Leta Powell Drake hasn’t lost a step. In fact, at 82, she hasn’t even retired. In Drake’s adopted home state of Nebraska, you can catch her hosting Live & Learn — a monthly program on public television focusing on senior issues — which represents the concluding chapters of one of the greatest broadcasting careers in Cornhusker history.
After all, Drake was once Kalamity Kate, a rodeo bombshell with Rapunzel-length braids, who looked after boys and girls on Cartoon Corral, a Lincoln-based kids show that ran on the city’s CBS affiliate between 1967 and 1980. At the same time, Drake hosted and produced the channel’s morning show, filmed countless commercials and was a regular player at Lincoln’s community playhouse.
Drake has also written a memoir, acted in movies, chaired committees at her alma mater and was inducted into both the Nebraska Broadcasters Hall of Fame and the Nebraska Press Women’s Hall of Fame. She’s been a permanent fixture of Lincoln’s local color — celebrated in that quirky weatherman kind of way — earning her sainthood with the city ages ago, and reaping the rewards ever since.
But now — for the first time in her life — Drake is famous outside of Nebraska. It all started when Twitter user John Frankensteiner posted a supercut that collects some of the sassiest moments from her years of interviewing celebrities for that aforementioned morning show.
His tweet immediately went nuclear, tallying more than 35,000 retweets, as the world was briefly mesmerized by a Nebraska anchor serving up vintage Diane Sawyer-level hardballs. (“I can’t stop laughing,” offered Mara Wilson. “She’s the real world Jiminy Glick,” said another.) All of those clips are archived on YouTube — she produced 260 interview segments in total — and each of them reveal Drake’s ability to ruthlessly disarm her subjects with an overpowering cocktail of flair, flirtiness and good-natured ad hominem.
She sits in a drab, homely interview set, a twirl of electric blonde hair on her head, as she gently accosts Roy Scheider. “Have you ever seen eyes like this?” she says, commanding the cameraman to slowly zoom in on his increasingly agitated face. “You see that ring around the outer edge of the eye?”
Later, Drake is with Elliott Gould, who is dressed in an inexplicable USA-branded tracksuit. Drake rests her hand on his knee, and says, with a one-of-a-kind cheerful depredation, “You don’t consider yourself a good actor, do you?” (Gould stares directly into the lens with a mute, frightened guffaw painted across his face.)
Now she’s joined by an immaculately furry Tom Selleck — riding high in his dirtbag cowboy heyday — and she immediately interrogates him on his decision to pass up Raiders of the Lost Ark. “I wouldn’t turn it down,” says Selleck, with a slight wince, as he realized that the temperature of his junket had been turned up a few uncomfortable notches.
Drake tells me she has no idea why that clip caught on, or how those old interviews even made it to the internet. “Four point four million people have seen it! How on earth? I’m stunned,” she tells me. “It’s fun in a way, but it’s just so puzzling.” Drake is in her eighth decade and has just been made aware of a strange truth of the 21st century: You can work for over 50 years in the media, and still somehow peak after a single tweet.
Drake is originally from Duluth, Minnesota. She earned her bachelor’s degree as a U of M Golden Gopher and drove her 1938 Plymouth down to Lincoln to pursue a Master of Arts in Theater at the University of Nebraska. She tells me that her long-term goal was to eventually relocate to New York to be a Broadway star, but naturally, life got in the way. “All of a sudden there was a guy. And a marriage, and a baby, and then you’re kind of stuck,” she says. “I got rid of the guy about five years later, but I held onto the baby.” (Her son now works in China, Shandong Province to be exact. He doesn’t yet know that his mom is internationally famous.)
Drake started working at Lincoln’s CBS affiliate KOLN while she was in school, on children’s programming, before eventually branching out across the rest of the network. Drake was thoroughly underpaid throughout those years — making about $25 a day — and from her tone, I can tell that she’s still a little resentful about that shortchanging all these decades later. Remember, this was the Ron Burgundy news business of the 1970s; to that point, Drake says that she was often the only woman in the studio.
