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Walter Cole, world’s oldest drag queen as Darcelle XV, dies at 92

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/25/2023 Brian Murphy
Walter Cole as Darcelle XV onstage at the Darcelle XV Showplace, in Portland, Ore., on Dec. 3, 1998. © Jay Reiter/Statesman Journal /AP Walter Cole as Darcelle XV onstage at the Darcelle XV Showplace, in Portland, Ore., on Dec. 3, 1998.

Walter Cole, a bouffant-topped, sequin-spangled, drag queen doyenne known as Darcelle XV, who reigned over a West Coast nightclub for more than 50 years on the way to becoming the world’s oldest working drag performer, died March 23 at a hospital in Portland, Ore. He was 92.

The death was confirmed by Kevin Cook, a family spokesman who also performed at Mr. Cole’s Portland club, the Darcelle XV Showplace, in the drag persona Poison Waters. No cause was given.

At a time when states such as Tennessee have moved to restrict drag shows in public places, the joyful extravagance of Darcelle was widely embraced in Portland as a symbol of the city’s tolerance and cherished quirkiness. But Darcelle — the performer and his 56-year-old club — also were reminders of an era when laws forced gay bars, drag cabarets and other venues to operate underground.

“Young people in the gay community haven’t got a clue,” Mr. Cole told Oregon Public Broadcasting in 2016, recounting how he went from hiding his sexuality in the 1960s to becoming Portland’s unofficial goodwill ambassador in pride parades and at civic events, posing for countless photos with tourists and admirers.

In 2016 also came recognition by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest professional drag performer.

“I want to be remembered because I made somebody smile and care,” Mr. Cole said.

Darcelle even made it into discussions in Washington. A host of Portland and congressional officials backed an effort to have Mr. Cole’s club added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2020 for its significance in LGBTQ+ history. This month, Portland’s Gigantic Brewing unveiled a Darcelle Blonde IPA.

The label features Darcelle with a towering blond hairdo and ruby earrings. Mr. Cole, as Darcelle, was on hand for the beer tasting and was doing his act at the club up until last week.

“He’s taken what used to be a ‘weird’ thing into the mainstream here in Portland — going to ribbon cuttings with the mayor, being in parades — when all of that was not yet part of the culture,” said Don Horn, the managing director of Portland’s Triangle Productions, which produced a 2019 musical, “Darcelle: That’s No Lady.”

Mr. Cole in the basement dressing room of his club on Dec. 9, 1998. © Jay Reiter/Statesman-Journal/AP Mr. Cole in the basement dressing room of his club on Dec. 9, 1998.

Mr. Cole moved seamlessly between diva and denim. He could look like a soft-spoken grandfather (which he was) in jeans and flannel shirt while entertaining guests at the late 19th-century house he shared with his partner and fellow drag performer, Leroy “Roxy” Neuhardt, until his death in 2017.

Within a half-hour, Mr. Cole could reemerge as Darcelle — brash, blingy and just a tad risque — in a hand-sewn gown or outfit and elaborate makeup that included signature flourishes such as glittery eye shadow. The Oregon Historical Society once exhibited some of Darcelle’s dresses.

“I have this theory, you know, when you think you’re finished getting dressed and ready and pretty for stage,” he said in 2019, “you add more.”

Darcelle XV performs with Poison Waters (Kevin Cook). © Tom Cook/Tom Cook Darcelle XV performs with Poison Waters (Kevin Cook).

Walter Willard Cole was born Nov. 16, 1930, in Portland. In his 2010 one-man show, “Just Call Me Darcelle,” he recounted the death of his mother when he was 9 and neglect and abuse by his alcoholic father. He was raised mostly by an aunt.

Mr. Cole married his high school sweetheart, Jeannette Rosini, in 1951 and served in the Army at a base in Italy before returning to Portland. They had two children while Mr. Cole worked at a grocery store and later opened a coffee shop that billed itself as having the first espresso machine “north of San Francisco.”

Mr. Cole began acting in local theater and met Neuhardt, a former Las Vegas dancer. The attraction was immediate. But Mr. Cole kept their relationship secret from his family for years. He eventually came out in 1969 and moved in with Neuhardt, but Mr. Cole and his wife never divorced.

“There was nothing about marriage I didn’t like,” he said. “It was just that I was gay and I had to tell them.”

In 1967, Mr. Cole bought a run-down tavern in Portland’s Old Town, which was then a blighted part of the city. “I walked in here and opened up the door and wept. I thought, ‘What have I done?’ But that didn’t last long,” he said in an interview with the Oregonian.

The new club became a favorite for the city’s lesbian community. To boost business, he tried a revue-style show on a 4-by-8-foot banquet table in the back of the bar. The stage was set for the dawn of Darcelle. At 37 years old, Mr. Cole did his first performance in drag. Yet he still needed a name.

“You can’t be Alice or Mary,” Mr. Cole recalled being told by Neuhardt. “You’re just too big and too over-jeweled and too much hair.”

Neuhardt had met the French actress Denise Darcel in Las Vegas. The name was tweaked to Darcelle, and it stuck.

Mr. Cole, as Darcelle XV, holds a bottle of Darcelle Blonde IPA, a beer brewed in his honor and unveiled this month. © Kevin Cook/Kevin Cook Mr. Cole, as Darcelle XV, holds a bottle of Darcelle Blonde IPA, a beer brewed in his honor and unveiled this month.

A Portland LGBTQ+ group, the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court, declared Darcelle its “15th empress” in 1973. The club was later re-christened Darcelle XV Showcase, which became a hub of the city’s gay activism.

During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, Mr. Cole led fundraisers for medical research and to assist those with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, which at the time was considered a potential death sentence before the development of drug therapies. The Darcelle XV AIDS Memorial, a granite sculpture for Oregonians who died of AIDS, was dedicated in 2017.

For more than 30 years, the club hosted free Christmas Eve banquets for anyone in need.

When it was showtime, however, Darcelle let it all loose. Darcelle would belt out tunes in a distinctly manly baritone. “I don’t want to be a woman,” he said. “I want to be a character.”

A club favorite was a cover of the Bette Midler hit “The Rose,” which Mr. Cole, as Darcelle, also recorded in 2021 with the pianist Thomas Lauderdale of the group Pink Martini. But the highlight of the night was the “Rhinestone Cowboy” act, with Darcelle strutting out in just rhinestone-bedazzled chaps and a G-string — greeted by a shower of dollar bills from the audience.

“Darcelle can do and say anything — and has,” said Mr. Cole. “And gotten away with it.”

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Walter Jr.; daughter Maridee Woodson; two granddaughters; and two great-grandchildren.

The club lives on. His son, who has worked there for 30 years, was groomed to take over, but on the business side and not in drag. After Mr. Cole’s death, the doors didn’t close even for a night. Poison Waters sang “The Rose” in tribute.

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