Portland, Ore. (AP) – Walter Cole, best known as the iconic drag queen who performed for decades as Darcel XV and a fearless advocate for Portland’s LGBTQ+ community, has died of natural causes in Portland, Oregon. He was 92 years old.
Darcel, who passed away on Thursday, was crowned the world’s oldest working drag performer by the Guinness Book of World Records in 2016 and was entertaining audiences till the end. As a performer, Darcel was known for hosting the longest running drag show on the US West Coast. Off stage, Cole, an Army Veteran, supported LGBTQ+ rights and charitable work in Portland.
The nightclub that Darcel opened in downtown Portland, Darcel XV Showplace, more than 50 years ago, posted a statement on Facebook expressing grief and asking for privacy and patience.
The club, which became a Portland cultural institution by the 1970s, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2020, making it the first site in Oregon to be specifically nominated for its significance in LGBTQ+ history Went. In the venue’s early days in the 1970s and 1980s, it was considered taboo and protesters picketed outside, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported.
It provided a lifeline for many people 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 that he preferred male pronouns off-stage.
“If I hadn’t accepted who I was, I would probably be dead now,” he told the paper. “I … would have been sitting on a couch retiring from management. Not for me.”
Speaking of Darcel, Todd Adams, Interim Executive Director of Basic Rights Oregon, said, “She touched the lives of many people not only through her performances but also through her fearless community advocacy and charitable work.” “She was nothing less than an icon.”
Author Susan Stanley described the club as a place of “warmth and affection” where performers “glittered in sequins and satin and shimmering feathers”, which is credited with the first profile of Darcel XV, published in Willamette Week in 1975 .
When speaking of Darcel, Cole, a gay man, refers to her persona in the third person, using female pronouns. Cole told Stanley, “I’m an entertainer with a capital E.” “Darcel is a character – like a play – and I work very hard on him.”
Stanley had been working at the club for some time and became close friends with Cole. She described the artist as not only a talented artist who sewed many of the club’s costumes, but also as a caring individual deeply invested in the LGBTQ+ community and fought against social stigma of the time .
“[Darcell]was just a very nurturing person. He encouraged other people to perform and to come out of their shells,” Stanley told the AP in a phone interview.
After decades of organized advocacy for civil rights and freedoms by LGBTQ+ activists, Stanley said she is saddened to see how drag has become so polarized in today’s political climate.
“It’s really a huge misconception,” she said. “Politicians wanting to go back decades in practice … It’s mystifying and horrifying to me at the same time.”
Cole was born in 1930 and raised in the Lynton neighborhood of Portland. He served in the US Armed Forces and was discharged in the late 1950s, according to the club’s website, which states that he used the money he received from the military to start his first business.
After working in a coffee store and jazz club, Cole bought the space that became the Darcel XV Showcase in 1967.
Two years later, he developed an “alter ego” named Darcel and came out as gay, according to a profile on the club’s website.
He left his wife and started an affair with his artistic director. During the 1970s, the showplace became a popular destination for cabaret and drag performances.
In 1999, Darcelle became the oldest drag performer on the West Coast following the closure of San Francisco’s drag venue Finocchio’s Club.
On Friday, fans including the mayor of Portland mourned Cole’s death on social media. Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden said in a social media post that “Darcell carved an unforgettable chapter in Portland’s history” with “pioneering courage”.
Darcel XV Showplace said details of a public memorial would be announced and that all shows would go on as scheduled, in accordance with Darcel’s wishes.
“Please join us and celebrate his legacy and memory, thanking you in advance for your continued support,” the club’s statement read.
Claire Rush is a core member for the Associated Press/Reports for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues. You can follow Rush on Twitter @ClaireARush.
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