An environment like that can make you extremely cognizant of the glass ceiling, and so, she felt a consistent obligation to make sure that the little girls who loved Kalamity Kate knew that they could always aim higher. In particular, Drake remembers one elementary-aged Nebraskan who visited the Cartoon Corral set and told her, in no uncertain terms, that she wished to grow up to be a stewardess. “I said, ‘Why don’t you be the pilot!’ She said, ‘Girls don’t fly airplanes,’” continues Drake. “I said, ‘I’m a licensed pilot. I’m a female. You can fly a plane!’ She looked at me like I was speaking Portuguese.”
By the 1980s, Drake started making routine trips to Hollywood and Manhattan to conduct the interviews that are notorious today. She’s having the time of her life in each — that’s clear in the archive — and I think that’s why they caught fire. Drake is a dynamo, and the Tinseltown royalty she confronted could barely keep up with her momentum. Watching them in 2020 forces you to accept that stardom was so much more fun, filthy and loose before the panoptical paranoia of the internet set in.
Ironically, Drake’s segments are fascinating because they were produced for a provincial outfit in a flyover state during an age where the superstar class never worried about a stray quote metastasizing through Twitter. Celebrity interviews are a staid, dead art now, and these relics from Nebraska local television brings to mind an aeon where people were a little less guarded. Still, Drake’s reporting skills are timeless; anyone in this field should be taking notes. She has a preternatural ability to be entirely unintimidated by the beautiful people in the room, and a steadfast, too-often-forgotten faith that movie stars shouldn’t be taken too seriously.
“They lined up all of the stars, and I felt so sorry for them. They’d go from me, to the next person, to the next person. So I think because my questions were a little more off-balance than the standard, ‘Tell us about your life,’” says Drake, “I got good responses. But those trips were a hard three days for everybody. We worked really hard, and then we’d take the tapes back to our studio in Nebraska.”
Like many reporters of her generation, Drake has gathered an astonishing gallery of anecdotes from her weekly brushes with fame. The best interview she ever did, she asserts, was with James Earl Jones, who stopped by to promote his short-lived police procedural, Paris. There is a moment during their chat, where Drake sensuously taps the gap between Jones’ two front teeth. They then lock eyes and discuss the Canterbury Tales. The vibes are overwhelming. “When we started to talk, boy did we connect,” she laughs. “After the interview, he called me and wanted to have dinner. I was like, ‘Oh, this is going too far now.’” Drake told Jones that she already made dinner plans with the crew, letting him down easy.
Drake moved on from network television in 1989. She took a job with Nebraska Public TV, which meant that her roasts of basic cable stars were firmly in the rearview mirror. (To this day, Drake says she prefers government broadcasting to the corporate stuff. She just hates sitting through commercials.)
Either way, when all is said and done, Drake will be responsible for a peerless, 60-year legacy, as well as a funny meme that burned up the timeline for a few days during the listless void of a global pandemic. That is the way the internet disseminates identity; we excise all the struggles, contexts and gradations of someone’s life and end up with a two-minute supercut of a few wacky moments. That’s not a criticism of Frankensteiner’s illuminating tweet at all, but the more I learned about Drake, the more it became clear that she possessed an interiority that will be mostly unrecognized by the people who are just now getting to know her. In 2020, you can simultaneously be a groundbreaking local reporter in an oppressive industry, and an eccentric kook dressing down Kurt Russell in a Twitter video. What a strange fate.
Still, the more substantive elements of Drake’s estate speak for themselves. Today, when she looks around the studio, she tends to see more women than men. They’re directing, running the cameras, hoisting the boom mics and producing the broadcast schedule. It’s a completely different environment from where Drake started. Sometimes, it almost makes her jealous. “I wish I was a part of that in my era,” she says, before again repeating, “I was frequently the only woman around who was involved.”
At 82, Leta Drake is finally getting her 15 minutes of fame. But nobody can besmirch the groundwork she’s already laid out. That will stand the test of time. In fact, it already has.