In Memoriam

Darcelle Has Died. Long Live Darcelle.

Also known as Walter Cole, the legendary and beloved nightclub owner and drag queen Darcelle was a Portland institution.

By Margaret Seiler March 24, 2023

Darcelle in her eponymous Old Town club in 2019

Image: Jason Quigley

Some people toil in obscurity, their works unknown or unsung in their lifetime. And then some people live into their 90s in the public eye, drawing attention with their regal glamour, sparkly gowns, and fabulous headwear, being celebrated and memorialized as birthdays and anniversaries and superlatives pile on. When they go, after a blessedly long life, the posthumous tributes only add to all the ones that came before, the ones they had lived to see and enjoy. The British Empire had the Queen of England. Portland had Darcelle. 

The legendary drag queen and Old Town cabaret owner, also known as Walter Cole, died March 23, 2023, at age 92. Longtime friend and collaborator Kevin Cook (who performs as Poison Waters) shared on social media that it was due to natural causes. Cole had held the Guinness record of World’s Oldest Living Drag Queen since 2016, and Darcelle XV Showplace is the country’s longest-running drag revue.  

In 1967, Cole took over Demas Tavern, a lesbian bar on NW Third Avenue in Old Town, which was then known as Skid Row. He’d previously run a coffeehouse, after-hours jazz joint, and ice cream parlor, but this was his first bar. He learned a lot about running a bar from the lesbian community, he told Portland Monthly’s Eden Dawn in a 2016 interview, including how to throw out an unruly patron and to use empty tuna cans instead of heavy glass ashtrays that could hurt someone in a fight.  

Soon the bar was hosting drag shows, featuring Cole and others. Cole kept the name Demas Tavern until after his first reign as the local drag empress, running in 1972 and holding the title until 1974—he said he didn’t want people to think running for empress had just been to promote the club.  

Walter Cole offers a tour of Darcelle XV Showplace in 2016.

Image: Michael Novak

When Cole was contemplating his own drag name, he said in the 2016 interview. partner Roxy and friend Mame told him about having worked in Las Vegas with Denise Darcel, a French actor who’d had roles in Hollywood and on Broadway before landing on the Vegas circuit. Cole added some letters and adopted the name. (Darcel, who died in 2012, knew about her namesake—the two met when Darcel was on a tour with the Follies in Seattle.) 

Over the years, Darcelle’s charity work to raise money for Our House, the Red Cross, youth nonprofits, and countless other groups, as well as gigs as an emcee for public events, helped expand the local audience for drag. The "female impersonator" shows at Darcelle XV Showplace became an iconic Portland draw, luring tourists, visiting in-laws, bachelorette parties, and celebrations of birthdays and divorces and survival. The experience was known as much for audience interaction, gentle ribbing, and an air of inclusion as for songs (Darcelle’s signature was “Rhinestone Cowboy”) and sequins.  

“We’re also nice people,” Darcelle said in 2016, about the mood-lifting nature of a show at the club. “And we’re happy with what we’re doing. Without happiness, you might as well hang it up.”   

A glimpse backstage at Darcelle’s

Image: Michael Novak

Cole was born November 16, 1930, and grew up in Northwest Portland’s Linnton area. A onetime Fred Meyer employee, he married and had two children before coming out in the 1960s. (His granddaughter has worked at the club.) 

Self-taught on the sewing machine, Darcelle created countless gowns for herself and other performers, some of which were part of an Oregon Historical Society museum exhibit in 2019. In 2020, Darcelle XV Showplace was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, “recognized for its national significance as part of the LGBTQ history in the United States.” The same year, Darcelle’s 1896 Queen Anne–style home in the Eliot neighborhood in inner Northeast was also listed on the National Register.  

When Darcelle started sewing dresses for herself and others, sequins generally had to be sewn on one at a time.

Image: Michael Novak

That listing was, officially, for the building’s longevity and architectural integrity. To Portlanders, though, a Darcelle sighting around town or randomly finding themselves seated next to Walter Cole on an airplane was a reason to rejoice and something to tell your friends about. The home of this glamorous, generous, and inexhaustible local icon would be a landmark no matter what. It’s hard to imagine a world without Darcelle, who often declared she would never retire. 

“Why retire when you’re doing something that keeps you young, keeps you going, keeps you involved, keeps your mind going?” Cole said in 2016. “Isn’t it funny, your life? I started off in Linnton. I had no mentors, no one to look up to. And you just start to bump around … and isn’t it funny how sometimes those building blocks of your past that are kind of worn out or shabby, kind of fit together in a perfect world. I have a perfect world. I do what I want to do, and I don’t hurt people for it. And I have dear friends … the best people in the world. It’s all there.”  

Show Comments