That’s No Lady, That’s Darcelle

Walter Cole has died at 92. Here’s the first profile ever written of his club, Darcelle XV Showplace.

Darcelle Darcelle, "World’s Oldest Drag Queen,” founder of Darcelle XV Showplace in Old Town. (Aaron Lee)

Darcelle was known to say she hoped she’d die onstage, and simply dissolve into glitter. We like to think that’s what happened Thursday, when Walter Cole, who found civic immortality as Portland’s grand dame of drag, died at 92.

Or maybe Darcelle became her admirers, the denizens of Darcelle XV Showplace, the nightclub on Northwest 3rd Avenue that now sits on the National Registry of Historic Places. In 1975, it was a hole-in-the-wall with a $1 cover when reporter Susan Stanley walked in to inquire about neighborhood graffiti. She decided the stage show she found inside was more interesting—and told the story in a fledging Willamette Week, the newspaper where she worked, also in its first year of existence. The headline—“That’s No Lady, That’s Darcelle”—for years decorated the paper placemats of the club.

These days, Stanley demurs at taking any credit for spreading the word about Cole and Darcelle. “It was an idea whose time had come,” she says. But as a city mourns an icon and pioneer, we ask you to return to a moment when Darcelle XV being who she was required imagination and courage. —Aaron Mesh, managing editor

The following story first ran in the Sept. 17, 1975, edition of Willamette Week.

Picture sitting at a nightclubby sort of bar, watching the stage show. On stage are four or five dancing maidens, a couple of them surprisingly beefy, but glittering in sequins and satin and a shimmering froth of feathers. You turn and smile at your companion over your glass of… well, vin ordinaire. (If you go in for realistic fantasies, make it tres ordinaire.) The song is an old Barbra Streisand favorite. The voice, for that matter, is old Barbra Streisand. But old Barbra Streisand is in California or someplace with what’s-his-name, that hairdresser. Amidst the splashy tap dancing routine, the beefiest and most vivid of the dancing maidens flashes on you for a special bump-and-grind, for a broad and obvious wink—you delectable creature, you!

And then the fabulously costumed dancer whips off his wig, revealing a very bald, very shiny pate.

His? Wig? Bald?

Wake up, sweetie. The place is Darcelle XV, described by its owner as “a show bar specializing in female impersonation acts.” And the stage show, delivered twice nightly Friday through Sunday nights, offers for a one dollar cover charge what just might be the best dollar’s worth of live razzmatazz in the City of Roses. That is, if you can leave your identity crisis at home with the kids and the sitter.

In fact, you might be well off to prepare yourself for a touch of culture shock. Wandering around Darcelle’s are a number of men dressed as women, a few women dressed as men, and even women dressed as women and men dressed as men. Nobody seems particularly uncomfortable at Darcelle’s—perhaps because everyone looks out of place. The music is blaring loudly: “Love Will Keep Us Together.” An enormous crystal chandelier sheds brilliant spots of light. There is a warmth and affection.

As we sit down at the small round table, the hefty miniskirted waitress threads her graceful way through the labyrinth. She smiles dazzlingly and tells us that her name is Terry Kaye, hefting a tray with huge pitchers of beer, flexing stunning biceps in the process.

People drift through the entrance door, spotting friends and greeting them with hugs and kisses. The dour man who crochets and sells nose warmers around Portland State University sits in a sulk at the end of the bar. There is a jolly carnivalesque air to the place, sort of a cross between the nightclub in Cabaret and a Moose Lodge meeting in Weeping Water, Neb.

The brains behind the mob is Walter, who, as “Darcelle XV,” regally presides over the festivities. As mistress of ceremonies, either onstage or off, Darcelle is a fully realized personality, full of sparkle and pizzazz and truly tacky charm. In the persona of Darcelle there is a practiced sense of the ridiculous, coupled with style and force of character. Self parody, satire and bite—and just a touch of the mean. It works. It jells.

Curious about the tavern and about its owner—who earlier owned and ran Cafe Espresso and Cafe Trieste—I made an appointment to have lunch with him at Darcelle XV one day. Clad in traditional men’s clothing, Walter uses softer gestures, more tentative movements than many men. There is, in fact, a gentle bumbling quality that brings to mind Margaret Rutherford’s “Miss Marple” from movies about Agatha Christie’s old lady detective. There is appealing, even endearing, hesitancy.

First of all, he wants it known that he and his fellow performers are not “transvestites.”

“Transvestites’ to me is such a dirty word. I’d rather be called anything else but that. Transvestites are men who put on women’s clothes for sexual reasons. Usually they’re married. Now that’s weird! They buy clothing but they’re not into our look, our show look. They wear bras and panties to work—like under their truck driver uniforms. They’re into bras and panties, ladies’ underwear. Now that’s a transvestite.”

To an outsider, this careful unlayering of definition may seem to verge on splitting hairs Yet, to the men who perform in ordinary jobs all week and then bounce around a stage dressed as showgirls, the difference is paramount.

“I’m an entertainer with a capital E. Who’d pay to see me stand up here like this? Darcelle is a character—like in a play—and I work very hard at her. Sometimes she’s good, and sometimes she’s not.”

Walter refers to Darcelle in the third person, and doesn’t seem to consider her to be himself. Well, maybe a part of himself. But certainly a recently added part.

