OPB is premiering a new Oregon Experience documentary that examines the life of Walter Cole, also known as Portland’s iconic drag queen, Darcelle XV. At age 85, Darcelle is the nation’s oldest-performing female impersonator and operates what is thought to be the country’s longest-running drag revue. Throughout her long career, she has been a part of revolutionary change within the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community.
The half-hour program “Darcelle XV” airs on OPB TV June 20 at 9 p.m. and is online now at opb.org/darcelle.
In 1967, businessman Walter Cole purchased Demas Tavern in a run down part of Portland. It became a popular lesbian bar featuring female impersonators. At the time, homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association, homosexual acts were illegal in all but one state, and gay and lesbians faced legalized discrimination.
Long before New York City’s Stonewall Riots that changed the gay rights movement, Portland had a vibrant drag queen community.
In the 1950s, a group of friends formed “the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court,” holding elaborate balls and pageants for drag queens. The local gathering become the country’s oldest LGBT organization. In 1973, the Court crowned Darcelle as its 15th Empress. In honor of that event, Walter re-named his tavern Darcelle XV.
Throughout the 1970s, gay rights organizations formed and pushed for full civil rights, while mainstream media started covering issues of discrimination against gays and lesbians. Darcelle became an ambassador to the straight community, hosting events and fundraisers dressed in drag.
Today, Walter Cole—as Darcelle—is widely regarded for her decades of charitable work for a variety of causes, making her a mainstay in Portland. Darcelle still performs regular shows and the club named for her is a landmark in the community. After nearly fifty years, Darcelle XV remains Portland’s iconic drag queen.
The new OPB documentary “Darcelle XV” features hundreds of images and film clips spanning decades, and behind-the-scenes-moments of the drag queen at variety of public and private events over the last year. It is narrated by Thomas Lauderdale, musician and bandleader for Portland’s Pink Martini, and includes interviews with:
- Walter Cole
- Roxy Neuhardt
- Kevin Cook a.k.a. “Poison Waters”
- Mitchell Underwood a.k.a. “Mr. Mitchell”
- Alexis Campbell Starr
- Historians and early activists in the LGBT community
“Darcelle XV” airs Monday, June 20 at 9 p.m. on OPB TV and is available to watch online now at opb.org/darcelle. It is written and produced by Kami Horton and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem.