PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) – In the days before his death on Thursday, March 23, as nurses took care of Walter Cole, aka the beloved drag queen Darcelle, a great many people paid visits to him at Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.
There was family, including son Walter Jr. and daughter Maridee Woodson. There was close friends, such as writer/theater owner Donald Horn, and employees from Darcelle XV Showplace, including longtime drag queen cohort Poison Waters (Kevin Cook). There was business people from Portland.
It was a glorious time, Cook said, even under the circumstances.
“They did a really nice job and were kind and respectful,” he said, of Emanuel staff. “The fact that they knew who they were taking care of, and everybody (who visited) got to spend time there. They said, ‘This person deserves this.’
“Literally everybody who worked (at Darcelle’s) came through.”
Although they had been apart since the 1960s, when Cole came out and entered into a relationship with his late partner Roxy Neuhardt, Cole and wife Jeanette had remained friends throughout the years. She was unable to visit Cole at his hospital bedside, Cook said.
The legendary drag queen Darcelle, aka Walter Cole, has died
The Portland community lost an icon with the passing of Cole, 92, who has entertained the masses as Darcelle since 1967. He has been a constant in Old Town with the showplace at 208 N.W. Third Ave. He’s been an advocate and ambassador for the LGBTQ2SIA+ community. He’s been a joyful part of Portland, somebody who brought smiles to faces.
The show goes on, as Cook said Darcelle XV Showplace will continue operation.
Cook had known Cole since the late 1980s and worked at Darcelle’s since 1990. Darcelle was the best known drag queen in Portland and perhaps the United States — and renowned worldwide, actually — and Poison Waters has certainly established herself on the top echelon of performers. It helps that Cook lives two doors down from Cole, whose home at 89 N.E. Thompson St., like the showplace, had been put on the National Register of Historic Places.
Between Cook and Cole lives Cole’s son, Walter Jr. “We call it the compound,” Cook said.
“We were very close,” he added.
Cook reflected more on Cole: “I never called him Walter one day in his life, I met him as Darcelle, the majority of our relationship it was Poison and Darcelle. … His willingness to share, very generous — and I don’t mean financial, but thoughts and feelings and inclusion. He was so generous with ideas of how to work in show business, how to be a people person, how to command an audience, listen to an audience and embrace an audience. I told him for decades that he was a father figure to me. He taught me lessons that I hoped to learn from an adult father figure.”
Likewise for Horn, who runs Triangle Productions theater company and who helped produce the play “Darcelle: That’s No Lady” and write one of the biographies on Cole/Darcelle.
“He’s like my dad in a way,” Horn said. “It’s sad.”
Horn worked on the play and book, and many other things that brought honor to Cole/Darcelle, because it had to be done. Darcelle was such a special part of the community.
“I’m doing this because I love him,” Horn once said. “I’m going to grab ahold of him as much as I can.
“He truly has done so much for the city of Portland, pushing for so many things to happen. He has raised more than $3 million for charities in Portland. He has been a businessman in Old Town for (many) years, through it all, he has been an anchor. He has done so much, why don’t we do something for him?”
Other remembrances came in after Cole’s passing, which came in the same year as we lost Trail Blazers legendary announcer Bill Schonely, and a year after the death of former Mayor Bud Clark (Feb. 1, 2022).
“Darcelle, or Walter as we called him, defined Portland for those who live here and those who visited,” said Mike Lindberg, a former long-serving city commissioner. “ He was probably the most popular and well-known Portlander. He made it OK for people to be whomever they wanted to be.
“Consistently kind, thoughtful and accessible, he represented how we should treat others. With declining civility nationally and in Portland, we loved him even more.”
Said Rep. Earl Blumenauer: “Darcelle XV (Walter Cole) was not just an artist, a business owner and fighter for the rights of all, but a symbol of the spirit of Portland.” Blumenauer advocated for the showplace to be added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Marilyn Clint, CEO of the Rose Festival, remembers the formation area of the Grand Floral Parade in the early 1980s and seeing Darcelle on a float representing Old Town.
“What a thrill that was for me early in my festival career,” she said. “Decades later we celebrate Darcelle’s 80th birthday (naming her) as the grand marshal of the Starlight Parade. What a popular choice! Darcelle’s fearless spirit and positive energy was perfect for Portland.”
Said Todd Addams, interim executive director of Basic Rights Oregon:
“Basic Rights Oregon is saddened to learn of the passing of Darcelle, also known as Walter W. Cole Sr. She touched the lives of so many not only through her performances but also through her fearless community advocacy and charitable works. She was nothing short of an icon and will forever hold a special place in the hearts of Oregon’s LGBTQ2SIA+ community. Our hearts go out to Darcelle’s loved ones during this difficult time.”
Portland musician Tom Grant worked on a song for the “Darcelle: That’s No Lady” musical. He remembered at the time of playing at Cole’s coffee shop in downtown Portland in 1964. Darcelle hadn’t been unveiled, yet.
“I was a guy in the band, and he was a very shy, sweet man,” Grant said at the time of the play.
As Darcelle became famous and established herself as a Portland treasure, Grant said of Cole: “Everybody knows who he is. He’s really made a very distinguished place in Portland entertainment history. I’m struck by how everyday he seems.”
Cook said Darcelle was a great performer, because she was who she was — authentic.
“Even when he was younger, with the drag persona he was older: white hair, silver eyebrows and dresses,” Cook said. “He always had the maternal image. That’s where kindness came in. People told him all the time he reminded them of their grandmother. We told him, ‘People respect you as an elder, they want to please you and get approval.’ Everybody at the club knew Roxy and Darcelle had the parental thing over us. … The audience would crack up when he swore; grandmothers never swore. He loved playing into that part.”
Both Walter Jr. and Maridee work at the club, which will continue.
“It’s a family business, always has been. We balked at the question of ‘what happens afterward,’ because the family is still here,” said Cook, who obviously will play a prominent role moving forward with Poison Waters.
“When Darcelle went on vacation, we would still have the show. He was gone for personal reasons, we’d still have a show. That’s what he wanted.”
In fact, Friday-Sunday, March 24-26, shows were planned at the showplace.
“Roll up your sleeves and get to work,” Cook said. “When Roxy died (in October 2017), there was a show that night. We all came through the ‘80s and ‘90s and lost co-workers and friends to AIDS, and still worked. We have an obligation to entertain.”
Yes, but it won’t be the same without the great Darcelle, who only last week appeared at a publicity event for a beer named after her.
“A week later, he’s gone,” Cook said. “But, countless people came to see him at the end.”
Cook summed up Cole:
“You can live your best life when you are your authentic self. At 92 years old, he had one of the better lives I’ve heard of. He did everything he wanted to do and more.”
The family announced on Facebook, and Cook confirmed, that there would be a public memorial in the near future.
Jim Redden contributed to this story.
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