Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Woody Drake's Yearbook Picture

On Nov. 8, 1992, the revenge-driven crime spree ended as the man I remembered as Drake the Flake blew out his brains with a .32 caliber revolver. In the 11 hours before taking his own life Lynwood C. "Woody" Drake III had shot and killed six people, wounded a seventh and beaten a former landlady with a blackjack.

It had been over 20 years since I saw him last; it was in the lobby of the movie theater I then managed, the Biograph Theatre. Still, when I saw the AP photo of him in the Richmond Times-Dispatch 27 years ago, Drake was instantly recognizable.

More about Woody Drake later, but it should come as no surprise to most film buffs that sometimes there is a dark side to the business of doing business after the sun goes down. Some saw the Biograph (1972-87) as a movie-themed clubhouse. For others it was a place to hide from reality. So, like any business, sometimes unexpected things happened; sometimes things just went wrong.


There were crazy, street people who would sometimes cause trouble. Although nearly everyone who worked at the Biograph during my almost-12-year-stint as its manager was on the up-and-up, there were a couple of rotten apples. As I hired both of them, I have to take the blame there. But those are stories for another time.

Then there were the customers. One man died in the Biograph. His last seconds spent among the living were spent watching "FIST" (1978), starring Sylvester Stallone, in an aisle seat in the small auditorium -- Theatre No. 2.

Yes, the movie was bad, but who knew it was THAT bad?

At the time I was 30 years old. The dean man was about my age. His man 's face was expressionless. His eyes were open. As the rescue squad guys shot jolts of electricity into his heart, his body flopped around on the floor like a fish out of water. Meanwhile, down in Theater No. 1 "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was on the screen delighting its usual crowd of costumed screwballs.

There was the night someone fired five shots of high-powered ammo through one of the back door exits into Theatre No. 1. Five bullets came through the door's two quarter-inch steel plates to splinter seats. This all happened just as the crowd was exiting the auditorium, at about 11:30 p.m. It seemed no one caught on to what was happening. Amazingly, no one was hit. Later the police were baffled, leaving us to speculate as to why it happened.

Another night, a rat died in the Coca-Cola drain and clogged it up. Not knowing about the rat, and thinking I knew what to do to clear the clogged drain, I poured a powerful drain-clearing liquid -- we called it "Tampax Dynamite" -- directly into the problem.

Soon a foul-smelling liquid started bubbling and backing up all over the lobby's carpet. A flooding mess ensued. It ran everybody out of there on a busy Saturday night. We had to replace the carpet.


Back to Drake: The news stories reported that Drake, who fancied himself as an actor, had compiled a long list of people he intended to pay back, someday. Drake wore theatrical grease paint on his face when he committed his murders. As the cops were closing in on him Drake punched his own ticket to hell.

From what I found out Drake's childhood was straight out of a horror movie. Apparently he was always a problem to those around him. The photo above -- it was a publicity shot he used to apply for work as an actor -- ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 16, 1992. What follows are excerpts of a piece I wrote for SLANT a couple of weeks later.
...The November 16th edition of the Richmond Times-Dispatch carried Mark Holmberg's sad and sensational story of Woody Drake. As usual, Holmberg did a good job with a bizarre subject. In case you missed the news: Lynwood Drake, who grew up in Richmond, murdered six people in California on November 8. Then he turned the gun on himself. His tortured suicide note cited revenge as the motive.
An especially troubling aspect of Holmberg's account was that those Richmonders who remembered the 43 year old Drake weren't at all surprised at the startling news. Nor was I. My memory of the man goes back to the early days of the Biograph Theatre (1972). At the time I managed the West Grace Street cinema. So the unpleasant task of dealing with Drake fell to me.
Owing to his talent for nuisance, the staff dubbed him 'Drake the Flake.' Although he resembled many of the hippie-style hustlers of the times, it was his ineptness at putting over the scam that set him apart. Every time he darkened our door there was trouble. If he didn't try to beat us out of the price of admission or popcorn, there would be a problem in the auditorium. And without fail, his ruse would be transparent. Then, when confronted, he'd go into a fit of denial that implied a threat.

