Darcelle, world's oldest working drag queen, dies at 92

Walter Cole, known as the iconic drag queen who performed for decades as Darcelle XV, has died at 92

ByCLAIRE RUSH Associated Press/Report for America
March 24, 2023, 2:07 PM

PORTLAND, Ore. -- Walter Cole, better known as the iconic drag queen who performed for decades as Darcelle XV and a fearless advocate for Portland's LGBTQ+ community, has died of natural causes in Portland, Oregon. He was 92.

Darcelle, who died Thursday, was crowned the world’s oldest working drag performer in 2016 by the Guinness Book of World Records and was regaling audiences until the very end. As a performer, Darcelle was known for hosting the longest-running drag show on the U.S. West Coast. Off stage, Cole, an Army veteran, championed LGBTQ+ rights and charitable work in Portland.

The nightclub that Darcelle opened more than 50 years ago in downtown Portland, Darcelle XV Showplace, posted a statement on Facebook expressing grief and asking for privacy and patience.

The club, which had become a Portland cultural institution by the 1970s, was listed in 2020 on the National Register of Historic Places, making it the first site in Oregon to be nominated specifically for its significance in LGBTQ+ history. In the venue's early days in the 1970s and 1980s, it was seen as taboo and protesters picketed outside, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.

It provided a lifeline for many in the city's LGBTQ community, including Cole, he told the newspaper in a 2010 interview. Cole preferred female pronouns when performing, but told The Oregonian he preferred male pronouns off-stage.

“If I hadn’t admitted who I was, I’d probably be dead now,” he told the paper. “I’d be sitting on a couch retiring from ... management. Not for me.”

“She touched the lives of so many, not only through her performances but also through her fearless community advocacy and charitable works,” said Todd Addams, the interim executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, speaking of Darcelle. “She was nothing short of an icon."

Writer Susan Stanley described the club a place of “warmth and affection” where performers were “glittering in sequins and satin and a shimmering froth of feathers,” in what’s credited as the first profile of Darcelle XV, published in Willamette Week in 1975.

When speaking of Darcelle, Cole, a gay man, referred to his persona in the third person using female pronouns. “I’m an entertainer with a capital E,” Cole told Stanley. “Darcelle is a character — like in a play — and I work very hard at her.”

Stanley wound up briefly working at the club and becoming Cole's close friend. She described the performer not only as a talented artist, who also sewed many of the club’s costumes, but as a caring person deeply invested in the LGBTQ+ community and the fight against the social stigma of the time.

“(Darcelle) was just a very, very nurturing person. She encouraged other guys to perform and get out of their shells,” Stanley told the AP in a phone interview.

After decades of advocacy by LGBTQ+ activists organizing for civil rights and freedoms, Stanley said she was saddened to see how drag has become so polarized in today’s political climate.

“It bespeaks a really, really big misunderstanding,” she said. “Politicians wanting to step back decades in attitudes … it’s mystifying and horrifying to me at the same time.”

Cole was born in 1930 and raised in Portland's Linnton neighborhood. He served in the U.S. Armed Forces and was discharged in the late 1950s, according to the club's website, which says he used money he received from the military to start his first business.

After dabbling in a coffee store and a jazz club, Cole purchased the space that would become the Darcelle XV Showcase in 1967.

Two years later, he had developed the “alter ego” named Darcelle and came out as gay, according to a profile on the club's website.

He left his wife and began a relationship with his artistic director. During the 1970s, the Showplace became a popular destination for cabaret and drag performance.

In 1999, Darcelle became the oldest drag performer on the West Coast, after the closing of San Francisco’s drag venue Finocchio’s Club.

On Friday, fans including Portland's mayor mourned Cole's death on social media. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said in a social media post that “Darcelle carved out an unforgettable chapter in Portland’s history” with "pioneering courage.”

Darcelle XV Showplace said that details of a public memorial will be announced and all shows will go on as scheduled, per Darcelle’s wishes.

“Please join us and celebrate her legacy and memory, thank you in advance for your continued support,” the club's statement said.

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Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. You can follow Rush on Twitter @ClaireARush.