Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Drake the Flake

It should come as no surprise to most film buffs that there is sometimes a dark side to the business of doing business after dark. While some saw the Biograph Theatre (1972-87) as a beacon in the night, for others it was a place to hide out from a sad reality. Like any business, sometimes things just went wrong.

Although nearly everyone who worked at the Biograph was on the up-and-up, there were a couple of rotten apples that weren’t. Since, as the manager I hired both of them, I have to take the blame there. But that’s another story.

A man in his early-30s died watching a movie called "FIST." He breathed his last sitting in a seat in the small auditorium. The movie was bad, but not that bad. His face was expressionless, he just expired. As the rescue squad guys were shooting jolts of electricity into his heart, and his body was flopping around like a fish out of water on Theater No. 2’s floor, down in Theater No. 1 "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was on the screen delighting its usual crowd of costumed screwballs.

There was a night someone fired five shots of high-powered ammo through one of the back exits into Theatre No. 1. The bullets came through the two quarter-inch steel plates that formed the door to splinter seats. Amazingly, no one was hit. It happened just as the crowd was exiting the auditorium, about 11:30 p.m. and I don’t think anyone even caught on to what was happening. It was never determined why it happened.

A rat died in the Coca-Cola drain once and clogged it up. Havoc ensued when I poured a powerful drain clearing liquid -- we called it Tampax Dynamite -- into the problem, not knowing about the rat. Well, it started bubbling and backing up to erupt into a horrible flooding mess that smelled wretched!

Then there was Drake the Flake, who was banned from the Biograph for life in 1972. Then 20 years later he turned up in California as a serial killer. Supposedly, Drake, who always had fancied himself as an actor, had made up a long list of people he intended to pay back. He had gotten to only six of them when, as the cops closed in on him, he took his own life. Drake wore grease paint on his face when he committed his murders.

It seems Woody Drake's childhood was straight out of a horror movie. He was always a problem to those around him. The photo above ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on November 16, 1992. What follows are excerpts of a piece I wrote for SLANT in December 1992:

"...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 [1992]. 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 for life.

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 Lynwood Drake III, 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 Woody Drakes of the world..."

Yes, we do.

The assembly line for such monsters runs usually through their homes. Woody Drake liked to beat up women. After I threw him out of the Biograph and he disappeared, several people told us about various females he had hurt. His last act before he shot himself to death was to whack a 60-year-old former landlady in her head with a blackjack.

She lived to tell her story.

-- 30 --

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