Pride in Places: How the world’s oldest living drag performer helped create gay Portland

Darcelle XV embraces a theatrical aesthetic with shows six days a week. (Photo: Walter Cole)

Portland‘s Darcelle XV Showplace embraces an “improvised, low-budget, and self-reliant illusion of glamour” reminiscent of the 60s.

Long before Stonewall’s drag queens made headlines by rioting in the streets, and brought LGBTQ rights into the national conversation, this nightclub gave Portland’s queer performers a place to express themselves and entertain their adoring fans freely. 

The upbeat club’s owner Walter Cole has performed at the bar as Darcelle XV since he founded the venue. At 92 years old, he holds the Guinness World Record as the oldest living drag performer, and he doesn’t plan to stop anytime soon. In fact, his club is one of only two known drag clubs in the US to open before 1970.

Leading the community

“I want to be remembered because I made somebody smile and care [about the queer community],” Cole said to OPB in an interview about his iconic legacy. “Another thing that happens here a lot is young people will tell their parents that they’re gay, and then they come here, and the parents will see their contemporaries, and they’re enjoying themselves. The son can say, ‘Look, you see, those are the things I would like to be remembered for.'”

Coming out to your parents is never easy, and less so when you must come out again to confess drag is not a phase or a hobby–but a DREAM. Before RuPaul’s Drag Race, drag performers sacrificed their careers, relationships, and lives in the name of art instead of the possibility of stardom and millions. Instead, they pursued their alter egos because they couldn’t imagine such a singular life. And surrounded by hatred, they often experienced that sacrifice in less metaphorical terms. 

At Darcelle XV, you will never be considered too old to perform. (Photo: Walter Cole)

Perhaps, for this reason, the public refers to Cole as a gay ambassador to the straight community, hosting events and charitable causes dressed as Darcelle XV. The best way to educate someone is to show them, and his club Darcelle XV thrived, entertaining audiences with Las Vegas-style cabaret revues of glamour and comedy. 

Darcelle XV on-screen

To date, Cole’s drag career spans five decades. In 2018, Portland-based production company 360 Labs created Through Darcelle’s Eyes, a documentary immersing you in the highs and lows of the club owner’s life through virtual reality. One moment you will experience Cole encouraging you that being happy keeps you young, and the next, you will be ambushed by a mob holding signs of queer bigotry. 

“In order to feel the love, you’ve got to feel the hate too,” said co-director Brad Bill to press about the dramatic paradox between Darcelle’s supporters and haters. By warning future generations of the negativity they might encounter by living authentically, then they will not be so easily discouraged or deterred by it.

Like the rest of us, Cole had to retire his wig and glamour and isolate himself during the pandemic. Though he got to make Darcelle XV his home, a place now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “What’s too much to handle is that I don’t have a purpose. It drives me crazy; it’s why I would never retire,” Cole said to local outlets. 

But it would take a lot more than a global crisis to keep him away from the stage. Darcelle XV managed to survive the economic woes and return to its former success with the eponymous performer at the center. 

You can catch Darcelle performing six days a week at every one of the club’s shows. Her presence remains to Portland’s drag community what Betty White served for Hollywood: an inspiration that forever will and always was. 

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