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The Queen of Portland

The long, fabulous reign of Walter Cole and his drag cabaret

November 13, 2005|Connie Monaghan | 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.

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.

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."

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.

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