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The Queen of Portland

Connie Monaghan last wrote for the magazine about the wrestling scene in Portland.

On a hot summer day in 1937, Walter Cole, 7 years old, pulls a little red wagon loaded with a 25-pound block of ice down the two-lane highway through Linnton, a small community on the edge of Portland. He chips at the ice with a rock as he goes, and offers a sliver to his black-and-white mutt, Spot. A nameless pet crow clings to the dog’s back as they head home past the barbershop and the feed store. The crow swoops across the street to snatch a grape from the produce display outside the grocery, and the Italian proprietor comes out and yells.

The highway runs parallel to the Willamette River, visible just to the north, where the town’s three lumber mills are busy night and day. Walter’s father, Richard, works in a millpond as a boom man. He balances in cleated boots atop the floating logs, guiding them into the mill. Here in Oregon, at the end of the Depression, lumber is big business. For Richard Cole it’s a living, about a dollar a day when he can get work.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Nov. 19, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 19, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Cabaret owner -- Sunday’s Los Angeles Times Magazine article about drag cabaret owner Walter Cole said his mother died before he was 8 years old. She died when Cole was 9, in 1939, the year she took him to see “Gone With the Wind.”
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 04, 2005 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
The article “The Queen of Portland” (Nov. 13) incorrectly stated that the mother of drag cabaret owner Walter Cole died before he was 8 years old. She died when Cole was 9 in 1939, the same year she took him to see “Gone With the Wind.”

Walter’s hauling the ice home to his mother, Mary, in their two-bedroom company house on Front Street. It isn’t much bigger than a cabin. The floors are linoleum. There are chickens in the yard. Most of the houses in town are like this, except for the doctor’s and a few others. Mary has a heart problem and stays in bed much of the time.

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For entertainment, Walter might run down to the Cherrys’ house to listen to “The Lone Ranger” on the radio, or walk three miles, all the way over the soaring St. John’s Bridge, with a dime in his pocket for a Saturday movie. But the bridge is so high it gives him nightmares, and the walk is so long. It’s a big day, then, when the boy and his mother take the bus nine miles to downtown Portland to see “Gone With the Wind.” The part where Scarlett pulls a radish from the dirt and swears, “As God as my witness, I’ll never be hungry again” impresses him deeply.

On a warm spring night in 2005, 74-year-old Walter Cole steps into the spotlight in front of 200 people as a garishly gorgeous blond, her hair a fright wig of froth, her red-glitter eyebrows angled toward the mirror balls, her lips heavily lined and gooey pink. Gallons of rhinestones drip down her bosom, and her Santa Claus-shaped figure is draped in a glittering gown. Onstage, Walter is Darcelle, and this is her club, Darcelle XV Showplace, quite possibly the longest-running drag cabaret in the country, offering six performances a week, every week, for 37 years.

“You know about that guy who took Prozac and Viagra?” Darcelle asks, waving a hand adorned with long red fingernails. “One happy--" The audience roars at the unprintable punch line. Darcelle smiles. The grandfather is in fine form. His mate, Roxy Neuhardt, who’s heard the jokes a thousand times--since the very first show--laughs along. A foot shorter and five years younger than Walter, he’s bald and compact, and wearing pounds of silver and turquoise jewelry over a gray knit shirt.

With costumes by Walter and choreography by Roxy, a handful of performers and a small staff that includes Walter’s son, Walter II, the club has shown generations of patrons a roaring good time. Corny, campy and on “the edge of vulgarity,” this “Disneyland for adults,” as Roxy describes it, may well be the last of its kind, a testament to the toughness of one old “broad.”

Walter Cole not only survived the Great Depression and a rough upbringing, but he went on to thrive: His club is a popular tourist landmark, his alter ego Darcelle is a local celebrity feted by politicians and sought as a hostess for charity events, his relationship with Roxy is long-lived and loving, and his family--two grandchildren, a grown daughter and son, and his wife, whom he never divorced--is closer than many.

On the way to becoming the man who would become Darcelle, the steppingstones were sharp and slippery. Mary died before Walter was 8. Richard, unable to cope with the loss of the wife he adored, essentially abandoned the boy. “When I lost my mother that night I lost him too,” Walter says. “He would come home from work and eat some dinner and then leave to go to drink.”

Dressed in street clothes--baggy shorts, floppy sandals with white socks, a baseball cap over short gray hair--the large man in the black-framed glasses looks no different than any other senior. Except for the blood-red press-on nails and the massive gold-and-gemstone bling-bling hanging from his neck and wrists. One 18-karat bracelet reads “Darcelle” and another “Walter,” both scripted in diamonds.

