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Can Darcelle, the world’s oldest drag queen, still be fabulous while sequestered during a pandemic? Oh, darling, yes

OregonLive.com logo OregonLive.com 3/30/2020 By Janet Eastman, oregonlive.com
a house with trees in the background: Elmer and Linnie Miller House, Portland, Oregon photo by Ian Poellet © left greeting onlookers in the 2018 Portland Pride Parade. Photo by Beth Nakamura/oregonlive.com/TNS Elmer and Linnie Miller House, Portland, Oregon photo by Ian Poellet

If the world weren’t under siege by a deadly pandemic right now, Walter Cole, the world’s oldest working drag queen, would be on stage. Instead, his legendary Darcelle XV Showplace in Old Town Portland is shuttered and he, the cabaret cast and staff are sequestered in their homes, separated from friends, work and financial support.

a decorated christmas tree in a room: Elmer and Linnie Miller House, Portland, Oregon photo by Ian Poellet © left greeting onlookers in the 2018 Portland Pride Parade. Photo by Beth Nakamura/oregonlive.com/TNS Elmer and Linnie Miller House, Portland, Oregon photo by Ian Poellet

Cole, 89, who debuted his glitzy, wisecracking female persona Darcelle five decades ago, has been through crushing times before. He came out in the 1960s when homosexuality was being diagnosed as a mental illness. He lost friends during the 1980s AIDs epidemic and he’s endured many economic nosedives.

He even served in the military during the Korean War in the 1950s.

His role: “The Army had to send someone to protect the Italian Riviera, and they sent Darcelle,” he joked during a phone interview on Sunday, two weeks after Gov. Kate Brown ordered nightclubs and bars to close and a week after Oregonians were ordered to stay home to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

a decorated christmas tree in a room: Elmer and Linnie Miller House, Portland, Oregon photo by Ian Poellet © left greeting onlookers in the 2018 Portland Pride Parade. Photo by Beth Nakamura/oregonlive.com/TNS Elmer and Linnie Miller House, Portland, Oregon photo by Ian Poellet

Being funny is Cole’s best weapon against sorrow. The day dancer Roxy Neuhardt, his life partner of almost 50 years, died, Cole went to work.

It doesn’t feel right to hole up at home now when people need a touch of good news. “Awwwwwww!” he said, expressing frustration. “I should be getting ready to go on stage. Usually, I’m always on the go, but there’s nowhere to go.”

a woman standing in front of a building: \"We will get through this,\" says Walter Cole, seen here as Darcelle © left greeting onlookers in the 2018 Portland Pride Parade. Photo by Beth Nakamura/oregonlive.com/TNS \"We will get through this,\" says Walter Cole, seen here as Darcelle

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What’s he doing?

Cole laughs, pauses. He has projects.

He’s long described Darcelle as a bawdy bundle of sequins, feathers, big hair, big jewelry and jokes. So he’s home, ordering fabric online, sewing costumes and writing a monologue.

“I’m giggling over lines that will hopefully be funny when we are through this,” he said. “And we will get through this.”

He worries about his employees and wept after reading a note of gratitude one cast member posted on her Facebook page. These are the times, he said, to call loved ones and share reassuring thoughts.

“He’s a hero,” said writer and director Don Horn, who has been friends with Cole for more than 30 years. “He’s been raising money and hosting political activism and gay rights events here since it was illegal to be gay and out. He’s been consistent over all of this time. He’s the glue that keeps us all together.”

Days before Powell’s City of Books temporarily closed its doors due to the coronavirus, Horn and Cole were signing copies of their books, “Darcelle: Looking from the Mirror” and “The Many Shades of Being Darcelle: 50 years of fashion 1969 until present.”

They were surrounded by old friends and admirers. People leaned in to let Cole know what he means to them, how he made them laugh, feel good and forget the harsh realities outside his nightclub.

“When we were starting our show, we worked as hard for six people as we later did for 200,” said Cole. “I wasn’t going to give up on anything. As hard as times are, people need to smile.”

