People across Portland are mourning the loss of the city’s most iconic drag queen. Walter Cole, who performed as Darcelle, died of natural causes last week. He was 92 years old. Cole was an early champion of LGBTQ rights and a pioneering entertainer in Oregon.
Here he is looking back on his decades-long career:
I want to be remembered because I made somebody smile and care. And another thing that happens here a lot is, young people will tell their parents that they’re gay, and they come here. And then they look around — the parents see their contemporaries and they’re enjoying themselves, and the son can say, look, you see? Those are the kinda things I’d like to be remembered for.”
— Walter Cole, who performed as Darcelle
Kevin Cook, who performs as Poison Waters and is a co-hostess at the Darcelle XV Showplace, recently joined OPB’s Tiffany Camhi to talk about the legacy of Cole and Darcelle. The following transcript of their conversation has been edited for clarity. Click play to listen:
Tiffany Camhi: Poison Waters, thank you for joining us, and I want to say quickly I am so sorry for your loss.
Kevin Cook: Thank you so much, Tiffany. Thanks for having me.
Camhi: Darcelle had the distinction of being named the oldest working drag queen in the world. Can you tell me about the last time you saw Darcelle perform?
Cook: The last time Darcelle was at a performance was just a little over a week ago on a Wednesday. Wednesday the 15th was a launch party for his beer, the Darcelle Blonde IPA beer through Gigantic Brewing. It was standing-room only. Everybody wanted to taste the beer and see Darcelle. He performed his new songs that are out on the album with Pink Martini. It was just so full of love.
Camhi: Still performing even just a week ago.
Cook: Yeah, 92. He was in his wheelchair because he had mobility issues, but he was glitz and glammed and had a wonderful time.
Camhi: And for those who haven’t seen it, can you just describe what a show at the Darcelle Showplace is like?
Cook: The shows at Darcelle Showplace are just simply a celebration of everything there is to celebrate. People come in to show off the Portland culture to their visiting out-of-town friends, to celebrate birthdays and bachelorettes. On stage, we have a whole cast of almost 10 folks lip-syncing and, and dancing. Darcelle tells jokes and sings her songs. It’s a mixture of comedy and glitz and glamour and it’s just a party. There’s a lot of glitter.
People tend to leave a little more sparklier — if that’s a word — than they entered. Sometimes not just literally but in their heart. Our audience wants to forget about their troubles and not worry about ours.
Camhi: Can you talk a little bit more about the Darcelle Showplace, what that space has meant for Portland?
Cook: It’s a historical place, actually listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which brought great pride to Darcelle, of course.
It’s a safe space. We’ve had so many people come from, not just small towns here in Oregon, but literally from across the country, that say they never felt so safe. They could bring their parents and say this is actually a drag club. It’s a no-judgment zone. We’ve had people of all – you know, you name it, they’ve come through the door, and they just knew that they could be entertained and they could be dressed however they want or they could be any kind of relationship they wanted to be in, and we weren’t gonna judge them. And it’s become a gathering place. We’ve had many, many, many memorial services for valued members of our community. People know it’s just a great place for that.
It’s definitely an entertainment hotspot, not just drag. We’ve had plays there, we’ve had dance recitals there. Celebrating 56 years this year, the Darcelle Showplace is a staple in the Portland cultural scene.
Camhi: I know that you’ve known Darcelle for a long time. What did Darcelle mean to you personally?
Cook: I actually first met Darcelle in 1988, when I started doing drag. It was like meeting the Wizard of Oz. “Oh my gosh, this person!” I was equally starstruck and scared to death. Darcelle has always been a mentor to me —a great friend and mentor — and taught me so much. Darcelle was very generous and so didn’t keep anything back as far as lessons learned and how to be a person. He taught me how to be a person. You know – a wild drag queen on the street – and just a very giving person.
Camhi: A lot of people are sharing their memories of Darcelle or from the Darcelle Showplace on social media right now. Their favorite memories. I’m wondering, do you have a favorite memory that you’d like to share?
Cook: Literally the very first time I met him, I remember him saying about drag, “Most of all have fun.” You know, there’s more to it than just being dolled up and being sassy. You’ve got to have fun.
But, you know, there’s the business side, [and] there’s the humanitarian side. People are coming to drag shows that have issues and troubles far beyond what we can understand. We need to be kind to everyone. And he always would say that. He’d say, “Be kind.” Because sometimes I can be a little snarky. He would always say, “Be kind.”
Tiffany: What would you like young queer people in Oregon, or anyone for that matter, how would you want them to remember, Darcelle?
Cook: He was so just so generous with his time and with his wisdom and with his energy. And I think we need more of that. He was very empathetic and not judgmental to those that are having a rough time — seeing somebody in a situation and knowing that’s not their forever story, that’s just temporary. And how can we as a community help these people?
Tiffany: Poison Waters, thank you so much.
Cook: Thank you for having me.