Darcelle and Me

Years after introducing Portland to Darcelle XV, this reporter went to work for her.

Roxy (left) and Darcelle (right) with Susan’s granddaughter in 1997. (Dale Montgomery)

Fettucine Shirley.

Not a drag name, but Chef Shirley’s signature dish created in the basement kitchen at Darcelle XV. As usual, she weeps silently as she stirs the pot. The kitchen’s hard-and-fast rule: Leave Shirley the Fuck Alone.

Clad in my waiter getup, I wait for platters of nachos. A performer glares at me from a doorway to the dressing room. Let’s call her Doris. She wears a tight wig cap, lush black chest hair shaved halfway down for a low neckline. Her guy giblets are tidily tucked in, her long skinny legs in fishnet tights.

“Bubbles, or whatever your name is, you could look almost as good as me if you’d do something with that shitty hair.” It’s 1982, and I’m still rocking the high side ponytail. I’m scared to death of Doris. I skulk back upstairs, balancing my four platters of nachos. The show hasn’t started yet, and recorded music is blasting.

Love! Love will keep us together!

Darcelle photographed in a 1975 issue of WW. (WW Archives)

In 1975, I wrote a lengthy article for Willamette Week, the first time an “establishment” newspaper featured Darcelle XV and her nightclub. Intrigued readers, straight and gay, soon came banging on the doors, forming a new generation of customers who’d return again and again.

Two years later, I was arts and entertainment editor for The Oregon Journal, Portland’s afternoon daily. And there I wrote another lengthy Darcelle article, hiring animator Bill Plympton to produce a caricature, an image that quickly showed up in the club’s ads, as well as on paper napkins and matchbooks—the latter now collector’s items.

That year, I appeared on the club’s stage as Bubbles Wolkofsky and Her Amazing Flying Buttress. Hair and makeup done by my drag queen pals, I was a vision: long black sequin gown (low neckline, side cut up to here) and, of course, a feather boa. Backed by a chorus line of prancing faux showgirls, I warbled, bumped and ground my way through “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”

Over the years to come, Darcelle and I would remain friends. She lent a red sequin gown to wear at my wedding at the Graceland Chapel in Las Vegas. She and Roxie came to our housewarming. They met my first grandchild.

Illustration by Bill Plympton in The Oregon Journal, 1978.

But by March 1982, I was divorced with two young daughters, with neither child support nor alimony. I’d just been unceremoniously dumped by a lover of eight months. There was no job for me at either of Portland’s two dailies. I had neither the heart, nor equilibrium, to root around for local freelance work. My ex-husband suggested I apply for food stamps.

Then I had The Dream: I was working for Darcelle! Calling her, I was immediately summoned to her home. As I perched on a tufted red Victorian chair, I told her about The Dream. She was appalled.

“Darling!” she said. “I’ll give you money! How much do you need?”

Nope. I wanted a job.

“OK,” she said, sighing and gazing off into the distance. “OK. Show up Friday at 6. Wear black pants and a white shirt.”

Thus was born Bubbles, a minister’s daughter doomed to demurely slinging cocktails in a drag club.

Program from a production of Dames at Sea, date unknown.

I was working for the circus. Bright lights! Blaring music! Brilliant colors! The cheerful spirit was contagious. Darcelle and Roxy, her partner, were kind to me. I had no car, and they chauffeured me home in the wee hours, ensuring I was safely inside before driving off.

The club was located near several Chinese eateries, whose leftovers departed the restaurant (and were carried into the club) in those little cardboard boxes with the metal handles. Like the ones ‘50s dime stores provided for their 15-cent takeout pet goldfish.

For a number of reasons, I was not all that great at the job. But Darcelle tried her best for damage control.

“Stop chasing non-tippers down the street, yelling, ‘Sir! Sir! You forgot your goldfish!’”

And “For the love of God, quit telling patrons you’re a widow with eight kids!”

Susan on stage in 1977. Roxy is left, Darcelle is right.

There were small blessings from my fellow workers.

Mister Michelangelo of Male Stripper Tuesdays took pity on my mystifying life of, you know, not getting laid. One night, post stripping, he took me aside to murmur kindly, “I do girls too, you know.” I thanked him for his presumed offer but, well, no.

The beautiful, excruciatingly shy lesbian Melissa, who ran the lights, materialized another night, thrusting a paper bag into my hands. Inside were a low-cut leotard and a slinky skirt opening on the side. “Wear this,” she whispered, “you’ll get better tips.”

Melissa was right. Tips increased dramatically, patrons asking, “Are those real?”

With the food stamps, increased tips, a little freelancing, teaching a writing class or two and, sadly, vacating our lovely family home, I was making ends meet, sort of. I’d met the curly-haired, bearded law student I’d eventually marry. I wanted my evenings back. And so, after eight months I quit working at my friend’s nightclub, quit the best job I would ever have.

Darcelle XV, 1930-2023. (Aaron Lee)

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