At a time when states like Tennessee have moved to restricting drag shows in public places, Darcelle’s cheerful extravagance has been widely embraced in Portland as a symbol of the city’s tolerance and cherished whimsy. But Darcelle – the performer and his 56-year-old club – were also reminders of an era when laws forced gay bars, drag cabarets and other venues to operate underground.
“Young people in the gay community have no idea,” Mr. Cole told Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2016, telling how he went from hiding his sexuality in the 1960s to becoming Portland’s unofficial goodwill ambassador at pride parades and civic events. posing for countless photos with tourists and admirers.
2016 also saw recognition by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest professional drag performer.
“I want to be remembered for making someone smile and care about them,” said Mr. Cole.
Darcelle even made discussions in Washington. A large number of Portland and congressional officials supported an effort to close Mr. Cole to the National Register of Historic Places in 2020 due to its importance in LGBTQ+ history. This month, Portland-based Gigantic Brewing unveiled a Darcelle Blonde IPA, a beer with notes of “mango, candied orange peel and peach,” according to Gigantic co-founder Ben Love.
The label shows Darcelle with a towering blonde hairdo and ruby earrings. Mr. Cole, as Darcelle, was on hand for the beer tasting and did his act at the club until last week.
“He’s made what used to be a ‘weird’ thing mainstream here in Portland—cutting ribbon with the mayor, being in parades—when none of that was part of the culture yet,” said Don Horn, the executive director of Portland’s Triangle Productions. , who produced a musical in 2019, “Darcelle: That’s No Lady.”
mr. Cole moved seamlessly between diva and denim. He could look like a mild-mannered grandfather (which he was) in jeans and a flannel shirt as he entertained guests in the late 19th-century home he shared with his partner and fellow drag performer, Leroy “Roxy” Neuhardt, until his dead in 2017.
Within half an hour, Mr. Cole could resurface as Darcelle – brash, blingy and a tad risqué – in a hand-sewn dress or outfit and elaborate make-up with signature embellishments such as shimmering eye shadow. The Oregon Historical Society once exhibited a few Darcelle dresses.
“I have this theory, you know, when you think you’re done dressing and ready and beautiful for the stage,” he said in 2019, “you add more.”
Walter Willard Cole was born on November 16, 1930 in Portland. In his 2010 one-man show, ‘Just Call Me Darcelle’, he talked about the death of his mother when he was 9 and the neglect and abuse of his alcoholic father. He was largely raised by an aunt.
Mr. Cole married his high school sweetheart, Jeannette Rosini, in 1951 and served in the military on a base in Italy before returning to Portland. They had two children while Mr. Cole worked at a grocery store and later opened a coffee shop that billed itself as the first espresso machine “north of San Francisco.”
Mr. Cole began acting in the local theater and met Neuhardt, a former dancer from Las Vegas. The attraction was instant. But Mr. Cole kept their relationship a secret from his family for years. He finally came out in 1969 and moved in with Neuhardt, but Mr. Cole and his wife never divorced.
“There was nothing about marriage that I didn’t like,” he said. “It was just that I was gay and I had to tell them.”
In 1967, Mr. Cole bought a dilapidated tavern in Old Town Portland, which was then a devastated part of the city. “I walked in here and opened the door and cried. I thought, ‘What have I done?’ But that didn’t last long,” he said in an interview with the Oregonian.
The new club became a favorite for the city’s lesbian community. To kick things up a notch, he tried a review-style show on a 4-by-8-foot banquet table in the back of the bar. The stage was set for Darcelle’s dawn. At the age of 37, Mr. Cole made his first appearance in drag. Still, he needed a name.
“You can’t be Alice or Mary,” Mr. Cole remembered Neuhardt telling him. “You’re just too big and too much jewelry and too much hair.”
Neuhardt had met French actress Denise Darcel in Las Vegas. The name was changed to Darcelle and it stuck.
A Portland LGBTQ+ group, the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court, proclaimed Darcelle the “15th Empress” in 1973. The club was later renamed Darcelle XV Showcase, which became a center of the city’s gay activism.
During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Mr. Cole led fundraising efforts for medical research and to help people living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which at the time was considered a possible death sentence before the development of drug therapies. The Darcelle XV AIDS Memorial, a granite sculpture for Oregonians who died of AIDS, was dedicated in 2017.
For over 30 years, the club has hosted free Christmas Eve banquets for anyone in need.
But when it was showtime, Darcelle let it all out. Darcelle sang tunes in a distinctly masculine baritone. “I don’t want to be a woman,” he said. “I want to be a character.”
A club favorite was a cover of the Bette Midler hit “The Rose,” which Mr. Cole, as Darcelle, also recorded in 2021 with pianist Thomas Lauderdale of the group Pink Martini. But the highlight of the night was the “Rhinestone Cowboy” act, with Darcelle stepping out in just rhinestone-studded chaps and a G-string — greeted by a shower of dollar bills from the audience.
“Darcelle can do and say anything – and has done,” Mr Cole said. “And got away with it.”
In addition to his wife, the survivors include a son, Walter Jr.; daughter Maridee Woodson; two granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren.
The club lives on. His son, who has worked there for 30 years, was groomed to take over, but on the business side and not in cross-dressing. After Mr. Cole’s death, the doors didn’t even close for a night. Poison Waters sang “The Rose” in tribute.