As he talks about his father, he’s soft-spoken and matter-of-fact, hardly the brassy impresario. Richard drank all the time, Walter remembers. “And I threw tantrums because I wanted him to be with me.” His father’s unmarried sister, Aunt Lily, came to stay.

Bereft and left with a virtual stranger, Walter turned inward. He made roads in the dirt for his cars, he fashioned miniature storefronts out of clay and decorated them, and he dreamed about running away--to where, he didn’t know. But even then Walter knew that he was different from the other kids. School was hard, and he hated it. He grew to love Lily, though--his “growing-up mother” was good to him--and he made friends with a few adult neighbors.

He was 11, he thinks, when he was moved from Lily’s bedroom to his father’s. There he found a kind of comfort: For the next three years, his father molested him almost nightly. “I have to admit that it wasn’t so bad,” Walter says. He was finally getting the love he craved. “There we are--he rejected me when my mother passed away, when I was younger, all of a sudden now he’s paying attention to me.” If it weren’t for the secrecy of it, the boy wouldn’t have known anything was wrong. “It was like, ‘OK, this happens, and maybe this is what’s supposed to happen, this is how it is.’ Later I resented him very much. I disliked him very much for it.”

He doesn’t believe Aunt Lily knew. No one knew, not even his good friend Jeannette, whom he’d known since grade school. “I carried the secret well,” he says. He wouldn’t tell anyone for 30 years.

The house lights dim and the mirror balls spin, throwing shards of glitter across the tables. A disco version of the theme from “2001" comes up and sets the tone, both cheesy and highly dramatic. The stage lights pop on and there they are: three men dressed as larger-than-life women behind big yellow feathered fans. It’s vaudeville, the Ziegfeld Follies, Busby Berkeley and burlesque all at once. Moving in unison, the girls tease, peek, smile and shimmy. Finally they pull their fans back to reveal Darcelle, in a fabulous pink-and-black bias-striped sheath, singing along in her gravelly voice to Ethel Merman belting “There’s no business like show business” as she moves downstage. Despite the campy accouterments, it’s a stunning and oddly moving moment.

Then it’s time for Darcelle’s routine. On a night when the club is jammed, it’s easy to get a laugh with the old jokes. They’re fresh to a crowd that has been drinking, has waited in a long line and is looking forward to making a night of it. That crowd is primed for a riotous good time. The friends here tonight, though, have heard it all before. “The lesbian basketball team finally got a sponsor.” A beat. “Snap-On Tools.” Jimbo, in the light booth, wiggles the spot in place of a rimshot, but barely a titter is heard. This is when Darcelle’s true talent kicks in: The lack of laughs only goads her to tease the audience until it laughs at itself. “I’m gonna pass out leaflets--you can follow along,” Darcelle quips. She interviews anyone who’s celebrating a birthday. “What do you do, honey?” she asks a glum-seeming woman. “You dispatch coffee machines? What? Oh, copy machines.” A beat. “You must be busy.” She gives the audience a look and it laughs back. The jokes don’t make the show; Darcelle does.

Guts. Brass. Stick with it night after night, come war, AIDS, Christian fanatics, gunplay, drug dealers on the doorstep, lean times. Sticking with it is the key to the club’s success, Walter and Roxy agree. In the days before gays were out, they had the audacity to put on dresses and makeup and flounce around the stage like women. But they didn’t ignore the times, they went with them.

In 1965, when Walter bought the bohemian tavern that was to be his final business venture, he had no idea of what was to come. Women stayed at home and homosexuals hid in the closet. The beatniks were over, and the Me Generation was years away. The country was in for some radical change. As it turned out, Walter too was in the throes of a drastic transition--from apparent straight family man to outrageous gay performer.

Always a good boy, he had started working at 15 and married Jeannette at 19, leaving home for the first time. It was on a train to Salzburg, Austria, after he was drafted into the Army, that he had his first gay encounter. “I’d had my fantasies about having a man, someone who would care about me--in a different way than my wife.” But outwardly he was the typical husband of his time, returning from a tour of duty in Italy to father two children and start his own businesses, including, he says, Portland’s first coffeehouse.

Twenty years into an average married life--and unbeknownst to his family--Walter planned to run his new tavern as a gay bar and attract customers by hiring a popular lesbian bartender from another establishment. The times, they were a-changing.

As Darcelle reappears in a lavender cotton-candy wig and rhinestone-striped gown singing along to “Cry Me a River,” she occupies a niche that’s both male and female--and neither--in a timeless realm of clinking glasses, cigarette smoke and a single spotlight. The jokes are stale, the act is PG-13, the audience is drunk. And it’s all an unforgettable hoot.

