In the world of celebrity interviewers, softball questions are often the coin of the realm. And then there’s Leta Powell Drake, who was the longtime program director of Lincoln, Neb. CBS station KOLN-TV and for 21 years the producer and host of its “Morning Show.” In the ’70s and ’80s, she interviewed some of the most famous names in entertainment with an approach that combined the charm of Mary Hart, the enthusiasm of Jiminy Glick, and the bluntness of Mike Wallace. It left many of her subjects staring wide-eyed into the camera, it’s impossible to imagine today, and it must be seen to be believed.
From asking “Splash” star Tom Hanks “How do you kiss underwater without bubbles coming out of your nose and mouth?” to telling Gene Hackman “You’ve done some brilliant pictures, you’ve done some stinkers” (“Really,” he replies mildly), Drake has all the panache of Zach Galifianakis on “Between Two Ferns.” Only here, the celebrities are clearly not in on the joke, because Drake isn’t making one.
A member of the Nebraska Broadcasters Hall of Fame, Drake started her TV career in 1956 as the “Bingo Girl” on a live Bingo show. Four years later she became the KOLN/KGIN-TV program director; Nebraska kids who grew up as Gen X remember her as the character of Kalamity Kate, who hosted the network’s “Cartoon Corral” from 1967 to 1982.
However, thanks to the viral sprawl of the internet, she may be best known as the fearless celebrity interrogator who never got the memo that interviewers can’t tell celebrities what they really think. (“Do you have any regrets about not going into the series “MASH”? she asks Elliott Gould, who starred in the 1970 film as Trapper John McIntyre. “No? They’ve all made a fortune, Elliott.”)
The 83-year-old Drake is now retired and lives in Lincoln, but her take-no-prisoners style is still evident. When she answered the phone, she immediately said that she doesn’t talk to telemarketers. “I’m just skeptical about anyone who calls anymore,” she said.
Drake has a Twitter account that’s rarely used, so her current fame was completely unknown to her. “I interviewed so many people so long ago,” she said. “I had the opportunity to go to New York, and I did lots of interviews and I kept them. I did work accumulating and I finally put them into the Nebraska History Museum because I thought somebody would be interested. Apparently, someone must have!”
How did she develop her unique interview style? “Well, I’m noisy!” she said. However, she said she also proved her serious knowledge about her subjects. “If I got the names of the people that I was going to interview, I actually did my homework. I had to work really hard so that I knew what I was talking about and I felt very confident about it. The people that I did [talk to], a lot of movie stars and television stars, appreciated the fact that I had their background. It wasn’t approaching them and saying, ‘Tell us about your lifestyle.’”
Did any of them get uncomfortable? “On occasion, that happened, if I would ask a sensitive question that they didn’t want to answer,” she said. “But I would try and get around it somehow.”
Drake started her broadcast career when “television was just getting started,” she said. “I actually did two shows a day, a morning show… that was an hour a day, every single day, Monday through Friday, and then I came back in the afternoon to do ‘Cartoon Corral with Kalamity Kate.’”
With a tireless work ethic and a skill set that allowed her to transition seamlessly between executive, interviewer, producer, and children’s entertainer, Drake became the queen of Nebraska TV. That said: It was still a boy’s club.
“They got all the money!” she said. “I was paid for doing the morning show, I think, $15 [and] I hosted and produced the show. And in the afternoon I got $10 to host the kids’ show.”
Among her favorite interviews was one she did for the 1983 Christmas staple “A Christmas Story.” “That one was cute because [Peter Billingsley] was so young,” she said. “And yet I thought he was strong. I thought, ‘Whoa.’ He was about seven years old, and I was always interviewing interviewing older people who were established.”
She also recounted interviewing James Earl Jones, who she said “was one of my favorites. He liked me so much he wanted me to go out that night for a date. And I was already gonna go out so I said, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t.’”
Drake also had to mention her interview with George Burns; he appeared on her show when he was 99 years old. “He had signed up to play in Las Vegas,” she said. “It would be his 100th birthday. And he almost made it, [but] he died. I was probably the last person to interview him. And he sat there with a cigar and I said, ‘You’re almost 100 years old’ and still smoking a cigar.”
These days, Drake keeps herself busy working with the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at her alma mater, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which enlists individuals over 50 to create and teach classes. Her workload is as varied as ever: She’s currently working on classes surrounding Black Lives Matter and promoting the Metropolitan Opera. And, it sounds like her life now isn’t that much different than it was a Nebraska’s best-known local broadcaster.
“I come up with the idea and then just go for it,” she said. “It’s a hell of a lot of work and I’m not paid.”
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