Despite a recent bout of local controversy re: the National Register of Historic Places, the list has a new(ish) Rose City addition it's tough to imagine anyone being upset about: Old Town drag haven Darcelle XV Showplace.
The club—in continuous operation since 1969, making it one of the two oldest drag venues in the United States—joined the registry in the fall of 2020. On November 16, the 91st birthday of the club's owner/star, Darcelle (a.k.a. Walter Cole), she and US Rep. Earl Blumenauer unveiled a plaque designed by Rupert Kinnard to commemorate the occasion.
Before 1 p.m., a group of 20 or 30 friends, fans, and journalists—including Cole's longtime confidant Don Horn—gathered on the corner of NW Third and Davis to await the unveiling. A red-bow-tie-wearing Blumenauer hovered around the plaque, which was wrapped like a birthday present and adorned with multicolored balloons; TV cameras fussed with shot setup, and acquaintances pulled off their masks to reveal themselves to one another. And then Darcelle, newly 91, emerged in an enormous blonde wig, gold sequined dress, faux fur wrap, and chunky handmade necklace.
Horn, who helped organize the event, spoke first. He ran down his and Cole's first meeting, the history of the building that would become Darcelle's, and how Cole fell into a lifetime of drag performance. Longevity was a major theme. "Since 1969," he emphasized at one point, to instant applause. "Longer than Starbucks and also Powell's Books."
Then Blumenauer took the stand, offering political platitudes about the importance of preserving history before addressing Darcelle directly. "In the course of over a half a century, you were a pioneer," the congressman said. "This historic recognition is something each of us can be proud of for what you've done for our community. With our thanks, a small gift."
The crowd then told Blumenauer to “get out of the way” so Kinnard, in a wheelchair, could sidle up to Darcelle and clutch her hand as she pulled the cover off of the plaque. “Darcelle XV Showplace has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places,” it began, in print laid over a faded rainbow. “This site is recognized for its national significance as part of the LGBTQ history in the United States.”
As Horn read the text, the nonagenarian drag queen dabbed her eyes. “He’s verklempt!” shouted a rogue voice from the audience. “I expected an 8 x 10 in the cement that you’d walk across,” Darcelle said eventually, to a wave of laughter. “I’m overwhelmed.” She posed for photos, spoke to TV reporters, gamely received a raucous rendition of "Happy Birthday," and then welcomed guests inside for cupcakes and Champagne.
There are more than 93,500 buildings in the National Register of Historic Places. Darcelle XV Showplace is only the 22nd LGBTQ space on the list, and the first in Oregon. It continues to host six shows a week with a company of eight queens, including Darcelle, who holds the Guinness World Record for oldest living drag performer.