That a local newspaper called the club “quaint"--a throwback in an era of S/M performers, fire-eating burlesque strippers and other extreme nightlife--doesn’t bother either Walter or Roxy, who points out that “there’s so little in today’s world that is quaint.” Mainstream is what the pair have aimed for--to appeal to all ages over 21, to be inoffensive and to leave ‘em laughing. “We used to be more notorious than we are now,” Walter says. “Now we’re so mainstream it’s almost boring!”

They weren’t always considered so tame.

A year and a half after Walter bought Demas Tavern, he met Roxy, who invited him to see the lavish stage show he had choreographed and was performing in at the grand Hoyt Hotel, a risque cabaret run by a buxom, showy matron after whom Darcelle would soon be modeled. Walter asked for Roxy’s advice; his bar needed a little entertainment to bring people in.

Inspired in part by the famous San Francisco drag club Finnochio’s, which ran for 63 years until closing in 1999, Walter and Roxy decided to try female impersonation. Two tables topped with plywood became the stage. Fabric was hung across a wire to create a “backstage” for costume changes and to hide a record player and speakers.

Walter and another performer took turns: While one lip-synced to a Barbra Streisand or Judy Garland record, the other changed costumes, and each killed a little more time joking with the audience, with the goof-ups becoming part of the show. “Since it was such a tight place to change, there’d be a hanger hooked on the bottom of your dress and oh, God!” Walter laughs. “We didn’t take it seriously, they didn’t take it seriously, and it was fun. No matter what happened, we’d laugh about it.”

As the show evolved, Roxy says, “I decided to create this character, Darcelle. It was Walter. I said, ‘You must become a character. You can be a character, or a caricature of what a female might be or might want to be.’ That’s where we started the show--with that idea that we’re actors playing a role.”

“We are men first,” Walter explains. “We’re men, and we don’t wear ladies’ undies and that kind of stuff. When we talk about costumes, they are costumes. They’re not dresses we got off the rack somewhere. We don’t wanna look like transvestites.”

It was groundbreaking in a town that hosted, Walter thinks, maybe five or six gay bars at the time. “You wouldn’t see a drag queen walking on the street ever here,” Roxy says. “All of a sudden Darcelle’s name was in the paper, and they said, ‘Gosh, Darcelle’s accepted, so we can do it. I bet it’s safe for us to do it now.’ ”

It may have been safe for other drag queens, but it wasn’t safe for Walter. Roxy remembers that during their first couple of years together, Walter “was afraid to be seen too publicly, the reason being that he was still married, he had two children and he was living at home. He hadn’t come out to his wife yet.”

Walter and Roxy were dating on the sly--until Walter couldn’t stand the duplicity anymore and owned up to Jeannette.

“It was quite a shock,” Jeannette says now. “I had no knowledge of him being gay . . . and then things started falling apart.” She thought Walter might be seeing another woman.

“Nobody understood,” Walter says. “Their first thing was, ‘Well, go to a doctor and take a pill and you won’t be gay anymore.’ ”

At the same time that he confessed to his wife and a close aunt, Arla, he also told them that his father had molested him as a child. “When my Aunt Arla found that out, she said, ‘That’s the end of you, don’t you ever come near me again.’ My father, she turned him against me. We didn’t get back together until just before he died"--some 30 years later.

The tavern remained underground for several more years. The local newspapers wouldn’t run its ads. “They considered our show pornographic,” Roxy says. And then came another traumatic surprise for the family: A 1974 article in the Oregon Journal about a photography exhibit described the “male actresses” at Darcelle XV, “whose absurd posturings and hyper-sexy costumes appear to satisfy the clientele as well as provide some outlet for their own modes of fulfillment.” An accompanying picture showed Walter in drag.

“It was embarrassing,” Jeannette says, “because nobody had heard of a club like that.” She did everything she could to keep it from the children.

“I wasn’t told what was happening,” says Maridee, who was in the sixth grade when her father left. “That was hard. I, as a little girl, would worry about him. ‘Where’s he sleeping?’ That kind of thing. I found out later they had decided he should stay out of our lives.”

In the 1970s, an influx of drug dealers drove customers and tourists from once-thriving 3rd Avenue, and the club’s revenues fell by at least 30%. “We just bit the bullet and stayed open,” Walter says. Finally he and other merchants “made enough noise” that the city opened a neighborhood police station. (And, luckily, a scandal of the club’s own was neatly avoided after a lesbian love triangle incited a drunken patron to shoot her gun into the ceiling: No one bothered to call the cops.)