Eventually that led to the incident in Shafer Court (on VCU's campus) when he choked a female student [Susan Kuney] who worked at the Biograph.
That evening he showed up at the theater to see the movie, just like nothing had happened. Shoving his way past those in line, he demanded to be admitted next.
An argument ensued that became the last straw. Drake the Flake was physically removed from the building, tossed onto Grace Street, and banned from the Biograph.
The next day, Drake made his final appearance at the Biograph. He ran in through the lobby's exit doors and issued a finger-pointing death threat to your narrator. Although I tried to act unruffled by the incident, it made me more than a little uncomfortable. In spite of the anger of his words, there was an emptiness in his eyes. In that moment he had pulled me into his world. It was scary and memorable.
Using a fine turn of phrase, Holmberg suggested that, "Whatever poisoned the heart of Woody Drake happened in Richmond..."
If you want more evidence of the origins of the poisoning, take the time to look him up in his high school yearbooks (Thomas Jefferson 1967/68). Pay particular attention to the odd expression in his eyes. Looking at Drake’s old yearbook photos reminded me of a line in the movie 'Silence of the Lambs.' In reference to the serial-killer who was being sought by the FBI throughout the film, Dr. Lechter (a psychiatrist turned murderer himself) tells an investigator that such a man is not born; he is created.
There is no doubt in my mind. Someone close to Woody Drake, when he was a child, systematically destroyed his soul. So while we can avert our eyes from the painful truth, we basically know where the poison is administered to the Drake the Flakes of the world.
Yes, we do. The assembly line for such monsters runs through their homes. The story went that Drake liked to beat up women. After I literally threw him out of the Biograph and he disappeared, several people told us stories about various females he had hurt.

Shortly before Drake ended his wretched life, he woke up a 60-year-old woman by smacking her in the head with a blackjack. She scrambled to hide under her bed and lived to tell the story.

-- 30 --

Saturday, February 09, 2019

Looking Before Leaping Still Pays in 2019

On Friday, February 1, Virginia's blackface scandal dropped on the Governor's Mansion (pictured above) like a bomb from the sky. On social media the calls for Gov. Ralph Northam to resign erupted so quickly it almost suggested that some of those expressing their outrage had been poised to pounce.

To those demanding Northam's departure from the Governor's Mansion, immediately, it seemed the existence of the now infamous photograph of two costumed people posing – one in blackface, the other in a white-robed, masked KKK get-up – was sufficient to close the book on Northam's term in office. No need to hear the governor's explanation.

To make matters worse, on Saturday afternoon Gov. Northam stood before the gathered press to awkwardly withdraw a significant aspect of what had been his Friday night apology. Without fully explaining why he had originally admitted to being one of the two pictured in the 1984 photo, he claimed he had determined (through a tortured process) that he had been wrong to say he was in that snapshot ... because he wasn't.

When Northam went on to volunteer that in 1984 he had indeed painted his face black for a dance contest costume in Texas, well, it did little to rescue the moment for him. Watching that bizarre presser was simultaneously stunning and laughable. To say the governor's panic-driven alibi strained credulity is an understatement.

Looking at all-star photographer Jay Paul's telling photos of the reactions in the room, it seemed even the jaded working press was aghast. Afterward, there were way more questions than there had been before Northam steeped before the microphones. Therefore, at that point, man oh man, I was sure Northam's goose was cooked.

Now I have to say maybe I was wrong. Furthermore, maybe a lot of us in Virginia should stop rushing to pronounce our judgments cooked up by Facebook feeding frenzies.

Democrats who had seemed rather delighted with the prospect of Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax ascending to the governor's position were then sucker-punched by the sexual assault charge that surfaced against him. Those who wondered, what the hell could be next? got their answer in the form of Atty. Gen. Mark Herring's bewildering and somewhat tardy admission that he'd worn a blackface costume in his college days.

For me, that was when it all began to feel surreal. Then came another charge against Fairfax from a second woman. This time it was rape. With that thickening of the plot, it seemed Fairfax might turn out to be the first big shot Democratic politician to walk the plank.

Meanwhile, a week later, it's looking like Northam is still determined to try to ride it out. At least he hasn't been charged with a crime. One thing for sure, there's no template, no playbook, to guide him or any of us.

So who knows? Crazy as it might sound, once the dust settles maybe we'll be in a better place. How could that be?

Maybe by then we'll have learned more about the racism in Virginia (and elsewhere) that's still festering below the surface. The racism that, by habit, too many white people conveniently ignore. I know I've thought more about the cruelty of blackface than ever before. Seeing its shameful place in the Jim Crow era, rather than dwelling on its strange place – fetishistic? – in show business history, was edifying for me. Maybe for others, too.

On top of that, we Virginians may also have caught an instructive glimpse of what might be wrought by living angry and outraged all the time, with zero tolerance and no sense of proportionality.

Obviously, we need to hear the plain truth from these office holders, ASAP. Let's see what additional background information emerges and let's see how each of them handles his own fitness crisis. At this point, I'll withhold my demands. Instead, I'll try to use what I've learned to see each development more clearly for what it is in its context.

Bottom line: Yes, dear reader, it still pays to look before leaping.

-- 30 --