Playwright remembers Darcelle XV, an 'amazing friend' and the world's oldest drag queen
Walter Cole performed for over 50 years, owned a nightclub on the National Register of Historic Places
Walter Cole, who was crowned the world's oldest working drag performer in 2016 by the Guinness Book of World Records, died last week at the age of 92.
Cole performed for more than five decades as Darcelle XV — decked out in sequins, outlandish wigs, and bombastic makeup.
He opened the Darcelle XV Showplace nightclub nearly 50 years ago, which became a Portland cultural institution. In 2020, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places — the first site in Oregon to be nominated specifically for its significance in LGBTQ+ history.
Cole was also a U.S. army veteran, activist, philanthropist, businessman, and devoted partner, father and friend.
One of those friends was Donnie Horn, a playwright, theatre producer and LGBTQ history buff. Here's part of his conversation with As It Happens host Nil Köksal.
What kind of friend was he?
He was an amazing friend. I will be honest with you. He had his ways and you lived through his ways. He would speak his piece. But he always, always was genuine. And he accepted everybody for who they were at that point. He didn't ask for you to be better or worse. He asked you to be the best you could be.
What was Darcelle like on stage?
Darcelle was an entertainer. He knew how to wrap an audience around his little finger. He was the old-style entertainer kind of like, let's see, a Frank Sinatra in a way. Do you know what I'm saying? They'd walk out and they could read the audience and know what to do.
They knew how to work the crowd.
He knew it. He used to sing a song called Send in the Clowns. You kind of know that song?
And he'd stop the song, and he'd say a couple of jokes, and he goes, "Oh my god, that song goes on forever!" And then start up again, he goes, "Here it goes again!" And the audience would be right along with him. And they'd laugh with him. He'd have fun with them. He didn't hurt anybody. He never once put anybody down.
In a documentary, Behind the Make Up, from more than a decade ago, he said he didn't put on a dress, at least to perform, until he was 37 years old. But he also talked about, there's a time in everybody's life where you just have to be honest about about who you are. Did he talk about that with you?
What he said is, you have to be true to yourself. And he still was married to his wife, even the day he died. He never divorced. They never divorced. They separated and they lived separate lives. And he met Roxie, his partner, [of] I think, 47 years. And then when Roxie died in 2017, he continued on with the legacy of their relationship, which he said was very, very important to him.
He wanted people to know that being yourself, if it was drag, if it was being gay, if it was being straight, if it was having children, whatever it was, be true to yourself and be happy. This [life] is a one time only.
You wrote a musical about Walter. You made sure his home and his bar were put on the National Historic Registry. Why is it so important for you to preserve his legacy?
I felt like he did so much in the community and that history should be preserved. As I wrote the lyrics, I reached out to people who had worked with him or knew of him in the past, and they got to co-write a song with me.
Tom Grant is a jazz artist. He started his career when he was 18 years old at Walter's Club ... and he got so excited that he could write a song with me for Walter. Preserving history is huge.
How much did he mean to people in Portland?
I drove by today and there was flowers outside his house. He used to do Rhinestone Cowboy, the Glen Campbell song, and he'd come out in a rhinestone outfit. But if you know chaps, they don't have any fabric on the butt. And he'd come out and start singing, and then he'd turn around and show his butt — and the audience would fall over and have fun with them.
And so driving by, one of the signs says, "Keep the rhinestones shining."
He was pretty active in the community and community events, but also giving back, was he not?
On Christmas Eve, he would close the club and he would open it for the people upstairs [in the] hotel, which is people that are low income, and people on the street, and he would serve them food. He did that because he believed [in helping] everybody. He would do toy drives. He was always out there in the community.
What did he say to you about what's happening in the United States in terms of new laws, specifically around drag clubs?
We had a long conversation about this a couple of weeks ago. And he said, "The fight's not over. The fight should never be over. We should keep on going."
And he didn't understand why it was happening, when you would think that there's other things to worry about than somebody in a dress. Why is that so important when there's so many other things that need to be taken care of?
Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Interview produced by Sheena Goodyear. With files from The Associated Press.