Both Cole and the late Arlene Schnitzer — whose name now dons the concert hall that will host the upcoming memorial — had big impacts in their respective fields that started in their early adulthood, lasted throughout their lives and have proven to impact the next generation of artists and drag performers.
Schnitzer, originally known as Arlene Director, was born on January 19, 1929 in Salem, Ore. According to the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon Encyclopedia, her family relocated to Portland just two years later.
She attended Multnomah Grammar School, Lincoln High School, the Westlake School for Girls in Los Angeles and the University of Washington all before joining the family business at Jennings Furniture Company.
In 1949, OHS says Schnitzer set aside her dreams to marry engineer Harold Schnitzer.
“Arlene and Harold balanced each other: She was bold, direct and outspoken while he was quiet, introverted and contemplative,” OHS said.
Years after the couple had their son Jordan, Schnitzer joined what is now known as the Pacific Northwest College of Art in 1958. She later told Oregon Art Beat that she “absolutely was hooked” while studying there.
By 1961, she, her mother and a family friend founded the Fountain Gallery of Art, which aimed to boost Portland artists and raise other Oregonians’ appreciation for art.
“Schnitzer represented such artists as Louis Bunce, Carl and Hilda Morris, Mike Russo, Robert Colescott, Mel Katz, Gregory Grenon, and Laura Ross-Paul, providing them with a venue to show and sell their art,” OHS said. “She was Portland’s primary art patron and ran the Fountain Gallery for twenty-six years.”
Both Schnitzer and her husband donated a lot of their money to the Portland arts scene. OHS says the couple’s “most significant philanthropic project” was their $1.7 million donation to the renovation of the Paramount Theater, which was named the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall when it re-opened in 1984.
Schnitzer was 91 years old when she died of natural causes in April 2020.
Cole, more commonly known as the world’s longest-performing drag queen Darcelle, died at the age of 92 in March 2023. He was born in 1930, just a year after Schnitzer.
Cole grew up in Northwest Portland’s Linnton neighborhood, and went on to join the military. After being discharged, he relocated to Southeast Portland where he lived with his wife and two children.
According to OHS, Cole worked at a local Fred Meyer before opening the Caffe Espresso coffee shop near Portland State University with his money from the military. He later moved the coffee shop right across from the Civic Auditorium, where he then founded Studio A, a basement jazz club where resident and visiting musicians would have jam sessions.
OHS reports that Caffe Espresso’s new location was at risk due to “urban renewal,” so Cole put his $5,000 urban renewal compensation toward opening the Demas tavern in 1967 — a tavern now known as Darcelle XV Showplace.
Cole previously told KOIN 6 News that the tavern had started out as a lesbian bar. By 1969, that’s where he would make his drag debut as Darcelle. The performer also came out as gay to his wife and kids, and had developed a relationship with Roxy Neuhardt, who 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 said in 2019.
In Cole’s decades as an icon in the LGBTQ+ community and all of Portland, he broke a Guinness World Record, published the autobiography “Just Call Me Darcelle” and blazed trails for succeeding drag queens.
Cole’s shining legacy will be celebrated with a shining memorial to match, in Arlene Schnitzer’s Concert Hall on Tuesday at 7 p.m.