Life is a cabaret
Walter Cole remembers his first time putting on a dress and makeup and taking the stage as a female impersonator. It was an inauspicious beginning.
It was 1967, and he had pretty much done everything else on stage, including melodramas such as "The Drunkard." And, he says, once you do "The Drunkard," you don't do other melodramas.
So, accompanied by two other impersonators, including new friend Rock "Roxy" Neuhardt, Cole gave birth to the character that would later become the legendary Darcelle. Cole wasn't expecting much. The song-and-dance show on a small table took place at his downtown Portland bar, Demas. Lesbians had become his main clientele, as he provided them a meeting place with cheap beer.
"It wasn't pleasant, because it took two hours for Roxy to paint my face," Cole remembers. They had quickly put together costumes and opened the doors, even as the emerging part of his and their life remained behind them.
"I said, 'This won't happen again, anyway.'"
Well, 51 years later, it's still happening. The costumes in his wardrobe number in the thousands. It now takes him 20 minutes to put on his costume and makeup — including his distinctive eyebrows — and transform into the one and only Darcelle, the oldest performing female impersonator in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records. The 87-year-old Darcelle has become a Portland icon, alongside Pittock Mansion, Voodoo Doughnut, Washington Park and the Trail Blazers.
And, mind you, Walter or Mr. Cole suits him fine, but he gladly goes by Darcelle even while wearing a T-shirt and shorts, sporting thinning gray hair and lounging around his lavishly decorated Northeast Portland home. Whether it's calling the plumber or entertaining the scores of people at his Old Town business, Darcelle XV Showplace at 208 N.W. Third Ave., it's Darcelle by name, honey.
"I do mind if you're calling me Walter, sarcastically, and I'm in drag," he says.
Cole has earned much respect, and it's only an occasional cat-caller at his shows that might perturb him. Then again, it was the cat-caller who would have paid a $20 cover charge — Cole's money now — and "I have a microphone, and I've heard everything anybody has to say, and the audience is behind me and not him (or her)."
To the contrary, today Cole feels complete acceptance as a drag queen and as a gay man — and an ambassador of his hometown of Portland. "It didn't become an obsession or drive that I wanted to be a woman or wear women's underwear, which I don't, anyway," he says. "I was an entertainer."
He adds: "I'm thankful that I'm happy, but you can't dwell on it, or you become an ass that you wouldn't want to be around."
It wasn't until 1975 that the "mainstream" public started attending the Darcelle shows, thanks to a flattering Willamette Week article. His story will be told even more in the next year, as friend Donald Horn, Triangle Productions executive director, has been working on a musical play about Darcelle's life, set to stage next year. Horn has asked Marv Ross of Quarterflash to write the score. Portland musician Tom Grant has provided a song for the play.
Horn also has been working on a book — tentatively titled "That's No Lady, That's Darcelle" (inspired by a WW headline) — and an Oregon Historical Society exhibit of Darcelle's dresses, as well as devising other ways in which to honor the man and character he calls "a Portland institution," born and raised, graduated from old Lincoln High and made famous in his beloved Portland. Horn visits with Cole every Wednesday. He has watched hours of videos and listened to countless recordings to definitively document the life of the city's treasure.
"I'm doing this because I love him," Horn says. "He's also 87 years old. I'm going to grab hold of him as much as I can.
"He truly has done so much for the city of Portland, pushing for so many things to happen. He has raised more than $3 million for charities in Portland. He has been a businessman in Old Town for 51 years. Through it all, he has been an anchor. He has done so much, why don't we do something for him?"
Musician Grant actually played his first professional gig at Cole's coffee house in 1964. Darcelle hadn't been unveiled yet.
"I was a guy in the band, and he was a very shy, sweet man," Grant says.
Today, "everybody knows who he is. He's really made a very distinguished place in Portland entertainment history. I'm struck by how everyday he seems."
To understand who Darcelle is, one must understand who Cole is. As Horn says, "it's in the book," but what we know is that Cole's mother died at an early age and he had a bittersweet relationship with his father. His Aunt Lil helped raise him.
