On Saturday, June 23 the Dill Pickle Club hosts The Oh So (Queer) History of Portland: A Tour of PDX’s LGBTQ Community. The walking tour highlights our city’s past and present queer culture — including the history of the struggle for gay rights and current challenges faced by the LGBTQ community. All this week, we’ll be giving more context to the program on our blog. Today’s featured guest is Walter Cole, better known as Darcelle, female impersonator and co-owner of Darcelle XV.
Portland native Walter Cole had been in local theater and and owned several other businesses before founding in 1967 what is now Darcelle XV. Co-owners Cole, Roxy Nuehardt and Tina Sandelle added performances of female impersonations to what was then the Demos Tavern after Portland law changed to permit entertainment in taverns. Initially performing three shows a week, the charge at the door was 50¢, which brought patrons admission and two glasses of beer. Cole states that back in the early days of the venue, gay men would not come to the SW neighborhood, which was then considered a kind of Skid Row. During this time there was no mixing of lesbians and gay men, but when they opened the doors of their establishment, a gradual change occurred and gay men began coming in and a real cover was instituted in order to pay a full staff. Patrons loved the show and from there things took off.
Says Cole, “Willamette Week wrote an article about us and [snaps fingers] Voila! Here we are, 45 years later. There was no major plan. I never decided that I wanted to put on a dress or parade around. I call them costumes, they’re not really dresses. Nobody would wear them outside of here. I was in theater and this was just another part of theater.”
Read the full story after the jump…
Seated in a back booth in the cabaret, which Cole refers to as his office, surrounded by walls of photos documenting the history of female impersonation in Portland, the soft-spoken, bespectacled 80-something Cole states, when asked if there was a change in clientele once drag shows were added to what was then a lesbian bar, “There was no change in clientele because they enjoyed it. And please, use the term ‘show bar’ or ‘female impersonator’. ‘Drag’ to me is like, we don’t do drag,” he says elongating the word. “We lighten the board up, we have a great time with it. We’re funny. We’re fun. We’re intelligent with what we do. A lot of drag shows aren’t. I know that you have to find the label somewhere, but ‘female impersonator’ works just fine for us.”
Asked if there were any events in Portland history similar to the Stonewall Riots in late 1960s New York City, Cole states, “We were in business then and no, we never had that problem here. I also made sure, and this had been my policy, although now it’s more open, I worked in here and wore jeans out there. I never went anywhere I wasn’t invited to perform, like to a charity function, that sort of thing. I think that if you throw your difference in the wrong direction you’re going to have some problems — verbal, whatever. It shouldn’t be, but this isn’t the form of attire that most people recognize as okay for a man.”
Cole now performs regularly as Darcelle at charity functions and events all over Portland, even hosting a bike ride for this year’s Pedalpalooza. “Thank God that we started when we started,” states Cole, “because now we have opened all the doors; there’s not a door closed to us. We opened the doors so that we could be invited to functions for breast cancer, heart association. That wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t step forward and do what I do and accept all those invitations. Only by invitation was I somewhere.”
In response to what kinds of challenges, such as gay marriage, does the LGBTQ community faces today, Cole responds, “I’ve been with my partner for 45 years, so gay marriage doesn’t enter into our thing. It’s the equal rights part of it -not being refused at hospitals, insurance policies, contracts, etc. It’s a great idea. I just hope that the men and women realize that when they do enter into a legal marriage situation, that it’s a legal marriage situation. You have a legal obligation to clear it up through the courts. I wonder if our friends in the community realize that when they take that step. Sometimes it’s difficult to get a divorce. I’m all for the benefits but I would hate for people to walk in blindfolded and say now this is the thing to do. I’m gay and all of a sudden I can be like some man and woman thing. That would be the last thing I would worry about.”
When asked what is his favorite achievement that has come about through female impersonation and the community, Cole responds, “If I’ve opened a few eyes and gotten acceptance from people that otherwise wouldn’t have accepted — that would be my achievement. And it happens all the time. People come in and drag their husbands in here and their husbands kick and scream coming in, but ten minutes into the show they’re having a wonderful time. And they say, ‘Wait a minute, they’re not masturbating on stage. They don’t have two heads.’”