At a time when states comparable to Tennessee have moved to limit drag reveals in public locations, the joyful extravagance of Darcelle was broadly embraced in Portland as a logo of town’s tolerance and cherished quirkiness. However Darcelle — the performer and his 56-year-old membership — additionally had been reminders of an period when legal guidelines pressured homosexual bars, drag cabarets and different venues to function underground.
“Younger folks within the homosexual group haven’t acquired a clue,” Mr. Cole told Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2016, recounting how he went from hiding his sexuality within the Nineteen Sixties to changing into Portland’s unofficial goodwill ambassador in satisfaction parades and at civic occasions, posing for numerous images with vacationers and admirers.
In 2016 additionally got here recognition by Guinness World Records because the world’s oldest skilled drag performer.
“I need to be remembered as a result of I made anyone smile and care,” Mr. Cole said.
Darcelle even made it into discussions in Washington. A number of Portland and congressional officers backed an effort to have Mr. Cole’s membership added to the Nationwide Register of Historic Locations in 2020 for its significance in LGBTQ+ historical past. This month, Portland’s Gigantic Brewing unveiled a Darcelle Blonde IPA, a beer with “mango, candied orange peel and peach notes,” stated Gigantic co-founder Ben Love.
The label options Darcelle with a towering blond hairdo and ruby earrings. Mr. Cole, as Darcelle, was readily available for the beer tasting and was doing his act on the membership up till final week.
“He’s taken what was once a ‘bizarre’ factor into the mainstream right here in Portland — going to ribbon cuttings with the mayor, being in parades — when all of that was not but a part of the tradition,” stated Don Horn, the managing director of Portland’s Triangle Productions, which produced a 2019 musical, “Darcelle: That’s No Girl.”
Mr. Cole moved seamlessly between diva and denim. He may appear like a soft-spoken grandfather (which he was) in denims and flannel shirt whereas entertaining visitors on the late Nineteenth-century home he shared along with his companion and fellow drag performer, Leroy “Roxy” Neuhardt, till his dying in 2017.
Inside a half-hour, Mr. Cole may reemerge as Darcelle — brash, blingy and only a tad risque — in a hand-sewn robe or outfit and elaborate make-up that included signature thrives comparable to glittery eye shadow. The Oregon Historic Society as soon as exhibited a few of Darcelle’s dresses.
“I’ve this idea, you realize, once you assume you’re completed getting dressed and prepared and fairly for stage,” he said in 2019, “you add extra.”
Walter Willard Cole was born Nov. 16, 1930, in Portland. In his 2010 one-man show, “Simply Name Me Darcelle,” he recounted the dying of his mom when he was 9 and neglect and abuse by his alcoholic father. He was raised largely by an aunt.
Mr. Cole married his highschool sweetheart, Jeannette Rosini, in 1951 and served within the Military at a base in Italy earlier than returning to Portland. That they had two kids whereas Mr. Cole labored at a grocery retailer and later opened a espresso store that billed itself as having the primary espresso machine “north of San Francisco.”
Mr. Cole started performing in native theater and met Neuhardt, a former Las Vegas dancer. The attraction was rapid. However Mr. Cole stored their relationship secret from his household for years. He ultimately got here out in 1969 and moved in with Neuhardt, however Mr. Cole and his spouse by no means divorced.
“There was nothing about marriage I didn’t like,” he stated. “It was simply that I used to be homosexual and I needed to inform them.”
In 1967, Mr. Cole purchased a run-down tavern in Portland’s Outdated City, which was then a blighted a part of town. “I walked in right here and opened up the door and wept. I assumed, ‘What have I executed?’ However that didn’t final lengthy,” he stated in an interview with the Oregonian.
The brand new membership turned a favourite for town’s lesbian group. To spice up enterprise, he tried a review-style present on a 4-by-8-foot banquet desk behind the bar. The stage was set for the daybreak of Darcelle. At 37 years outdated, Mr. Cole did his first efficiency in drag. But he nonetheless wanted a reputation.
“You may’t be Alice or Mary,” Mr. Cole recalled being advised by Neuhardt. “You’re simply too massive and too over-jeweled and an excessive amount of hair.”
Neuhardt had met the French actress Denise Darcel in Las Vegas. The identify was tweaked to Darcelle, and it caught.
A Portland LGBTQ+ group, the Imperial Sovereign Rose Courtroom, declared Darcelle its “fifteenth empress” in 1973. The membership was later re-christened Darcelle XV Showcase, which turned a hub of town’s homosexual activism.
Throughout the AIDS disaster within the Nineteen Eighties, Mr. Cole led fundraisers for medical analysis and to help these with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which on the time was thought-about a possible dying sentence earlier than the event of drug therapies. The Darcelle XV AIDS Memorial, a granite sculpture for Oregonians who died of AIDS, was devoted in 2017.
For greater than 30 years, the membership hosted free Christmas Eve banquets for anybody in want.
When it was showtime, nevertheless, Darcelle let all of it unfastened. Darcelle would belt out tunes in a distinctly manly baritone. “I don’t need to be girl,” he stated. “I need to be a personality.”
A membership favourite was a canopy of the Bette Midler hit “The Rose,” which Mr. Cole, as Darcelle, additionally recorded in 2021 with the pianist Thomas Lauderdale of the group Pink Martini. However the spotlight of the evening was the “Rhinestone Cowboy” act, with Darcelle strutting out in simply rhinestone-bedazzled chaps and a G-string — greeted by a bathe of greenback payments from the viewers.
“Darcelle can do and say something — and has,” stated Mr. Cole. “And gotten away with it.”
Along with his spouse, survivors embody a son, Walter Jr.; daughter Maridee Woodson; two granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren.
The membership lives on. His son, who has labored there for 30 years, was groomed to take over, however on the enterprise facet and never in drag. After Mr. Cole’s dying, the doorways didn’t shut even for an evening. Poison Waters sang “The Rose” in tribute.