Darcelle at her Showcase. Photo courtesy Greg Pitts
This article originally appeared on VICE US
The first day that Walter Cole ever wore a dress, he entered the apartment of his friend Roxy Neuhardt, whose dining room table was covered in tubes and compacts. The year was 1967. Over the next two hours, Roxy artfully painted the cheeks of his 37-year-old companion, who was closeted with a wife and two kids at home.
The pair were preparing for a Halloween costume ball at the hotel where Roxy worked as a dancer. Roxy had convinced Walter to go in drag, inviting him over before the party to put finishing touches on his debut ensemble, and as he dabbed sponges and brushed over the fine lines of his friend's young wrinkles, he had no idea how fully Walter would come to embrace drag.
Before long, Walter would be standing uninhibited on bar tables as a glittering, fully realized drag queen. And by no stretch would he have imagined that four decades on, at 85 years old, Walter would still regularly grace the stage as the oldest female impersonator in the country, or that their budding love affair would last more than 45 years, and that together they'd operate what's now considered the longest-running drag revue in the country.
In fact, it's likely that none of Walter's friends could have envisioned he'd soon become the outspoken, over-the-top character known as Darcelle XV.
"Darcelle is glitz, glamor, and comedy—overdressed, over-jeweled, and with hair way bigger than it should be," Walter tells VICE. She's a diva he's honed onstage for nearly as long as the gay liberation movement has existed.
Walter and Roxy invented the identity of Darcelle together, naming her after the B-list French actress and stripper Denise Darcel. But the character's primary inspiration emerged from Gracie Hansen, a Pacific Northwest burlesque legend. Bedecked with rhinestones and a busty standout alongside shapely showgirls, Gracie would greet her audiences with brash theatrics, yelling, "Hiya, suckers!"
Hansen would later go on to run for governor of Oregon in 1970, on the platform that she was "the best politician money can buy." She ended up placing third in the democratic primary.
Hansen was also the inspiration for Darcelle's comedic swagger—it certainly didn't emerge from his timid offstage personality. "Darcelle is completely different from Walter," he says. "Darcelle can do anything—and she gets away with it. Walter's hesitant. But when you're overpowering onstage, you can say just about anything you want."
In time, distinctions between Darcelle and the man beneath the makeup would blur. Nearly everyone in Portland soon came to know him simply as Darcelle, and over the years, he emerged as a key ambassador for Portland's LGBTQ community. From the same stage in the same club Walter has operated for over four decades, he's witnessed firsthand the story of queer America, from the Stonewall riots to the AIDS epidemic to marriage equality today.
The same year he first wore a dress, Walter purchased his then-rundown bar in Portland's dilapidated Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood. He'd operated several businesses previously, including Portland's first coffeehouse and a basement jazz club. But those ventures soon fell victim to urban renewal, and he was forced to move to what was then the city's skid row.
Before it became the Darcelle XV Showplace, as it's known today, the bar catered to lesbians. While 1960s Portland boasted several gay bars and bathhouses, lesbians had only the Old Town/Chinatown neighborhood to call their own. At first, it was a part of town Walter's friends were unwilling to hang out in.
Its stage was a four-by-seven-foot banquet table, and that's where Walter began hosting shows. He'd sew dresses and make hats by day while Roxy choreographed the night's entertainment. With homosexuality still widely considered a mental illness and LGBT harassment the status quo, Walter and the club's other performers knew the risks of openly performing drag.
"When we started, we didn't even walk outside in drag. This was our safe zone," he says. "That was about the time Stonewall was happening. We just didn't chance it."
Darcelle's personal brand of activism soon came in the form of sequins, makeup, and hair. She volunteered countless hours throughout the years for thousands of charitable events, using her status as the grand dame of Portland drag to support causes important to the community. And during the height of the epidemic, the club was available free of charge to any fundraiser for HIV/AIDS.
By celebrating all things glamorous and queer, she encouraged generations of misfits to love themselves with pride. And while Darcelle's wiseass quips haven't ceased, the audience has changed dramatically since the late 60s.
"It was almost more fun when it was, 'Oh, look, drag!' It was an intrigue," Walter says. "It's still exciting and people love it, but now it's no longer an intrigue."
A different kind of crowd now flocks to Darcelle's Showplace. "Some of these people come from different backgrounds," says Walter. "Perhaps they're religious, and they come in and think we jack off onstage—pardon me, masturbate onstage—and that we have two heads because we're queer. But we don't give that kind of show. Our show is geared toward everyone."
Drag stage performances have changed over the years as well. Drag queens no longer simply imitate women; today's characters are complex riffs on drag icons that have come before. In that sense, Darcelle has almost single-handedly paved the way for generations of Portland performers.
"Darcelle made drag as it stands possible to all who followed," says Kevin Cook, better known as his drag persona Poison Waters, who has performed at Darcelle's for more than 25 years. "There will always be new queens and new styles, but classic drag like Darcelle's has and always will stand the test of time."
Even empresses get the jitters, and Walter still gets nervous before he performs. "I stand backstage before I go on with butterflies," he says. "Audiences are different; you just never know."
But there's one thing he's sure of: "There's no such thing as a bad night for Darcelle. There's only a bad night for the audience." After 85 years, chances are he's caught on to something.
Follow Jon Shadel on Twitter.