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Preserving Fabulous History

Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society

We spoke with Don Horn of Triangle Productions on a recent episode of Underground History about his ongoing efforts to honor the life and work of Walter Cole, aka Darcelle, Portland’s legendary drag queen. Cole has been recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest performing female impersonator, and his Portland tavern, the Darcelle XV Showplace, is considered the only full-time drag club in the United States.  

Thanks to Horn’s efforts, Walter Cole/ Darcelle has been the subject of a musical, Darcelle: That’s No Lady, an exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) entitled “The Many Shades of Being Darcelle,” and his longtime home is in the process of being nominated to the National Register of Historic Places.

I was lucky enough to catch the exhibit at the Oregon Historical Society this fall. It featured a small selection of clothing and jewelry worn by Darcelle over the course of Cole’s career. This collection was beautiful and impressive in the skill that both went into making the dresses and wearing them. These works of art represented several pounds of glitz and glamour—and that doesn’t include the outrageous jewelry that accompanied them. As a proponent of big jewelry myself, I was particularly awed by the chandelier earrings that were nearly as big as my head! (pro tip: Walter/Darcelle uses gaff tape to help secure them). Other ensembles required similar levels of dedication, coordination, and expertise by the performer: A Christmas tree costume worn by Walter/Darcelle in the 1990s is illuminated thanks to an attached 25 foot extension cord.

The material culture of Walter/Darcelle’s decades-long career is not only fun and fabulous, it is an important part of Oregon heritage. Cole was a successful Portland business owner long before he donned his first dress at the age of 37. He opened the bar in Chinatown that would become the Darcelle XV Showplace in the late 1960s, and since then has been providing a creative and safe outlet for hundreds of LQBTQ Oregonians and entertainment for all who walk through the club’s doors. Cole began the business in a time where homosexuality was considered a mental illness, and LQBTQ individuals faced rampant discrimination. As Darcelle, Cole was active in fundraising and community events that raised the visibility of LGBTQ Oregonians struggling for basic civil rights in the late 20th century. Walter/Darcelle received the title of the oldest female impersonator on the west coast in 1999 after the closure of the famed San Francisco drag club Finocchio’s, and in 2016 Walter/Darcelle officially became the world’s oldest drag performer. Today, at 89 years old, you can still find Darcelle on stage several nights a week at the Darcelle XV Showplace, which ranks in popularity along with other Portland must-visit institutions such as Powell’s Books and Voodoo Donuts.

Unlike old buildings or archaeological sites which can be easily recognized as important aspects of the past, Walter/Darcelle’s work represents what is known as “intangible cultural heritage.” As such, these important facets of history—which can include performing arts, cultural knowledge, and specialized skills—can be harder to recognize and preserve. Luckily for us, Don Horn is on it. After much effort navigating a system that was originally designed for more traditional heritage resources, the Elmer and Linnie Miller House, Walter Cole’s longtime residence, has recently been approved by the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation, and will now head to Washington DC for final approval for listing on the National Register. The National Register of Historic Places represents a physical list of heritage sites in the United States that are formally deemed important and worthy of preservation. In looking to the future, it is important that this list, as well as other archives and heritage resources, reflect the variety of Oregon experiences, challenges, contributions, and achievements. In preserving and promoting a more inclusive history we will be presenting a more accurate one, and ensuring that all Oregonians can recognize their stories in the complex history of our state.

In 2016 the National Park Service released an extensive LGBTQ Heritage Theme Study, which talks about the importance of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer History in the United States, and provides examples on how communities can recognize, preserve, and nominate these important resources for future generations. You can find the document online for free on the National Park Service website. While the OHS exhibit has closed, there are still plenty of ways to learn more about Walter/Darcelle’s fabulous career. In 2016 Walter/ Darcelle was featured on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon Experience Series, you can learn more about the play Darcelle: That’s No Lady by visiting the musical’s website: https://www.darcelle
-themusical.com/, and you can purchase the new book, Darcelle: Looking from the Mirror written by Don Horn and Walter Cole on Amazon.

Chelsea Rose is an archaeologist with the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology (SOULA) and co-host of Underground History, a monthly segment that airs during the Jefferson Exchange on JPR’s News & Information service.