Where We Live: Portland legend Gracie Hansen


Portland's own Darcelle owes much of his inspiration to the witty and charming entertainer

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The world’s oldest performing drag queen — Darcelle — got his inspiration from a brash, irreverent and irresistible Portland legend named Gracie Hansen.

Gracie was a small-town girl from Morton, Washington who was destined to be a star. In the mid-1950s, Gracie did variety shows in Morton to raise money for the PTA using local talent called the “Morton Follies.” The follies attracted a big following until they were shut down in 1958.

“Some of the things were just too adult for the PTA,” Gracie explained a few years later.

But the end of the follies led to Gracie’s big break. The World’s Fair came to Seattle in 1962 and a friend talked her into taking her show there. Fair organizers wanted $100,000; she raised $90,000 in cash.

Gracie opened a Vegas-style show called “Gracie Hansen’s Paradise Pavilion.” Don Horn of Portland’s Triangle Productions said, “She was the largest moneymaker at the Seattle World’s Fair.”

Her success caught the attention of Harvey Dick, the owner of the Hoyt Hotel in Portland’s Old Town. He spent $1 million to give Gracie her own Roaring Twenties showcase. It attracted celebrities from Johnny Carson to Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The show sold out night after night until Gracie called it quits. “But for about five or six years, the Hoyt was the thing on the West Coast,” said Horn.

Gracie ran for Oregon governor in 1970 and came in third in the Democratic primaries.

Horn collected much of Gracie’s memorabilia and his good friend Darcelle owes much of his persona to Gracie.

“When she died, she actually willed him most of her other stuff,” said Horn. “So some of the dresses he originally wore on stage were Gracie’s.”

Gracie died in 1985 after battling multiple health issues, including diabetes that took one of her legs. She was 63. “She wanted to be bigger than life — and she was,” said Horn.

Horn recently released a documentary on Gracie available online through Easter Sunday. Darcelle will have a series of drive-in shows in April.

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