By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Walter Cole may be the most fascinating man in Portland. Best known as the proprietor and titular performer of the Darcelle XV Showplace — the longest-surviving drag club in the United States — Cole has been a fixture in Portland’s business and art scenes for well over half a century. He’s a father, a war veteran, an entrepreneur, a lover, a beatnik, a philanthropist, and a celebrity; throughout it all, though, he’s been a happy man, and brought happiness to countless others as well. Here, Cole tells PQ about his painful early life in Linnton, finding inspiration and true love in the Portland counterculture, and how he reacts when people confuse him with the beloved character he created.
PQ: So, Walter, what was your first memory of Linnton?
Walter Cole: I was born in 1930, and Linnton was a town then — now it’s just a freeway, but back then, we had everything there: doctors, dentists, a dry goods store. My father worked in the mills, and we lived in a company house. … We were all poor, but nobody knew it. Every payday, I’d get an ice cream cone, and that was my treat for the month.
PQ: What’s your earliest memory of your mother?
Cole: My mother was very ill when I was a child. She’d take me into Portland, and every time we would stop for Chinese food, right in this same part of town where the bar is now. Then, she got so sick that she had to stay in bed; she was bedridden for two years before she passed away. I know good and well that if she lived to now, or even to 45 years ago when I started this, she’d be very proud. She was so liberal about everything. Everything was fine — as long as you didn’t hurt anyone or hurt yourself, everything was fine.
PQ: What was school like for you?
Cole: I grew up as a little sissy boy. In those days, there was no word for queer — “gay” meant happy — so I was a sissy. I was always picked last for baseball. … I had a lot of girlfriends, though, and I played jacks really well. … It was quite evident to folks around that I was a sissy. You never remember some of the teachers in school, but you always remember the bullies.
PQ: Who was your bully?
Cole: Bobby Palmer. He lived in the house behind ours, and there was only one street in Linnton, so I couldn’t avoid him. It was never physical, but it was verbal, and I’d come home crying to my aunt Lilly who raised me. She was my father’s unmarried sister, and my angel. She kept me going through all of this.
PQ:What was your relationship like with your father at the time?
Cole: My father, when I was a kid, was pretty distant. When my mother passed away, he started drinking more — he’d come home from work, eat dinner, go to the tavern, come home drunk. I really didn’t have a relationship with him. When he did find out that I was gay, later on, after I married and had children and everything, he was livid and disowned me. However, he didn’t mind molesting me when I was in early puberty. That didn’t make him gay. It was horrendous for me.
PQ: So, this abuse was going on right when the bullying started?
Cole: It was a terrible combination. When I graduated from high school, I had a choice to go to Lincoln or Roosevelt. All the bullies and bullshit people went to Roosevelt. I went to Lincoln, which was urban and … very diverse. It was a great school to go to because nobody gave a damn!
I got married [to Jeanette Rossini] right after high school in 1951, because at those times if you had money you went to college, and if you didn’t you got married. I was in the closet all this time. I found “friends” every now and then, but not so much during high school. Right after, though, I started realizing that I’m not straight arrow! (Laughs)
PQ: Who was the first man you remember being attracted to?
Cole: I was more attracted to the sex part, not the person.
PQ: Where’d you meet men for that part?
Cole: We used to have the steam baths here, and that’s where people went — there was one down here on Flanders.
PQ: What was the situation like the first time you went?
Cole: It was kind of scary, because it’s very dark in there. It didn’t take long to get into the swing of things, though! … There was also one across from the Keller Auditorium, where the fountain is now.
PQ: Which one was better?
Cole: This one [on Flanders] was the dirty one, and the other was clean, but it didn’t matter. Only in and out! I never hung around all day. That was when I was married, and cheating and lying about who I was to myself and to her. Eventually, I couldn’t do it anymore, and I had to tell her that I was gay and that I needed out.
PQ: What was her response?
Cole: “Go to the hospital and get cured.” That was what they thought then. It was horrendous, really — we had two children, and it wasn’t easy for them, or me, or her. After the years passed, we’re all one big family now; my son works here, he and his wife lives next door to us, and my daughter just called me today.
PQ: What happened next?
Cole: I opened Portland’s first coffeehouse. It was called Café Espresso, and it was downtown at 6th and Harrison. I had the first espresso machine north of San Francisco, I’m sure — a big gas-fired boiler, so illegal nowadays that you probably couldn’t even plug it in! I don’t think anyone else had espresso but me.
