PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Walter W. Cole Sr., the performer behind the iconic Portland drag queen Darcelle, has passed away at the age of 92, according to a statement made by his family, cast and crew on Thursday evening.
In an Instagram post, the family wrote they were heartbroken to announce Cole died from natural causes.
“We ask for privacy and patience as everyone processes and grieves in their own way and at their own pace,” the statement continued.
Life rarely turns out the way it was planned.
When the 1960s rolled around, Walter Cole was living a fairly ordinary American life. He had served his country through the Korean War. He was married with two children. He had a modest home in Southeast Portland. He worked at Fred Meyer.
But, for the man who would go from fairly ordinary to extraordinary and a world-famous performer, something was missing. Something was different.
Portland was different back then too. As was the case in a lot of cities in the United States in the decades following World War II, being gay was publicly shunned in Portland. There wasn’t a lot of acceptance of those who were different or those who dressed in drag.
Cole knew he didn’t fit into that fairly ordinary American life.
By the time he was in his late 30s, Cole had begun dressing in women’s clothing. He was already the owner of a couple of businesses. In 1967 when he bought the Northwest Portland tavern that would, over time, become iconic. Like Cole himself.
“I was in local theater, and I had Caffé Espresso and I finally bought a tavern in what was then skid row,” Cole said in a 2019 interview with KOIN 6’s Ken Boddie. “We had our clientele, because none of my gay friends would go across Burnside.
“So, I hired a lesbian bartender and we were a lesbian bar for three years and thank God they kept me open, bless their hearts.”
For the first two years after purchasing the tavern, Cole continued dressing as a woman and performing in small drag shows at his club.
“We started the show on a four-by-eight banquet table in the corner of the room with a slide projector for the light,” Cole said. “We were doing it nightly and Susan Stanley from the Willamette Week came and saw the show and said, ‘This is the best kept secret in Portland.’”
Still, the show, and Walter’s emerging alter-ego, were mainly kept secret outside of the club. Confined to the underground, out of the public spotlight.
“We were closeted in the club,” Cole said. We didn’t go out in the street in drag.”
In 1969, Cole came out of the closet as gay. He left his wife, his two young children and the facade of that ordinary American life. And, he gave the alter-ego he had been working on and perfecting all those nights at his club a name.
“We had no name for a long time,” Cole said. “Finally my partner Roxy (Neuhardt) suggested that I have a name. We were drinking beer in the corner one time and he said, ‘You cannot be Alice or Mary. You’re too big. You are too overdressed. Your hair is too tall and you have too many jewels. You can’t be somebody next door’”
“He had worked in Vegas with an actress and a movie star named Denise Darcel from Paris. I said, ‘That’s it.’ We added an L and it stuck.”
Darcelle was born.
Fifty-four years later, on March 23, 2023 at the age of 92, Cole died in Portland surrounded by family and loved ones.
Together with Darcelle, Cole leaves behind a legacy of showmanship, culture, and acceptance that has become synonymous with Portland.
When asked in 2019 about his impact on Portland since Darcelle’s debut, Cole laughed and offered a very succinct answer: “Powell’s Bookstore, Voodoo Donuts, and Darcelle’s. That’s what you do when you come to Portland.”
Despite rave reviews and early success at the club, which would eventually undergo a name change from Demas to Darcelle’s XV Showplace, acceptance of Darcelle, and drag performers in general, wasn’t a given. It wasn’t until Darcelle began helping raise money that a public bond began to develop between her and her hometown.
“Whenever I was asked to do a fundraiser if my name would sell a ticket, I would do it,” Cole said. “I’ve done ‘em all. Smoke Out for the March of Dimes, Heart Association. I’ve done all of those.
“In fact, I worked steadily with the American Business Women’s Association locally until we raised a million dollars and they stopped doing them.
“That made me accepted by, you know, everybody.”
Darcelle helped raise money for the fight against AIDS and, more recently, to fund scholarships.
As the years went by, she kept packing huge crowds into the club and the legend began to grow. Her incredibly long and very fake eyelashes, big and shiny jewelry, and flamboyantly beautiful dresses became a fixture at social functions and events. First in Portland, eventually across the country and around the world.
While Darcelle’s reputation grew, so did Cole’s club that shared her name. As perceptions began to shift and laws changed, the drag shows at the Darcelle’s XV Showplace brought in bigger and bigger crowds, year after year. According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, after Finocchio’s, a famous club in San Francisco closed in 1999, Darcelle’s became the oldest female impersonator cabaret on the West Coast. In 2020, the club was officially nationally, recognized as a historic site for its contributions to Oregon’s LGBTQ community.
For Darcelle, in 2011, more than four decades after she made her debut in that Northwest Portland club, she took center stage as the star of one of Portalnd’s biggest annual events when she served as Grand Marshal of the Rose Festival’s Starlight Parade. That same year city officials named her a Spirit of Portland award winner, which is given to people and organizations who push for positive change in the community.
In 2016, just a few months shy of Cole’s 86th birthday, Darcelle was officially recognized by Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest drag queen. Since turning 90 years old in 2020, Darcelle has continued performing on a very regular basis at Darcelle’s XV Showcase and the occasional fundraiser.
Four years ago, stage-writer and long-time friend Don Horn wrote, with the help of several local musicians, a musical about Darcelle’s life and legacy.
“When I wrote it, I wanted to tell people this history,” Horn said in an interview with KOIN 6 before the show premiered. “But I also want to share some time with my friend and let people know that what you do for a living isn’t something you have to do. It’s what you love to do. And he loves to do it.
“I think when people walk out, I want people to say, ‘That was a life well lived. It’s not a life that was thrown away.’ He has always said to me, ‘Do what you really love to do.’ And I really believe that he’s done what he’s loved to do all the way through.”
That’s No Lady, That’s Darcelle premiered in September 19th, 2019 at Lincoln Hall on the Portland State University campus and ran through October 5th.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Darcelle launched a drive-thru drag show at Zidell Yards to support local businesses and launched a first-ever drag brunch at Darcelle’s XV Showplace.
Just this past February, as part of a collaboration with Weird Portland United, Portland’s Gigantic Brewing Company launched Darcelle’s Blonde IPA, to celebrate her legacy and achievements.
When asked in 2019 to reflect on Darcelle’s legacy, and impact, Cole talks about loving being Darcelle, but his attention turns to the family he almost lost when he first came out of the closet almost 55 years before.
“I have a very supportive family,” he said. “I have two children, two grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter now. And they’re very proud of Darcelle.
“I’m very lucky because a lot of gay men are losing their families and mine just got tighter.”
Cole is preceded in death by his long-time partner Roxy Neuhardt who died in 2017.
According to his family’s statement, details of a public memorial will be announced as soon as they’re confirmed.
“All shows at Darcelle XV Showplace will go on as scheduled per Darcelle’s wishes,” they said. “Please join us and celebrate her legacy and memory, thank you in advance for your continued support.”