PORTLAND, Ore. — Walter Cole was born and raised in Portland, Oregon. Except for his two years in the military for the Korean War, he’s never lived anywhere else. However, in his 91 years of life, he’s seen a lot.
“I'm a female impersonator, and my stage name is Darcelle XV,” Cole said.
He’s always loved theatre. In 1969, Cole discovered his “alter ego.”
“I’m the world's oldest performing drag queen, the Guinness World Record.”
Cole opened Darcelle XV & Company 54 years ago. At the time, he had recently come out as gay.
“It was not a good time for the gay community, but we lived through it happily," Cole said. "We worked hard to make it OK for the world.”
He says he’s relieved to see society has shifted.
“Oh, my, you cannot throw a cat down the street without getting a drag queen now," Cole said. "They're everywhere!”
The club has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places, making it the first LGBTQ Oregon business to be designated a national historic site. Donnie Horn spearheaded the mission to get the club added to the National Register. He has known Cole for years and is the executive director of a Portland live theatre group Triangle Productions.
“We found out that his club is the oldest in America that is still continuous and the same location from the beginning to the end, there's one more in Chicago that has just like two or three years moved,” Horn said. “I started to realize how much history we have in the gay community that we've lost or are losing. So getting this on the National Register, working with the state of Oregon and working with the city of Portland, we're starting to find a way to move forward.”
They’ve opened the door for other LGBTQ nominations while honoring the legacy of drag and celebrating how it’s evolved.
“There was kind of hiding you were in a club or you were whatever, you were still hiding," Horn said. "Now it's full bore. I am who I am and I think there's that shift. But remember, there was many people that came before you that plowed down all of these fences to get where we are today.”
Darcelle has become a staple of the community. Cole says he wouldn’t change a day in his life because it brought him and society into a new era of love and acceptance.
“You put your makeup on and and your costumes, I’ve become Darcelle,“ Cole said. "Years ago, I used to say Darcelle and Walter were far apart. They keep getting closer and closer now.”