PQ: So, in a sense, you’re responsible for Portland’s coffee culture, too?
Cole: Yes. I could have been Darcellebucks if I stuck with it! (laughs) The cafe had folk music, poetry readings, everything.
PQ: And this was in the 1950’s, so right in the beatnik era. Were you involved in the beat scene here?
Cole: You’re lookin’ at it right here! (Laughs.) I walked into that scene with my little briefcase and glasses, a crew cut from the army, and fit right in with them.
PQ: What was Portland’s beat scene like?
Cole: Far out! They behaved themselves — they didn’t smoke pot or do drugs at my place, but they were far out. I made a lot of good friends there, and most of them are still beatniks.
PQ: So, tell me about your partner Roxy [Neuhardt].
Cole: (Sighs.) Roxy was my first love, my first date, the first person I wanted to be with.
PQ: Do you remember the moment you met him?
Cole: Oh yes! It was at a bar, the Dahl and Penne … [and] he was sitting there at the bar, facing the room. I put my hand on his knee, [introduced myself and found out that he was a dancer], and told him I’d come to his show. He heard that from all the men, but I actually followed through and went to the show. We had coffee afterward, I drove him home, he got out of the car, and I drove home. For three months, that was our routine — not ever messin’ around. Nothing! I figured that I wasn’t going to be a one-night stand; he wasn’t going to be my trick and I wasn’t going to be his trick. And it worked — we’re still together 45 years later.
PQ: When did you know that you loved him?
Cole: The minute I saw him.
PQ: So, this is all before you started Darcelle?
Cole: When I met Roxy, we were both entertainers — he was a dancer and I was acting in local theatre. … I had a friend who worked in a friend across the way called Magic Garden — it’s a T&A bar now, but then it was a lesbian club. She and another person had a drag show once a week. Roxy’s show closed, and we decided that we wanted to do a show. We brought my friend Tina Sandel in, myself, and Roxy.
PQ: And that was the very first time you wore drag?
Cole: Yes … I just changed costumes. To this day, it’s a costume. I don’t want to be a woman, I don’t care to dress up and walk around town. I don’t want to go to Nordstrom’s and buy high heels! That’s not me — I’m an entertainer.
PQ: I imagine that people sometimes confuse Walter and Darcelle.
Cole: Some people think that Darcelle would love to be a woman and go through the whole operation. I stop them in their tracks when they go in that direction … because that’s not my gig. I love our transvestite friends, they’ve been loyal to me and we have a great time together, but that’s not me. I’m an entertainer, and I just dress to entertain. I went from [playing] doctors and attorneys in book plays, to playing Darcelle. I just changed the costume. As far as I’m concerned, it’s just another costume — just another role.
PQ: You’ve made such an impact here in town. Is it odd when people point that out to you?
Cole: How do you react when someone calls you an institution? I just say, “Well, people get locked up in those, don’t they!?” (Laughs). I’m just grateful when people take the time to say it. Total strangers come up to me and say, “I love what you do, you’ve been a pioneer, I’ve seen you at fundraisers …” I love hearing it, but I just don’t know how this happened. I didn’t plan on it, you know? I didn’t say, “Hang on! I’m plowing through Portland’s scene!” I sometimes don’t know how to react, but I can’t believe my own publicity. When you start believing your own publicity, it won’t happen anymore. People don’t want to see somebody that has a big head, who’s all blown-up about themselves. I didn’t do any of this by myself. … Nobody does anything alone. It’s too big a world to conquer on your own.
PQ: What would you want PQ readers to remember?
Cole: If you’re not happy, move on. Family, friends, work, lodging — get the things that make you unhappy out of your life. Life is just too short to not be happy. I’m happy every day! Sometimes Roxy just gets so annoyed with me because I wake up every morning just singing, with bells on. He’ll be like, “Stop it! You were up all night!” — but I don’t care. I’m ready to go. … Happiness is so important. Live your life, and be happy. Too many people spend too much time dwelling on the negative. I have this thing: if I can’t change it, I’m not even going to think about it. I can’t be bothered with thinking about the things I can’t change, in my life or anyone else’s. If you can’t change it, drop it.
Cole’s memoir “Just Call Me Darcelle” is available at the Darcelle XV Showplace (208 NW 3rd Ave., Portland). For more information on Cole, Darcelle, and the showplace, visit darcellexv.com. You’ll find more from our interview with Cole on the PQ Monthly blog.