On Tuesday, June 30, my Representative, the honorable Earl Blumenauer, urged the National Park Service to add Darcelle XV to the National Register of Historic Places.
Since 1967, two years before Stonewall, Darcelle XV has been Portland’s premier drag club. This cabaret is a campy Portland institution that has been a huge hit for decades. It is Portland’s oldest drag club. With the closing of San Francisco’s drag palace Finocchio’s in 1999, it became longest-running drag show on the West Coast.
This Old Town venue’s case for historical significance comes from that fact it’s operated by Walter Cole, known to the world as drag legend Darcelle. The Guinness Book of World Records points out that at 89 years old, Cole is the World’s Oldest Drag Queen. Until Oregon’s openly bisexual Governor, Kate Brown, closed all bars, restaurants and clubs on March 16 because of that damn COVID-19, Cole was still performing at the club several nights a week.
Cole has described Darcelle’s persona as:
“…sequins on the eyelids, lots of feathers, big hair, big jewels, and lots of wisecracks“.
Avoiding an Oregon law that prohibited the use of more than one instrument during performances, the queens at Darcelle XV lip-synched. In 1970, the club was fined after a performance of a “ballet-like adagio” by two men.
Darcelle is a large presence in Portland’s culture. Darcelle attends many social events around the city. In 2011, she served as grand marshal of the Portland Rose Festival’s Starlight Parade and received the city’s Spirit of Portland Award. Cole’s memoir, Just Call Me Darcelle (2011) included tales of his childhood, military service, life as Darcelle and anecdotes about Portland’s culture.
”In Portland, you can’t throw a cat down the street without hitting a drag queen.”
Iconic dresses from Cole’s five deacdes on stage are on view at the Oregon Historical Society. In Autumn 2019, a new musical, Darcelle: That’s No Lady, about Cole and Darcelle played to sold-out crowds. The show features music by Portland musicians Tom Grant and Storm Large. It starred my friend, Broadway veteran, Kevin Loomis, who was simply brilliant as Cole.
Last week, the State Advisory Committee on Historic Preservation unanimously agreed to nominate Darcelle XV for the national register. It’s the first time the committee has nominated a LGBTQ site for its place in history.
Blumenauer wrote to the U.S. Department of the Interior to accelerate the state committees’ nomination:
“Walter Cole persevered through discrimination during the 1970s and kept the club active for over 50 years. In line with NRHP criteria, Darcelle XV should be memorialized for its historical role in using entertainment to impact a cultural shift in the acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights.”
Placement on the national register protects sites from development and qualifies business owners for tax provisions and Federal preservation grants.
The National Park Service will announce which sites are added to the register in November in time for Cole’s 90th birthday.