If you’re familiar with downtown Auckland, there’s a chance you will have come across a larger-than-life, happy-go-lucky shoeshine man with a distinctive American twang.
With his stream of witty patter and a flamboyant personality, Larry Woods is not easily forgotten by those who meet him.
Yet few people realise that back in the 1980s, he was a champagne-swilling multi-millionaire who was well known to the rich and famous in Auckland high society – until he lost his fortune and decided to devote his life to spreading happiness and cheer to the people of the City of Sails.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in San Francisco, the effervescent Larry, 64, once sold designer clothes for a living in the US. There he met and married his first wife, Kiwi Suzanne Douglas, sister of Roger Douglas, the former Minister of Finance.
After Suzanne’s parents became sick, the couple relocated to Auckland, where a successful business venture with a vitamin company netted them a fortune of more than $5 million. However, the softball-loving American admits money turned him into “a bit of a knucklehead”.
He bought a Rolls-Royce, had two personal chauffeurs and regularly quaffed Dom Pérignon. He opened up clothes shops and even formed his own strip-dancing troupe, the Thriller All Male Review, which regularly toured the country.
“It all happened so fast,” he explains of this three-year period living a hedonistic and self-centred lifestyle. “Every morning when my chauffeur came to pick me up, he’d have Disprin and an orange juice ready because I’d be hungover from the night before.”
In the late ’80s, it took a chance encounter with a shopkeeper at a local fruit shop to shake him from his indulgent lifestyle. While buying fruit and veges, Larry was argumentative and unnecessarily rude. Despite his arrogant behaviour, the elderly Chinese shopkeeper remained courteous.
The shopkeeper’s humble response struck a chord with Larry, making him realise the type of person he’d become. “I felt so embarrassed I kept apologising to him over and over. I realised that I couldn’t live like that any more.”
During the ’90s, Larry had several business ventures but struggled to replicate his previous successes. A court dispute later that decade left him penniless. “My ego was shot and my spirit was broken,” he says of this difficult phase, which saw him descend from multi-millionaire to man on the dole.
For almost 10 years, Larry, a father to seven children, struggled to cope with the loss of his fortune. He spent some time travelling around New Zealand as a shoeshine man, but after becoming frustrated with a lifestyle on the road, he decided to ply his trade back in Auckland for a different gain.
“I wanted to do something that helped people, so I decided to make and sell beeswax and shine shoes for free,” tells Larry. “My job is to create a little cheer in people’s day, pass a nice compliment and make life a little happier.”
Living modestly by himself in a one-bedroom apartment in Parnell, his lavish lifestyle of the past appears far removed from his current existence. Yet Larry, who now wears second-hand clothes and travels by public transport, would not swap what he has today for a return to his past life. “Right now, I’m the happiest man in the world. People make me happy as soon as I walk down the street. I meet so many people of all ages and all walks of life who inspire me. Lots of people want to take pictures with me and it makes me feel good.”
A regular fixture on Auckland’s street corners, at nights, Larry swaps his shoeshine kit for a microphone as MC at Orleans restaurant and bar in Britomart. It’s another chance to entertain and put smiles on folk’s faces.
As he nears 65, Larry – whose life story has been turned in to the doco Mister Sunshine, available on TVNZ OnDemand and loadingdocs.net – has no plans to switch off his sunny persona any time soon. In fact, he has a simple mantra for life.
“Everybody wants to be somebody,” he says. “Just remember to be someone nice.”
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