PORTLAND, Ore. (PORTLAND TRIBUNE) — Walter Cole lives to perform as Darcelle, the famous drag queen and Portland icon who has thrilled crowds at the same Old Town location for 53 years.
Living and performing is better than the alternative for Cole, who turns 90 later this year.
But as of now, if things don’t improve by the end of the year, Cole fears he’ll have to close Darcelle XV Showplace at 208 N.W. Third Ave. And not performing would (figuratively) kill him.
The fear associated with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is one thing, Cole said, but the real problems are the destructive elements taking advantage of largely peaceful social justice protests and the ongoing homeless problem.
“Plywood city” and “tent cities,” he calls the problems in downtown. A lifelong Portlander, Cole is sounding the alarm as a city ambassador to accentuate the plight of small business owners in downtown.
Since Multnomah County entered Phase 1 of the pandemic protocols, Cole has opened Darcelle XV Showplace with health protocols in place, and some crowds have trickled in — but nothing big enough to sustain operations.
“Something has to be done,” Cole said. “I have to have people come in the door to survive. Trust me, there won’t be anything left of small businesses down here — or large businesses.
“My customers are not parking because all the streets are full of tents. Rioting is up the street. People are not going to drive downtown from Gresham or somewhere to Portland to see a show or do anything. The virus is the least of our problems. The city doesn’t seem to be doing anything about it.”
While the Black Lives Matter protests remained mostly peaceful in Portland, other cities in the state and around the nation, Portland has been rocked nightly by smaller and more violent clashes between police and rioters, resulting in vandalism and arson throughout downtown. Police have been criticized — by Gov. Kate Brown, members of the Portland City Council and others — for failing to deescalate the clashes.
The violent clashes finally began to diminish recently.
But if the status quo remains, Cole said, “I won’t be able to survive through the winter. It takes people to run a club, and rent, light bills and payroll are still there. We’re ready to go at 8 o’clock and if nobody shows up, we still have payroll. We have weekend (shows), but we went from 139 capacity to 50, and when tables are not full, you’re in trouble. And, closing at (the required) 10 o’clock doesn’t help; some people don’t start drinking till 10 o’clock. The whole thing is very difficult. A lot of restaurants are closing; they can’t make it work.”
As Cole tells visitors: You’ve experienced Portland if you’ve visited Powell’s Books, Voodoo Doughnut and Darcelle’s.
Before the pandemic and rioting, and even with homeless issues, “we were seeing people coming to Portland as a vacation destination. The audience was full of people from every state and Europe and Asia. They come to celebrate in Portland.”
But things have gotten worse. The pandemic capsized the tourism industry throughout the nation. And as the economy in Oregon tanked, and the weather grew warmer, more unsheltered homeless people have begun setting up tents throughout the city.
In May, voters overwhelmingly approved a $250 million-per-year ballot measure for homeless services, sponsored by Metro, the regional government. The program is scheduled to last 10 years and imposes a 1% marginal tax on the personal incomes of individuals earning more than $125,000, couples earning more than $200,000, and businesses with revenues of more than $5 million. That money is intended to support services to keep the chronically homeless housed and to prevent at-risk households from becoming homeless. But such programs aren’t slated to begin until 2021 — cold comfort for an entrepreneur and entertainer today.
At the same time that Cole’s business is in danger of foundering, organizers have been working on attaining National Register of Historic Places designation for Darcelle XV Showplace. The National Park Service is expected to take up the nomination later this year.
Cole said he can keep the business open for a while.
“Fifty-three years and I never thought it’d end like this,” Cole said. “We’re not closing, yet, but it’s stressful. You think about it 24/7.
“My employees want to get paid and I can pay them, but when that runs out, then what? If nothing clears up, we’re beating a dead horse. I did get a (federal pandemic relief) PPP loan for 26 weeks, and I can get my payroll done, and it’s dedicated to payroll. If (the problem) continues, you can’t take every dime you have and put it into something that sees no future. If we don’t get the city cleaned up, there won’t be a future.”