PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Rehearsals are underway for a new musical stage show about a Portland icon who holds the title of world’s oldest performing drag queen.
“That’s No Lady — That’s Darcelle” tells the real-life story of its title character: Darcelle XV.
The actor, whose real name is Walter Cole, was born 88 years ago and raised in Portland’s Linnton neighborhood.
He served in the military, was married and had 2 children. But after more than 30 years of living a straight life, Cole came out as gay and left his wife.
“It was difficult because I was lying to her, cheating on her and lying to myself,” he said.
By 1969, he had started a relationship with fellow performer Roxy Neuhardt, who came up with the stage name “Darcelle.”
Cole purchased a tavern in Portland’s Old Town in 1967 and turned it into a lesbian bar. He started the drag show Darcelle XV Showplace a few years later.
But the city was much different from the Portland we know today.
“We were closeted in the club,” Cole said. “We didn’t go out on the street in drag. Now, you can go anywhere in Portland.”
Darcelle became a recognizable face around Portland — winning over the LGBTQ and straight communities alike through laughter and appearances at countless fundraisers and civic events.
“That made me accepted by, you know, everybody,” Cole said.
As for him and Neuhardt — they became business partners and stayed together until Neuhardt died in 2017.
“I said ‘Roxy, if you’re going to heaven, save me a place — if you’re going to hell, never mind,'” Cole recalled, laughing.
Today, Cole continues his work at his famous nightclub, Darcelle’s XV Showplace. He creates and sews nearly everything Darcelle wears.
And that dedication, which has stretched across decades, inspired Triangle Productions founder Don Horn.
Horn is producing “That’s No Lady — That’s Darcelle.” The musical will feature songs by Portland greats like Tom Grant and Storm Large and the title character will be played by veteran New York actor, Kevin Loomis.
Horn hopes the show makes people think “that was a life well-lived, it’s not a life that was thrown away.”
Cole is taking it all in stride.
“It’s about time!” he joked. “No, that isn’t what I really mean. What I mean is that I’m very happy for it. Extremely.”
“That’s No Lady” will be performed at Lincoln Hall on the Portland State University campus from Sept. 19 to Oct. 5.
An exhibit featuring Darcelle’s costumes called “The Many Shades of Being Darcelle: 52 Years of Fashion, 1967-2019” opens Aug. 30 at the Oregon Historical Society.