Optimistic street toppers on intersections near Darcelle XV Showplace state, “Happiness Reigns Forever."

Honoring a Queen Anne

Cole has been busy. He’s recently achieved a collection of ambitious goals, dubbed The Darcelle Project. In addition to the release of two books, a Triangle Productions’ musical about his life, “That’s No Lady,” written by Horn, premiered in September at Lincoln Hall.

Last year’s Oregon Historical Society exhibit, “Many Shades of Being Darcelle: 52 Years of Fashion, 1967–2019," showcased some of the glittery gowns and sparkly rhinestones Cole creates and wears as one of the 1/4 u2033100 Greatest Oregonians Ever."

An upcoming exhibit, “Darcelle XV at Home,” at the Architectural Heritage Center will spotlight Portland photographer Tom Cook’s images of Cole, dressed as Darcelle, inside the heavily decorated Victorian house Cole bought for $45,000 from a Jantzen swimsuit photographer 42 years ago.

One other long-sought accomplishment: His 1896 Queen Anne-style home in Northeast Portland’s Eliot neighborhood earned a spot on the National Register of Historic Place in February.

“The list gets involved, doesn’t it, darling?” Cole said from his light-filled atrium off the kitchen.

When he and Neuhardt moved in, the property on Northeast Thompson Street had a long, rollercoaster history. The landmark house was built by a lawyer and his wife, Elmer and Linnie Miller, with a wraparound porch, octagonal turret and steeply pointed roof.

Soon, some of the six bedrooms were rented out. Over time, as the property was sold and neglected, boarders were arrested for stealing a safe and other valuables, running a gambling den (27 slot machines were confiscated from the basement) and using the dwelling as a bordello.

Fortunately, despite squatters, followers of Rev. Sun Myung Moon and other transitory residents, the house retained its fir floors, pocket doors and other original features.

Cole decided instantly to buy the well-worn home when he saw the dramatic grand staircase.

He learned to do some of the re-wiring and repair work, and he filled the three-level house with stained glass windows and century-old chandeliers and wall sconces salvaged from historic buildings that were being torn down.

There’s a throne in the sitting room, a Victorian settee in the parlor and the long table in the dining room has no place for plates when Cole “goes a little crazy” and displays most of his collection of silver and crystal candelabras.

“My home is overdone, over decorated and over jeweled, just like Darcelle, but it reflects me,” said Cole. “If someone gave me a framed photo, I wouldn’t have one spot on the wall to hang it.”

He laughs. He said first-time visitors stare at the “glitz,” and he jokes that he could remove 10 items out of every room and no one would notice.

“But it’s a happy place,” he said. “The happiest times of my life have been here.”

His son, Walter Cole Jr., who has worked at the club for more than 30 years, and his daughter-in-law live next door. His grandchildren and great granddaughter visit.

“We use this house; it’s not a museum,” he said. “There was a time when Victorians stopped decorating. I haven’t done that yet. But I totally enjoy everything that’s here.”

Smiles are smart business

When Cole took over a bar in the 1960s, fights would erupt and “all hell broke loose,” he recalled. He banished the troublemakers until they promised to behave.

Later, he’d distract the crowd with makeshift performances, which grew to become the West Coast’s longest running drag show. In 2016, Cole was recognized as the oldest drag queen performer by the Guinness Book of World Records.

Cole dressed as Darcelle and Neuhardt would tap dance on the stage and sometime on tables.

“You can’t fight when you’re laughing. You can’t cry and you can’t limp around," said Cole. “You have to sit down and just laugh.”

He believes laughter can help heal a hurting world. There needs to be time to mourn and repair, and when the curtain rises again, he will be on stage.

What keeps him there? “The audience,” he said. “Without their feelings and reactions that show they enjoy what we’re doing, it wouldn’t be even worth thinking about.”

While waiting out the pandemic, Walter Cole is preparing to entertain.

--Janet Eastman 5/8 503-294-4072

jeastman@oregonian.com 5/8 @janeteastman

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