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Walter Cole, Who Dazzled as Darcelle, the World’s Oldest Drag Performer, Dies at 92

Walter Cole, otherwise known as Darcelle XV, a rhinestone-bedecked drag performer with an exuberant blonde beehive whose popular Portland, Ore., nightclub hosted what is believed to be the longest-running drag show west of the Mississippi, died on March 23 at a hospital in his hometown. He was 92.

His death was announced by Kevin Cook, who performs as Poison Waters and was Mr. Cole’s co-host at the nightclub, the Darcelle XV Showplace. No cause was given.

Seven years earlier, when he was 85, Mr. Cole earned an entry in Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest drag performer.

Mr. Cole had been running a jazz club and working as a manager at a grocery store when, in 1967, he bought the derelict Demas Tavern in Portland’s Old Town neighborhood, which was then considered the area’s Skid Row. He reimagined the place first as a lesbian bar and, after a few years, as a drag cabaret. In the beginning, there were only two performers: Tina, a Native American whose real name was Jerry Farris and who performed a pitch-perfect rendition of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary,” and Mr. Cole, who favored Barbra Streisand songs.

The productions were ad hoc. Their “stage” was a four-by-eight-foot banquet table, their spotlight a balky slide projector, its functionality depending on the sobriety of whomever was chosen as the evening’s operator, as Mr. Cole recalled in his 2010 memoir, “Just Call Me Darcelle,” written with Sharon Knorr. Many a night he finished his show singing “People,” Ms. Streisand’s “Funny Girl” blockbuster, in the dark.

Before long, Mr. Cole and Mr. Farris were joined by other performers, notably Roc LeRoy Neuhardt, known as Roxy, Mr. Cole’s boyfriend, a dancer and choreographer whose tap performances and roller-skating numbers, performed in a tutu and curly red wig, always brought the house down.

Mr. Cole had at first tried out a number of stage names, from Sally Stanford, after the San Francisco madame who later became the mayor of Sausalito, to just plain Walter. But he needed a proper drag title.

“Regular girls’ names are out of the question,” he recalled Mr. Neuhardt telling him. “You are too big, too jeweled, too haired … I think you look French.”


A color photo of Darcelle in a beehive-like  blond wig and a spangled gown surrounded by colorful costumes on hangers and other wigs.
A self-taught tailor, Mr. Cole quickly found his inner Bob Mackie to make his own outfits, sewing elaborate confections of feathers, rhinestones, pearls and satin. Over the decades, he made some 1,500 costumes. Credit...Motoya Nakamura/The Oregonian, via Associated Press

Mr. Neuhardt christened him Darcelle, after an actress named Denise Darcel he had performed with in Las Vegas (Mr. Neuhardt added the second l and an e for extra flair). The numbers came later, when, in the early 1970s, Darcelle was crowned the 15th “Empress” of the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court of Oregon, an L.G.B.T.Q. organization known for its fund-raising. Mr. Cole changed the tavern’s name soon after.

Mr. Cole had done straight theater before, usually cast in supporting roles as the doctor or the lawyer. As Walter Cole, he often said, he was just a shy man who’d grown up poor in a mill town. Darcelle was something else, however. She was outrageous, bejeweled and brave. Her act was bawdy banter and enthusiastic, if not exactly tuneful, singing.

And costumes! A self-taught tailor, Mr. Cole found his inner Bob Mackie to make his own outfits, sewing elaborate confections of feathers, rhinestones, pearls and satin. His first, and last, hand-rhinestoned gown, a flowing pink number edged with blue feathers and topped with a hand-stitched pearl bodice, took three months to complete and weighed in at 30 pounds. (He soon turned to pre-spangled fabrics.) A pearl-tasseled flapper gown weighed 80 pounds. His Christmas tree dress, a dazzle of colored lights powered by a 100-foot extension cord, was always a showstopper during his annual holiday performance, “A Girl for All Seasons.”

Over the decades, Mr. Cole made some 1,500 costumes.

The Darcelle XV Showplace grew into an institution, drawing gay and straight crowds alike. And Darcelle established herself as more than just an amiable showgirl. She was an advocate for Portland’s L.G.B.T.Q. community, particularly its younger members, and an indefatigable fund-raiser for many causes. She once raised $250,000 in 25 minutes for a local hospital during a radio campaign.

During the AIDS crisis, in the 1980s and early ’90s, Darcelle hosted innumerable fund-raisers for medical research, facilities for people with AIDS, and children whose lives were affected by the disease. A granite sculpture, created by the artist Cal Christensen as a public monument to Oregonians who had died of AIDS, was named in her honor, the Darcelle XV AIDS Memorial, installed in a Portland cemetery and dedicated in 2017.


As Walter Cole, he often said, he was just a shy man who’d grown up poor in a mill town. Darcelle was something else, however. She was outrageous, bejeweled and brave.Credit...Jay Reiter/Statesman-Journal, via Associated Press

Walter Willard Cole was born Nov. 16, 1930, in Portland, the only child of Mary (Rickert) Cole and Richard Lee Cole. His father worked in a lumber mill in the city’s Linnton neighborhood, making about a dollar a day. The family lived in a “company house” there heated by a wood stove. Walter was bullied at school; his classmates called him Sissy Boy until he got glasses, whereupon he was known as Four-eyed Sissy Boy.

He was 10 when his mother died, and an aunt moved in to help take care of him. She was unable to protect him from his father, however, who descended into alcoholism after his wife’s death and began to sexually abuse Walter when he was a teenager, a horror he kept to himself for much of his adult life, he wrote in his memoir.

In 1951, he married his high school sweetheart, Jeanette Rossini. He was drafted into the Army later that year and served two years in the Signal Corps in Italy.

Mr. Cole confessed he was gay to his wife soon after buying the Demas Tavern, guilt-stricken, by his account, for leading what had become a double-life. By then the Coles had two children, and it took many years for his family to come to terms with his identity, he recalled. He moved in with Mr. Neuhardt soon after his declaration, but he and his wife never divorced.

Mr. Cole is survived by his son, Walter Jr., who is the bar manager at the nightclub; his daughter, Maridee Woodson; two granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren. Mr. Neuhardt died in 2017.

In 2020, the Darcelle XV Showplace was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its contribution to L.G.B.T.Q. history; the citation notes its “glam-on-a-budget aesthetic,” its long-term role as a community hub and its contribution to a cultural shift in which gay rights and drag performances have been accepted.

(That shift seems to be reversing in some places, though not in Oregon. In 2023, Tennessee became the first state to ban drag shows in public spaces; similar anti-drag bills have been introduced in at least a dozen other states.)

Also landmarked in 2020 was the turreted Queen Anne house that Mr. Cole and Mr. Neuhardt had turned into a chandeliered showplace worthy of Liberace, with a throne in the sitting room.

“My home is overdone, overdecorated and overjeweled, just like Darcelle, but it reflects me,” Mr. Cole told the news website Oregon Live.

“Darcelle was known to say she hoped she’d die onstage and simply dissolve into glitter,” Susan Stanley wrote in the Portland weekly newspaper Willamette Week the night of Mr. Cole’s death. Ms. Stanley may have been the first journalist to write about his club, back in 1975, when beers were 25 cents and the popcorn was free. For years after the article appeared, the club’s place mats were printed with its headline: “That’s No Lady, That’s Darcelle.”

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