidered in an exhibit at Kent State University, Panache: Paige Palmer--A Salute to Fifty Years of Fashion and Fitness. Visitors can thrill to vintage workouts preserved on film, scores of photographs--even a paper bikini she once wore to Tahiti.

Palmer, whose weekday show ran on WEWS-TV/Channel 5 in Cleveland from 1948 to 1973, was considered television's first physical fitness celebrity. The winner of a national Perfect Girl Figure Contest in 1937, she appeared on closed-circuit TV screens in New York department stores during the early 1940s, demonstrating how to drape the scarves, sold as fabric during war rationing, into halter tops.

"Nobody knew what they were doing," recalls Palmer, now in her eighties and semi-retired in Bath, though still working as a freelance writer. "They rode the camera like a horse. It was new, tempers flared, and I never thought I would stay in the business." After moving back to Ohio, though, she started a charm school in Akron and pitched a fitness and beauty show to WEWS. The cameras rolled the next day, and soon thousands of women were hanging on her every word and loose thread.

"False eyelashes had just come out, so I had false eyelashes on one morning, and, well, the phone rang off the hook," she recalls. "They're sitting at home in their robes--they didn't want me to be dressed. Or they'd call if I had a hole in my stocking. I had to be very careful, because they watched everything; they were sitting close to the TV, because they were exercising on the floor." She received enough letters every week to keep a staff of three busy opening them. "One lady wrote in to say she had two fried eggs with a strip of bacon in between . . . [and] what could she do about it?"

But life wasn't all makeup and high heels. "I had all these crazy things I had to do," Palmer says, like delivering milk in her little black bodysuit to startled housewives (a promotion for Hillside Dairy). Since commercials on The Paige Palmer Show aired live--and Palmer starred in them--she'd have to slip into a skirt as she raced across the set to promote Sta-Fit diet drink or Imperial Margarine (for that one, she'd also have to slap on a crown).

Men wrote in to the show, too, grateful that they didn't have to go to the grocery store to gape at a pair of thighs--or a bunch of young butts in the air, shot by a cameraman who showed no mercy. Palmer acknowledges the program's T&A appeal, but insists she wore the high heels for health reasons: "When you have the shoes on, it's like having a weight on, to stretch the legs as far as they could go," she notes. Yeah, and fishnet tights breathe well.

--Putre

Panache: Paige Palmer--A Salute to Fifty Years of Fashion and Fitness, in an extended run at the Kent State University Fashion Museum, Rockwell Hall, corner of South Lincoln and East Main streets in Kent. Admission is $5. Call 330-672-3450.

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