If you ask Walter Cole what to see in Portland, Ore., his answer is simple. “You go to Powell’s bookstore. You go to Voodoo Doughnuts. And you come to Darcelle’s. Then you’ve seen it all.”
Cole should know: Four nights a week he dons elaborate sequined dresses and huge wigs to entertain audiences as Darcelle XV—the world’s oldest living drag queen performer, according to the Guinness World Records.
Cole, 89, is a lifelong Portlander. After serving in the Korean War, he settled down and started a family. He first managed a grocery store for several years, and later opened a bar called Demas. He led a fairly conventional life until 1969, when he met nightclub dancer Roxy Neuhardt.
The two fell in love, and Cole separated from his wife and two kids to start a new life. Neuhardt convinced Cole to wear drag for the first time, and eventually they decided to start performing at Demas to entertain the patrons. “I never left the club in a dress,” says Cole. “There were a lot of bashings then. I’m sure if I had there would have been more.”
Cole had acted with most of the city’s local theatres, beginning in the ’50s, so he was used to performing. “I was always cast as doctors and lawyers,” he recalls. But drag was different. He needed a character. Cole took inspiration from Gracie Hansen, a chanteuse who built her reputation on her bawdy personality and glamorous outfits. “She was over-jeweled, over-dressed, over-makeupped. I liked what she did,” says Cole. Hansen also ran the club that brought Neuhardt to the City of Roses.
“I learned my craft at my bar,” says Cole. “Performing five nights a week. There were only three of us onstage. So it was sink or swim.” But people loved Darcelle and eventually Cole renamed the bar after his alter ego: Darcelle XV Showplace.
More than five decades later, Cole still gets nervous before a show. “Every audience you work to is different,” he says. “You don’t know what you’re coming up against. Maybe it’ll be wonderful and maybe you’ll have to fight for it.” The life Cole leads now didn’t seem possible when he started. On any given week there might be three or four drag events in the city. “Portland has the most beautiful queens in the world, all working in different places, having a great time, and accepted by the city.”
That acceptance is something Cole helped build, not only as an entertainer but also as a business owner, a fundraiser, and educator. The Oregon Historical Society is hosting an exhibition showcasing eight of Cole’s more than 1,500 costumes (“Many Shades of Being Darcelle: 52 Years of Fashion, 1967-2019,” Aug. 30-Dec. 8), a large number sewn by Cole himself. “I think all this respect is about who he is and his place in Portland,” says Don Horn, founder and executive director of Portland’s triangle productions!, a longtime friend and collaborator of Cole’s who worked with the historical society on the exhibit. “He’s always been generous. If you ask him to show up, he’s always there, no charge.”
Horn set out to honor his friend and mentor by writing a musical about Cole’s life, That’s No Lady, which premiered in September. Opening night was sold out, and the room was filled with Cole’s friends and family. “They did a beautiful job,” says Cole. “How could anyone imagine seeing something honor your life’s work? Stay happy with what you do, and it will work for you.” —TJ Acena