We listen back to a 2016 conversation with Walter Cole, whose alter ego was the legendary Portland drag queen Darcelle. Cole died last week at the age of 92.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Portland’s most iconic drag queen, Darcelle, died last week of natural causes. She was 92. Also known as Walter W. Cole Sr., Darcelle was the longest performing female impersonator in the US. She was also a long time business owner in Portland’s Old Town, whose advocacy for gay rights began at a time when so-called “homosexual acts” were illegal and gays and lesbians faced legalized discrimination. We’re going to listen back right now to a Think Out Loud interview with Darcelle, from 2016. I started by asking Cole to describe Darcelle for people who’d never seen her.
Walter Cole / aka Darcelle: Darcelle is glitz, glamor and comedy. And it’s overdone, overdressed, over maked-up, over jeweled, over wigged.
Miller: Why over-everything?
Cole: Because I’m not a woman, I’m a man – and I picked the character to be overdone.
Miller: Where did she come from?
Cole: Years ago, there was a Hoyt Hotel here in Portland, and Gracie Hansen was an MC. Gracie Hansen was a pistol. She was great. She did the same thing. She wore jewels and feathers and… I saw her years ago before I started our business and fell in love with her and we were good friends. She ran for governor against McCall and got a lot of votes and she said she would be the best governor that money could buy. So things like that, and that’s where I learned my MCing or my comedy routine on stage. I just jumped in and we did it.
Miller: So that is a real life model. A friend of yours who went into some of Darcelle. How much of Walter Cole is in Darcelle?
Cole: When I put my makeup on and I’m ready to go on stage… Walter Cole would never… years ago, in high school and… never, ever would I stand up in front of a class and talk to them. Walter Cole is quieter. Darcelle can say and do anything. I was asked to go on Channel 6′s helicopter. Walter would never go on that helicopter. I got dressed up and went on the helicopter.
Miller: In other words, you put [on] a lot of makeup, as you say, and a wig and a beautiful dress full of rhinestones and sequins. You make yourself and you put yourself into some kind of new bravery?
Cole: I’m not conscious of that. It’s just that it happens. I think if you’re conscious of it, if I tried to be a character, maybe I wouldn’t be a character.
Miller: Has being that kind of a persona, being Darcelle for 50 years, made Walter a different person? Is some of Darcelle in you, now?
Cole: Oh, sure. Oh, sure. But yes, there is. But, Walter is a name I hardly hear anymore, except for my family and it’s always Darcelle.
Miller: Everywhere you go?
Miller: Right now you have some navy blue slacks on and a green Nike t-shirt. Still, if you go to the grocery store, someone will say, “Hey, Darcelle!”
Cole: Oh yes, that’s happened. But it’s my voice that they recognize. We were shopping, we were in the Levi department and they had the jeans that were already washed and ripped apart and I was talking about it with my partner, Roxy of 47 years. I said, “Look at those, I mean…” and somebody came, a lady came through the rack, “You’re Darcelle!” Just the voice, the voice alone.
Miller: Can you tell me about the first time that you went in drag?
Cole: Yes, I can. My partner, Roxy, worked at the Hoyt Hotel with Gracie Hansen. He was a show boy dancer, and there was a big party going on, a gay party going on. I think it was a coronation. “Let’s go,” he said, and I said, “Ok.” And it took two hours to get me ready. Gotta get my makeup on. It takes 10 minutes now, but two hours then. And he borrowed costumes from Gracie Hansen’s wardrobe and we got there…
Miller [Interjects]: And, before you got there. So you looked in the mirror when a two hour process was done. What did you see?
Cole: I didn’t see Walter, anymore, did I? All I saw was very nice but I couldn’t believe what I was, who it was.
Miller: Did you like what you saw?
Cole: Yeah, I had a good time. But I walked around the room in the mirrors, and “Who’s this? Who’s this?”
Miller: Why did you want to do that in the first place?
Cole: Not because I would like to be a woman or be transgender or anything. Because it’s another costume for me. I did local theater, civic theater, Mark Allen Players, Marylhurst College. I was adopted.
Miller: Is that one of your fans texting you to say you’re on the radio right now?
Cole: Pardon me?
Miller: I think we just heard a little ding from your phone in your pocket.
Cole: Oh, did we?
Miller: That’s fine. Anyway, so you were doing theater and you wanted to try on a new role, it seems…
Cole: Well, it, we were a lesbian bar when we first started, and I’m sorry about the “ding” …
Miller: That’s all right.
Cole: We were a lesbian bar and we wanted to do some entertainment and Roxy was already a dancer. He said, “Let’s do what we saw in San Francisco at the Finocchio’s.” And so that’s what had happened. I put a different costume on and became a different character.
Miller: You wrote in your memoir, that came out a couple of years ago, that you were painfully shy…
Cole: That’s right, that’s right.
Miller: And when you were growing up that even in high school, you wouldn’t go up in front of your class...
Miller: …that people saw you, you wrote, “As a four eyed sissy boy.”
Cole: That’s right.
Miller: When did that start to change?
Cole: When I changed it. After school. After grade school, I went to high school and after… about halfway through, I was about 17, I think.
And I said, “This is ridiculous, you’ll never be anybody or do anything if you sit in the back of the bus all the time.” So I got to the front of the bus and became more visible.
Miller: Was it hard to do that?
Cole: As I remember, I had a good chance that I didn’t have anybody, in school, anybody calling me those names. So I could walk to the front of the bus and nobody knew who I was, and I felt comfortable.