In the 1980s came AIDS. Every few days there was another call about another death, Walter remembers. “You got so used to it, you got numb to it.” A friend who was “like a son,” who lived with the couple and performed at the club, succumbed, as did staff members and other performers.

The ‘80s also brought out the religious right. Protesters from the mission down the street picketed the club with signs that read “DARCELLE’S DEMONS YOU’RE GOING TO HELL.” They were more of an irritant than anything else; in a city boasting a rich history of white slavery, notorious crime syndicates and cops on the take, they were paid no mind. And with the release of movies such as “La Cage aux Folles,” straight customers began taking the leap to find out what a drag show was really about.

Boundless charity work furthered Darcelle’s entree into civic acceptability. In 1970, Roxy and Walter helped found the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court, a drag-queen version (now inclusive of all gays) of a fund-raising service organization. It was in 1973, when she stepped down as Empress XV, that Demas Tavern became Darcelle XV. The giving began with a hat passed at early shows to support Vietnamese orphans, and has continued with everything from a yearly Christmas dinner for the homeless at the club to donations to keep the community center going in Walter’s old hometown of Linnton.

In 2003, Darcelle was given a Spirit of Portland award and lauded by the mayor as a “figurehead for supporting social causes for the gay, lesbian and transgender community . . . a popular performer at fund-raisers [who] has raised thousands of dollars each year for charities.”

Until a few years ago, when Roxy had a hip replaced, he was a performer in the show as well as its choreographer. In a scene from his childhood at age 8, he’s sitting on the porch of his grandmother’s log hotel in West Yellowstone, Mont. His grandfather, a onetime traveling salesman and “a dirty old man,” is strolling up and down the street, showing him how to walk like a woman. “He’d say, ‘Have you ever watched women walking down the street? Most of ‘em walk like men. Here’s how women should really walk.’ As it turned out, it did work out really well for me.” Roxy knew from that early age that he’d be a dancer, and eventually he choreographed big-time shows in Las Vegas, at the Stardust, the Tropicana, the Dunes. “I always thought I was going to be Fred Astaire,” Roxy likes to say. “I didn’t realize I’d turn out to be Ginger Rogers!”

And, just as in the movies, without Ginger, Fred wouldn’t be half the Fred he was.

Walter and Roxy have shared their 1870 Queen Anne Victorian house since 1976. Set behind tall trees and an iron fence, it doesn’t merit much notice in this eclectic Portland neighborhood, a jumble of shambling rentals and high-end historic abodes, though the string of lights around the wide porch hints at the glam aesthetic within. Its 13 rooms are crowded with period furniture, chandeliers and wall sconces, figurines, paintings, cases of rhinestone baubles, a mirrored piano, a wall of framed antique beaded purses. The bedroom is papered in red velvet and hung with five large chandeliers and crystal wall fixtures. The red-covered bed lies under red draperies and gold cherubs, flanked by a Biedermeier side table and a gold-framed baroque mirror.

On this Fourth of July afternoon, the backyard patio is crowded with friends enjoying a barbecue. Walter, in a Hawaiian shirt and rhinestone-studded baseball cap, is the grand old man of the group; Roxy holds court inside. Among the guests is Jeannette, a gray-haired woman sitting quietly between a table full of male revelers and Darcelle XV performers who are virtually unrecognizable in their “straight” clothes. Walter II is here, as are Maridee and her daughters.

In the middle of the crowd, Walter stands by a small fountain bobbing with rubber ducks, each with a number on the bottom, for a raffle to benefit the Camp Starlight Foundation for kids with AIDS. “Last chance for ducks! Five dollars!” he calls. As his granddaughter Amanda, 17, helps him collect the donations, it’s a picture of easy family togetherness.

It took years for the family to reconcile. “Walter is a class act,” Jeannette says. She uses words such as “wonderful” and “giving” to describe him. “He’s my best friend,” she says. They’ve never divorced, though she considered it. “At the beginning, I was really mad,” she says, but “I didn’t have the nerve to go to a divorce lawyer and spill the beans.”

The entire family, including Roxy, spends holidays together now. Walter II has been bartending at the club for 20 years, and his wife, Julie, runs the kitchen. Maridee was married last summer with Walter, an Internet-ordained minister, officiating.

This month, Walter Cole turns 75. To celebrate, he’s throwing Darcelle a very public birthday bash--"The Party of the Century"--at Portland’s Melody Ballroom. As for Darcelle’s eventual final curtain call? “I want a full house,” Walter says, “and to keel over kickin’ up high.”


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