Darcelle, the world’s oldest working drag queen, has died at the age of 92
PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Walter Cole, better known as the legendary drag queen who spent decades performing as Darcelle XV and is a fearless advocate for Portland’s LGBTQ+ community, has died of natural causes in Portland, Oregon. He was 92.
Darcelle, who died on Thursday, was crowned the oldest working drag performer in the world by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2016 and wowed audiences to the end. As a performer, Darcelle was known for hosting the longest-running drag show on the US West Coast. Offstage, Army veteran Cole campaigned for LGBTQ+ rights and community service in Portland.
The nightclub that Darcelle opened more than 50 years ago in downtown Portland, Darcelle XV Showplace, released a statement on Facebook expressing sadness and asking for privacy and patience.
The club, which had become a Portland cultural institution by the 1970s, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2020, becoming the first place in Oregon to be specifically nominated for its importance in LGBTQ+ history. In the venue’s early days in the 1970s and 1980s, it was considered taboo and protesters stood outside, reported The Oregonian/OregonLive.
It offered a lifeline to 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 offstage.
“If I hadn’t admitted who I am, I would probably be dead by now,” he told the newspaper. “I would sit on a couch and retire from … management. Not for me.”
“She has touched the lives of so many, not only through her performances, but also through her fearless commitment to the community and community service,” said Todd Addams, interim executive director of Basic Rights Oregon, of Darcelle. “She was nothing short of an icon.”
Writer Susan Stanley described the club as a place of “warmth and affection” where the performers “glittered in sequins and satin and a shimmering foam of feathers” in what is credited as the first profile of Darcelle XV, made in 1975 in the Willamette Week was released.
When speaking of Darcelle, Cole, a gay man, referred to his persona in the third person using feminine 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 on her.”
Stanley briefly worked at the club and became Cole’s close friend. She described the performer not only as a talented artist who also sewed many of the club’s costumes, but also as a caring person who is deeply committed to the LGBTQ+ community and fighting the social stigma of the time.
“(Darcelle) was just a very, very caring person. She encouraged other guys to step up and come out of their shells,” Stanley told the AP in a phone interview.
After decades of advocating for LGBTQ+ activists organizing for civil rights and liberties, Stanley said she’s saddened by how drag has become so polarized in today’s political climate.
“That shows a really, really big misunderstanding,” she said. “Politicians who want to turn their minds back decades… that’s both mysterious and terrifying to me.”
Cole was born in 1930 and grew up in the Linnton area of Portland. He served in the US armed forces and was discharged in the late 1950s, according to the club’s website, which says he used money received from the military to start his first business.
After trying his hand at a coffee shop and a jazz club, Cole bought what would become the Darcelle XV Showcase in 1967.
Two years later, he had developed an “alter ego” called 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. In the 1970s, the Showplace became a popular destination for cabaret and drag performances.
In 1999, following the closure of Finocchio’s Club in San Francisco, Darcelle became the oldest drag performer on the West Coast.
On Friday, fans including the mayor of Portland took to social media to mourn Cole’s death. Democratic Senator Ron Wyden said in a social media post that “with “groundbreaking courage” Darcelle wrote an unforgettable chapter in Portland history.”
Darcelle XV Showplace said details of a public memorial will be announced and all shows will go ahead as planned, per Darcelle’s request.
“Please join us in celebrating her legacy and memory. Thank you in advance for your continued support,” the club’s statement said.
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 brings journalists into local newsrooms to cover undercover topics. You can follow Rush on Twitter @ClaireARush.