Walter W. Cole Sr., better known in Portland and around the world as Darcelle XV, died on Thursday, March 23, 2023, and another light in the city’s constellation of stars went out. He and she were 92, and had been a vital part of the city’s heart and soul for a good half-century and more.
Darcelle was, of course, a drag queen — in 2016, Guinness World Records officially declared Cole the world’s oldest performing drag queen — but he was much more than that. As the veteran Oregonian writer and editor Grant Butler put it in his excellent obituary, he “became an unofficial ambassador of goodwill for the city, supporting a variety of charities over the decades, appearing in numerous Rose Festival and Pride parades, and receiving the Spirit of Portland Award from the city’s mayor.”
I would add to that: Walter/Darcelle was a progressive pioneer, winning over just about anyone he and she encountered, helping ease a sometimes hidebound city’s fear and stigma of gay people, cross-dressers, drag performers, and anyone who fell outside the borders of restrictive “normalcy.” Darcelle helped her city understand that, after all, people are only people, and if they’re not exactly like you, you’re not exactly like them, either, and, well, so what? She did this with a wink and a smile and a friendly hand and a husky voice — when she was performing she loved to sing for himself rather than lip-synch — and she helped his city relax a little and laugh a little and broaden its thinking and just grow up.
After Walter’s Old Town club, Darcelle XV Showplace, announced his death Thursday evening, social media lit up. Reminiscences poured in from friends and fans ranging from Senator Ron Wyden to The Unipiper to veteran writer and performer Margie Boule, among a host of others. The Oregon Historical Society, which in 2019 presented an exhibition on Darcelle and his costumes, gave its condolences. Don Horn, Walter’s longtime friend and the force behind the theater troupe Triangle Productions!, which in 2019 produced the musical That’s No Lady about Darcelle’s life, dedicated its upcoming show The Inheritance to Cole: “The show deals with the subject of AIDS and because he was tireless when it came to any AIDS cause and worked to make this world a better place we are dedicating the run of the show to our dear friend,” Horn said.
“For more than 50 years,” Butler wrote in his obituary, “Cole entertained generations of tourists and bachelorette parties at his Old Town nightclub, where the entertainer told bawdy jokes in elaborate makeup and beaded gowns, while acting as master of ceremonies to a parade of other drag queens and dancers.”
By the time I moved to town in 1974 to take a job with the old Oregon Journal afternoon daily newspaper, Darcelle’s nightclub was an established attraction, if still treated with resentment and hostility in some quarters of the city. But it was definitely on the upswing, changing minds one college kid and young newcomer at a time: Darcelle XV and the nearby late-night culinary draw Hung Far Low were must-gos if you were in your 20s or 30s, along with the semi-hidden Lovejoy Columns, painted below a now demolished road ramp by the Greek immigrant railroad worker Athanasios (Tom) Stefopoulos between 1948 and 1952.
There is much more to say about Walter/Darcelle, and Butler has said a good deal of it extremely well in his obituary for The Oregonian. Read it at the link above, and also The Oregonian/Oregon Live’s Lizzy Acker’s gathering of responses to Cole’s death.
Words, of course, can only say so much.
What I know for sure is this: I’d have been utterly thrilled to have had Darcelle and her fellow performers read books for storytime to any and all of my three children and one grandchild, at any age and any time, in any library or other location of their choosing. After all, we’re not in Florida or Tennessee anymore, at least in this opposite corner of the country. And we have Darcelle, in part, to thank for that. Wherever you might be, Walter, on with the show.