After graduating from high school in 1950, Cole married Jeannette and joined the U.S. Army, spending time in Italy during the Korean War. He wasn't asked to "play soldier for one day," to his relief. In the military, he performed in theater. Once discharged, Cole returned to Portland, owning the coffee shop and working for Fred Meyer before buying the tavern that later became Darcelle XV Showplace (the XV signifying his standing as the 15th empress of the gay entity Imperial Sovereign Rose Court).
Things got complicated. Even after fathering children, Cole admits to being unfaithful to his wife, "coming out of the closet," and falling in love with the man who helped him launch the Darcelle persona, Neuhardt.
They would spend the next nearly 50 years together as partners, entertaining the masses at the venue that once labeled the performers as "Outrageous Male Actresses" and living together unbridled.
That was until Oct. 21, 2017. Getting into their car to go to the club, Neuhardt sat in the passenger seat, and Cole walked around and entered the driver's seat.
"He took two gasps and he was gone," Cole says. Neuhardt, who had a pacemaker and had undergone surgery at one point, had heart failure. "I went over to the hospital, but I knew he was dead. They didn't have to tell me this."
Neuhardt was 82. Cole sat and talked with Neuhardt and kept his sense of humor. "I said, 'If you go to heaven, save me a place. If you go to hell, never mind.' The nurses were laughing. I was smiling. That's how we talked to each other."
Cole's life is "empty" now. So many things have happened since last October, and he can't share them with his best friend and lover.
"But I'm not really alone. I have hundreds of friends, and our family gets together a lot," Cole says.
Indeed, Cole remained legally married to his wife through the years. From the marriage, the couple had a son and a daughter, and Cole has two grand-daughters and one great-grand-daughter. His son, Walter Jr., manages and works the bar at Darcelle XV Showplace, and lives next door. It's a father-son relationship that went through turbulent times when the parents split up in the 1960s, and Roxy and Walter Sr. became an item.
Through the personal trauma and public adulation, Cole remains humble. He goes to work every day as Darcelle. He has influenced minds in the journey of the LGBTQ community members and has been a beacon for people seeking a realized life for themselves or loved ones.
"I'm very proud of that," he says. "It's gotta be done. You don't think that somebody will give you applause. You can't take any of that for granted."
Interestingly, Cole has not once wanted to bring Darcelle to other parts of the country to perform. He remembers giving an impromptu performance on a Yangtze River tour boat once, using the silver part of a chewing gum wrapper to make his flashy eyebrows.
"I did my jokes and (the Chinese) didn't know what I was saying. The tourists were all French, German and American; they understood me," he says.
Last year, he performed in London and met the oldest performing female impersonator in the United Kingdom.
Portland has always been home. Period.
"I like seeing other parts of the world, but there's nothing like your home," he says.
Fully mainstream now, standing alongside mayors and governors, a respected business owner in Old Town — it's not easy with the area's history of drunks, drug users and homeless — and still going strong as Darcelle, Cole likes his life at age 87. But part of him longs for the old days. Maybe it's because he misses Roxy and youth.
"I love the fact that everybody in the world joins us now," he says. "But it was more interesting when it was more of a mystery.
"When the Willamette Week article came out, the curiosity was there and they came in. If you told me, 'OK, I know what's going to happen to you, this and this and this, and people will know you all over the world and want you,' I would've said that's BS. Did I have a five-year plan or a two-year plan? No, it's a six-minute plan."
Every day means a new audience. The lights go on, and Darcelle arrives on stage.
"I have never once said, 'I don't want to go to work tonight,'" Cole says.
A successor to Darcelle hasn't even entered Cole's mind. As long as he moves well and says all the funny things — "I can still remember what I'm supposed to say 90 percent of the time," he says — and sings songs that make people happy, it's show on.
"I hope the house is sold out," he says, of the possible end, "and I do a little kick and ashes are on the floor."
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