Miller: You had a chance to reinvent yourself because there was a whole new group of people. Still you spent a lot of time trying to pass, and I think, seemingly passing successfully as a straight man in the forties and the fifties. You got married, you served in the army. You had two kids. When did it become too much? To live that version of a life?
Cole: When I finally decided it was time to not lie anymore to myself or to my wife.
Miller: Did you know the whole time that you were lying to yourself?
Cole: Yeah, I knew, and I was lying to her. Yes, I knew. I didn’t know that I should be a full-fledged, honest-to-goodness, walk-around queer. But I knew that I was attracted to men and my father - well, I don’t talk about him - but we had a problem. He had a problem. He molested me and that didn’t make me do anything, except to be embarrassed by it. I think that after I got through grade school, I got away from the people I knew in Linton, and they stopped talking. I just stopped being called the names I was called. I think that’s when it all felt better.
Miller: How did you decide it was time to come out to your wife?
Cole: Because I was lying to her too much and that’s not me. That’s not Walter. And it’s certainly not Darcelle. And I finally just had to sit down and say, “This is it. I’ll do what I can do, but I can’t be married to you anymore.”
Miller: How did she react?
Cole: Naturally. I mean, we were together for a long time, and the children and she was braver than I was. If it had been the other way around, there’d be one dead person, somewhere, because I’m a Scorpio and I’d be horribly jealous. But I did it for myself, not for anybody else.
Miller: Now, Darcelle’s has become a family business. Your son has worked there for decades. Your granddaughter is a waitress there. What’s it like to have your whole family together in this place that years ago would have been and was a deep secret?
Cole: My grandchildren grew up with Darcelle. At the house, they come over.
Miller: So Darcelle, in a sense, is their grandmother?
Cole: Oh, no, it’s still grandpa. Still grandpa. My granddaughter, at one of my birthday parties, and I think she was probably about 16, got on the microphone and said, “That’s no lady, that’s my grandpa.”
Cole: No. The kids grew up knowing the difference and we couldn’t be a tighter family now. And Roxy’s included, they love him and they love me and we travel together and… no, it turned out beautifully.
Miller: What has that meant to you? To be embraced by your family?
Cole: More than I could ever put into words. Yeah, it was wonderful.
Miller: You do write though that your grandmother, when you were growing up, when you were little, you’d be driving around and she would point out, “Look, there’s a woman there, who’s wearing lipstick. She’s a whore.” And that lipstick, she said, was “made of prisoners’ blood.”
Cole: That’s right!
Miller: An amazing line. What do you think your grandmother would think of your act?
Cole: Oh, I think, just the fact that I put lipstick on, that would be it.
Miller: That’d be the end.
Cole: Yeah. My grandma lived with us. She traveled to her family and lived at her son’s or daughter’s house, and she never had a home of her own for a long time. And it was wonderful because she was a really beautiful woman and nice. And I love laughing at what she’d say because, but of course, when she said that to me, I didn’t know… what’s a whore? I just thought, “Oh, she said something serious. Something serious is going on.”
Miller: You didn’t just run a drag club for decades. You had basically a mini-empire of small businesses in Portland, coffee shops. The first espresso machine north of San Francisco...
Miller: You wrote, “ice cream parlors, flower shops”. Where did your business sense come from?
Cole: I was working at Fred Meyer. When I got my coffee house, my first business, I went to my uncle who was an accountant and I said, “what do you think? I wanna buy this coffee house.” And he said, “It’s perfectly fine, here’s what you do. You buy a pound of coffee, you sell it, then you can buy another pound the next day.” That was my plan. And that’s been my plan for each and every one of our businesses.
Miller: That is a great plan, as long as you can sell that cup of that pound of coffee, and you can sell it for enough, that you can buy two the next time.
Cole: Well, coffee was five cents a cup when I would charge 50 cents. And no refills. But it was espresso too, and cappuccinos, and the whole thing.
Miller: You did three shows a night, five days a week…
Cole: When we first started.
Miller: …for so long. What did it feel like at the end of that last show?
Cole: Like I’d been hit with a two by four.
Miller: What kept you doing it night after night?
Cole: Well, we had customers! At that time, it was 50 cents to get in the door, and we gave them two tickets for beer. Beer was 25 cents a glass.
Miller: You charged as much for a cup of coffee as to get into your bar?
Cole: Yeah. But the cup of coffee was the espresso…
Miller: And that was not just a…
Cole: It wasn’t. Right. It was just a cup of coffee and, in fact, the other day, someone said, “I remember when it was 50 cents, and we got two beers.”
Miller: It almost seems like performing, even though it seems really grueling, that it’s been a kind of fountain of youth for you.
Cole: I wouldn’t change anything. I wouldn’t change a thing. I love it. I have, all these years, never said to my partner, Roxy, or anyone, “I don’t feel like going to work tonight.” I love it. But if I’m ill or operations, that sort of thing, but not just to take the night off.
Miller: People would understand it if you reach, say, your 86th year and you say, “I’ve had a great run, but I want to put my feet up for now.”
Cole: And then you die…
Miller: Can you imagine saying that?
Cole: And then you die. I don’t want to die like that. I wanna die on stage full house, kickin’ my heels up.
Miller: What would you be singing?
Cole: Probably “Rhinestone Cowboy.” Anybody out there that’s seen it knows what I’m talking about.
Miller: Well, Darcelle XV, thanks so much for coming in, and great talking with you.
Cole: You’re welcome.
Miller: Darcelle. Otherwise known as Walter Cole, Sr, died last week at the age of 92. She was the longest performing drag queen in the US. We recorded that interview in 2016. If you’d like to learn more about Darcelle’s life, you can watch OPB’ Oregon Experience episode about her.
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