Married while still in their teens, Walter and his wife are still legally married, although they have lived apart for several years. They see one another infrequently—”When some thing comes up “—and feel no need for divorce. Unlike some male homosexuals he knows. Walter doesn’t harbor a general dislike of women, and speaks with special warmth of his wife.

“Oh, she’s a gorgeous person. I’ve never had anything but good feelings toward her. I’ve always told her it’d be easier if she were a bitch! Then I could justify saying goodbye to her.”

Does he view Darcelle XV as being a gay bar?

“I don’t check what they do in bed,” he says of his incoming customers. “But I’d say a good percentage are straight. We’ve always had a people place here—where people are welcome.

“What I see is a lot of gay guys who bring their parents and their grandmothers in. And that is a real compliment to me, because for years they couldn’t take anyone to their watering holes. And that they feel they can bring them in here—that is a real compliment to me.”

A lot of straights find the notion of female impersonation pretty skin-crawl-y, but do you remember how popular Some Like It Hot was? The weekend shows at Darcelle XV attract a lot of straight couples, many of them on return visits.

“I hope it’s because they want to be entertained,” says Walter. “They want to laugh and enjoy themselves. They’re not bothered, or hustled for booze. I hope it’s because of the total atmosphere. We’re not ladies. We’re entertainers. We’re not even thinking we’re ladies. We’re not political. We don’t get too dirty—but we don’t promise them a Baptist minister, either. Some of our funnest nights have been when there’s a majority of women in the audience.”

Returning for a weekend show night at Darcelle’s—whoever is in the audience—it is clear that a great deal of talent and effort and money have gone into the production. The magic act that opens the current show boasts, we are told, $2,000 worth of equipment. The costumes are pure funk and flash, all designed and sewn by Walter. Darcelle has 80-odd wigs, some of them odder than others. Rock—Walter’s lover of several years—does all of the choreography, and as “Roxie” is a popular featured performer.

As we wait tor the show to begin, we are stunned by a passing apparition. Surely it isn’t really Gloria Swanson, but black slingback pumps, shapely calves, black ‘50s-ish dress with beaded appliqués, black stole, tasteful pearls, black gloves to the elbows, rhinestones, white hat with long, long pheasant feathers extending out on both sides. The hair just right. Soulful eyes. A mole drawn just so on the chin. Perfect. Except that the neck is off somehow…

I lure this creature into an area in the back, between the dressing room and the ladies’ room, and find that beneath the makeup and clothes is a mid-thirty-ish man who is in government work, to put it as anonymously as possible.

She calls herself “Glorious Swanson,” having gone to that from “Gloria Swansong.”

“In her own way, Gloria is almost an ideal drag character. It’s something you can do a lot of put-ons with. I did Lucille Ball as ‘Lucy Balls’ tor about a year.”

A young man done up in elaborate female costume passes us on his/her way to the ladies’ room, staring at my decolletage. flinging out a compliment as he passes: “Heaven tits, dahling!”

I ask the man underneath Glorious Swanson if he considers himself a transvestite. “Oh heavens, no! The very best part of an evening like this is when you step out of the shower at the end of it.”

With a government office job beckoning all week, and approaching middle age as a gay male, he speaks of his life.

“I’ve never met a single person in my life who chose to be gay. You just suddenly discover one day that you are—nobody ever chooses it. You find yourself there—and so what? What are you going to do about it?”

He lives with another man, sharing lives and a household for the past nine years. He goes to work, he pays his taxes and is grateful he didn’t marry the girl he was engaged to over a decade ago. On weekends he gets himself up in the intricate plumage of a fading movie queen. It is without a doubt an art form of sorts.

“I have friends who drag only like twice a year, and they spend like $300, $400. And I swear to God you can’t tell the difference. I’m the cheapest drag queen in town. It sounds ridiculous, but I can literally say the rhinestone jewelry I have bought is an investment.” Most of the jewelry and dresses and other necessary accessories are found by combing Portland thrift shops regularly. Size 11 women’s shoes are rare. Somehow, though, Glorious Swanson materializes each weekend, a rare and beautiful butterfly emerging from its cocoon.

In the cold sobriety of Monday, I wonder what the “politically active” gay community thinks of the drag concept, and call Lannie Swerdlow, editor of The Northwest Gay Review.

Speaking, he says, only for himself, Swerdlow views the drag tradition as relatively harmless.

“It’s become institutionalized,” he says. “It’s nothing more than the Elks Lodge. The Odd Fellows. The Shriners with their funny little hats with the tassels. They’re having a lot of fun. Men for the most part don’t have the fancy finery to dress up in, as women have had for years.

“The concept of drag, it’s a difficult thing. I feel biased toward drag, because male drag queens are very sexist toward women. The incredible makeup, the dumb blonde routine. It’s very stereotyped about what the average American woman is.”

Darcelle XV isn’t perceived by gays as being a “gay bar,” says Swerdlow.

“It’s a show bar. But they aren’t transvestites. It’s show biz. It’s a good thing—people are having a good time. It’s show biz. Entertainment.”

And so it is. It’s a potpourri of human types, of human sexuality. It’s glitter and funny and educational. I plan to go again. You might want to try it.

Who knows? You might see Glorious Swanson. too.

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