Walter Cole Just Call Me Darcelle

That's no lady; that's Darcelle.

“The first time I put on a dress, I was 37.” That’s a surprising statement coming from female impersonator Walter Cole, better known as Darcelle XV, doyenne of the West Coast’s longest-running drag show and Portland’s unofficial welcome wagon for the past four decades.

  The Oregon-born Cole turned 80 last year and the slim volume Just Call Me Darcelle (Createspace, 134 pages, $14.95), written with Sharon Knorr (the director of his 2010 one-man show of the same name), chronicles the meandering path a shy, "four-eyed sissy boy" took from living as a suburban Southeast Portland married father of two to riding atop a stagecoach in feathers as the grand marshal of Portland's Gay Pride Parade 2010. Cole is not a born writer. The memoir reads like a plainspeak transcription: pinballing between his memories of his family and poor childhood in Linnton and his first experiences in drag; his days in the Army during the Korean War to meeting his loving longtime partner and creative collaborator, Roxy.

Despite book's the bland tone, the value of Cole's staggering 75 or so years' worth of recollections of PDX culture and nightlife are incalculable. His descriptions of slurping pork noodles in Old Town while eyeballing Chinese merchants in traditional garb with his mom in the 1930s, or memories of Magic Garden as a lesbian club in the 1960s, are fascinating. In one passage, he remembers the Hoyt Hotel's Roaring 20s club, a grand ballroom in Northwest Portland that had a full-time harpist for the ladies' room and a 12-foot-long trough urinal decorated like a rock grotto for the men, festooned with fake forest animals with targets on their heads. ("[There was also a] life-sized replica of Fidel Castro..." Cole remembers. "If a gentleman could hit that open mouth, lights would flash, sirens would go off and a huge waterfall would flush the entire urinal.")

Although Darcelle is best known for her larger-than-life persona ("sequins on the eyelids, lots of feathers, big hair, big jewels, and lots of wisecracks," as Cole puts it) what emerges from the book is a portrait of an energetic businessman whose desire for a life less ordinary catapulted him from a job at Fred Meyer to become the proprietor of a counterculture coffee shop, an after-hours jazz club, a rough-'n'-ready "dyke bar" and, finally, a nationally known drag revue, without ever leaving Portland.

It's tough to read Just Call Me Darcelle without yearning for more thoughtful commentary on Portland's gay community at large. Huge issues, like the fight over Oregon's anti-gay Measure 9 in 1992, are glossed over in a single paragraph. But, then again, Darcelle and her flock of roller-skating, bawdy-talking dames have always primarily been about putting a smile on locals' faces. Why should her book be any different?

GO: Cole reads from Just Call Me Darcelle at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Thursday, Feb. 17. Free.

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