Oregon Experience

Darcelle XV

By Kami Horton (OPB)
May 6, 2016 9 p.m.

Producer: Kami Horton   Editor: Lisa Suinn Kallem   Videographer: Greg Bond Additional Videography: Michael Bendixen, Nicholas Fisher Field Audio: Randy Layton, William Ward   Narrator: Thomas LauderdaleFunding Provided By: Arlene Schnitzer and Jordan Schnitzer, Oregon Cultural Trust and Clark Foundation
At age 85, Portland’s 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.

In 1967, businessman Walter Cole purchased Demas Tavern  in a rundown part of Portland.  It became a popular lesbian bar featuring female impersonators. Eventually, Cole  created the character "Darcelle" as a wise cracking, larger than life, drag queen. At the time homosexuality was officially listed as a mental illness, homosexual acts were illegal, and gays and lesbians faced legalized discrimination.

Long before the Stonewall Riots that changed the gay rights movement, Portland, Oregon 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. That local gathering grew into the country’s oldest LGBT organization. In 1973, the Court crowned Darcelle as it’s 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. Through the AIDS epidemic, and decades worth of political battles over LGBT rights, Darcelle has been a mainstay in Portland. Today, Walter Cole – as Darcelle -  is widely regarded for decades worth of charitable work in a variety of causes. Darcelle still performs regular shows and the club named for her is a landmark to the entire community. After nearly fifty years, Darcelle XV remains Portland’s iconic Drag Queen.

Over a period of more than a year, Oregon Experience crews documented Darcelle at a variety of events, both public and private. They captured behind the scenes moments, and gathering hundreds of images and film clips spanning decades. The result is an insiders look at the legendary Darcelle XV.

Resources and Information

  •   Walter Cole, Sharon Knorr, Just Call Me Darcelle: a Memoir, 2010
  •   Douglas Wolk, Comics for Change! Illustrated Stories from Oregon's Front Lines Vol.9: Walter Cole
  •   Peter Boag, Re-Dressing America's Frontier Past, 2011
  •   Peter Boag, Same-Sex Affairs, 2003
  •   Roger Baker, Drag: A History of Female Impersonation in the Performing Arts, 1995
  •   Polina Olsen, Portland in the 1960s: Stories from the Counterculture, 2012
  •   Chuck Palahniuk, Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon, 2003
  •   Sister Paula Nielson, The Trans-Evangelist: The Life and Times of a Transgender Pentecostal Preacher, 2012
  •   Wendy Kohn, Janice Haaken, Queen of Hearts: Community Therapists in Drag, 2008
Interviews Include:
  • Walter Cole, "Darcelle"
  • Roxy Neuhardt, "Roxy LeRoy"
  • Kevin Cook “Poison Waters”
  • Mitchell Underwood “Mr. Mitchell”
  • Alexis Campbell Starr
  •  Jay Dela’Rosa  Mitchell
  • Greg Pitts, Archivist 
  • Peter Boag, Historian, Washington State University
  • Jerry Weller, LGBT Activist
  • Harold Strong, LGBT Activist
  • Kathleen Saadat, LGBT Activist
  • Frank Schreckenberger, LGBT Activist
  • Susie Sheperd, LGBT Activist
  • George Nicola, LGBT Activist
  • Patricia May, LGBT Activist
  • Kristan Knapp, LGBT Activist
  • Rupert Kinnard, LGBT Activist