In Portland, Oregon, Walter Cole, better known as the legendary drag queen Darcelle XV, has died of natural causes. Cole was a fearless advocate for Portland’s LGBTQ+ community. He was 92.
Darcelle, who passed away on Thursday(March 23, 2023), was recognized as the oldest active drag artist in the world in 2016 by the Guinness Book of World Records. Darcelle’s drag performance was the longest-running of its kind on the West Coast of the United States. Cole, a veteran of the United States Army, was a prominent supporter of LGBTQ+ causes and philanthropy offstage in Portland.
Darcelle XV Showplace, the nightclub he built in downtown Portland almost 50 years ago, has sent a message on Facebook expressing sadness and asking for privacy.
By the 1970s, the club had become essential to Portland’s cultural landscape. In 2020, it became the first location in Oregon to be nominated to the National Register of Historic Places for its importance to the LGBTQ+ community.
Protesters picketed outside the theater when it first opened in the 1970s and 1980s because its content was controversial, according to a story from The Oregonian/OregonLive.
According to an interview Cole gave to the newspaper in 2010, the organization was a “lifeline” for many members of the city’s Homos*xual population, including himself. While on stage, Cole identified as a female pronoun, but he informed The Oregonian that he preferred male pronouns in everyday life.
“If I hadn’t admitted who I was, I’d probably be dead now,” he told the paper. “I’d be sitting on a couch retiring from … management. Not for me.”
“She touched the lives of so many, not only through her performances but also through her fearless community advocacy and charitable works,” said Todd Addams, the interim executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, speaking of Darcelle. “She was nothing short of an icon.”
In the earliest known feature of Darcelle XV, published in Willamette Week in 1975, author Susan Stanley characterized the club as a haven of “warmth and compassion” where performers were “glittering in sequins and satin and a sparkling froth of feathers.”
Cole, a homos*xual guy, often referred to his feminine alter ego Darcelle in the third person. Cole told Stanley, “I’m an entertainer with a capital E.” “As in a play, I put a lot of effort into developing Darcelle as a character.”
Stanley spent some time working at the club when he and Cole became quite close. She spoke highly of the performer, describing him as both a skilled artist and a dedicated advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ+ community, who stitched many of the club’s outfits.
“(Darcelle) was just a very, very nurturing person. She encouraged other guys to perform and get out of their shells,” Stanley told the AP in a phone interview. Stanley expressed regret that drag had become so politically divisive after decades of lobbying by LGBTQ+ campaigners mobilizing for civil rights and liberties.
“It bespeaks a big misunderstanding,” she said. “Politicians wanting to step back decades in attitudes … it’s mystifying and horrifying to me simultaneously.”
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Cole was born in 1930 and spent his childhood in the Linnton area of Portland. According to the club’s website, he started his first company with the money he earned after serving in the U.S. Military Forces and was released in the late 1950s.
Cole, who had previously opened a coffee shop and a jazz club at the location, bought the Darcelle XV Showroom in 1967. According to his description on the club’s website, two years later, he formed a “alter ego” called Darcelle and came out as homos*xual.
He ended his marriage and started d@ting his director of creative operations. The Showplace quickly gained a reputation as a premier venue for cabaret and dragged shows in the 1970s.
With the demise of Finocchio’s Club in San Francisco in 1999, Darcelle became the West Coast’s oldest drag act. On Friday (March 24, 2023), admirers, including the mayor of Portland, sent condolence and sadness at Cole’s passing.
In a social media statement, Democratic Senator Ron Wyden praised Darcelle’s “pioneering daring” and said she “carved out a memorable chapter in Portland’s history.”
All concerts at Darcelle XV Showplace will continue as planned, and information about a public memorial will be released, as Darcelle requested. The club asked its supporters to “honor her legacy and memory” and expressed gratitude for their “continuing support.”
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