On March 23, Walter Cole — known to most as Darcelle XV, the world’s oldest working drag queen — passed away at 92 years old. For decades, Darcelle would spend her weekends onstage at Old Town’s Darcelle XV Showplace, performing alongside other lauded drag artists. The night after her death, like any Friday for nearly fifty years, a show began. But this one would honor her wish: The show would go on without her.
Darcelle’s impact on Portland and the international queer community cannot be overstated. She “worked her entire adult life to make [the club] a safe space for each and every one of us,” said emcee Poison Waters, standing on Darcelle’s stage the way she had countless times before. “The first queen to cry is fired.” That promise was broken during the show’s conclusion, as the company stood hand-in-hand and joined the audience in a stirring sing-along to Pink Martini and Darcelle’s cover of her signature closer: The Rose.
Over the course of the following week, friends, family, fans, and queens who’d been given their first chances by Darcelle all gathered at the club to bring flowers, admire the (temporarily) changed street name, and honor the matriarch from the seats of her theater. Eater spoke with some of her bereaved during that week of shows, who remembered her as supportive, funny, and fiercely ambitious.
Anyone who knew her will say Darcelle was a legend, a trailblazer, a truly good and kindhearted person, whose work not only broke down barriers in this city but served as a template for drag and the spirit and endurance of the queer community around the world. The honoring of Darcelle in her own club feels like the closing of a loop since the queer community’s retained freedom to gather in this city feels like a gift that was given to us by her. Please note: Darcelle XV used her birth and drag names freely and interchangeably, and thus used both he/him and she/her pronouns. The interviews here reflect this.
Maridee Woodsen, Darcelle’s daughter: He had 50 of his closest friends come through the ICU. He was alert during all the visits, talking to people, laughing — it couldn’t have been more beautiful.
Bambi Ooley, friend: Johnny came in with the book Just Call Me Darcelle. He read about Walter’s aunt Lil, who believed in him and was his guardian angel.
Johnny Cakes Amundson, cook: I read two and a half chapters, and was in the middle of when he met [his partner] Roxy [in the book].
Bambi: I looked over, and he very peacefully quit breathing. He wanted to be with Roxy and his aunt Lil. It was at that moment he went to sleep.
Poison Waters, longtime coworker and friend: We all got to hold hands and be with our dear Darcelle for her last week on Earth. It’s been a blessing. It’s been a struggle. So now I’m here and I’m thinking, “Oh Lord, now what’re we gonna do?” You know what we’re gonna do? We’re gonna keep doing what we’ve always done. That’s how we defeat all that BS on the other side: We keep going.
Maridee: A lot of businesses would close down. Not him. I think he’d be cursing me up there.
Mr. Mitchell, longtime coworker and friend: Everything’s backstage the way it was. We’re not moving anything. Her hair’s here, Rhinestone Cowboy’s in there. She said, “My name’s on the door.” That door is never changing.
Kitty KariAll, performer: At seven years old, I had a dream I’d be standing onstage in front of hundreds of people, wearing a long gown. I didn’t understand it, but I knew that’s what I wanted. So here I am: I’ve performed in front of hundreds of people, wearing long gowns and short gowns and sometimes next to nothing. We loved Darcelle and Roxy. Without them, we would not be here.
Lotta Marie Liquor – Rose Empress 46, friend for thirty-five years: He really did change the direction of my life. We were playing Uno at his house, and he was like, “Come do my birthday show.” My partner Greg and I did a number and it went over well, and he invited us back for New Year’s. That was the beginning of Lotta. Then I became Rose Empress. A quick trip from the bottom!
Scot Bishop Walker – Rose Emperor 15, alongside Lotta: We were lucky enough to be here at [Gigantic Brewing’s] Darcelle Blonde IPA party last week. It was one of the happiest things I can remember, seeing him recognized. The picture, the artwork on the bottle? “So good” doesn’t even come close. It’s the spirit of Darcelle, without question.
Denice McMillin, patron: I’ve known of Darcelle since I was 15 years old. I remember she was this big, giant figure. Later, she gave the stage to my child, who is trans. She started performing for Darcelle once a year. It’s the most beautiful thing — Darcelle embraced my baby. I’ll never forget that.
Michael Conroy, a.k.a Tammy WhyNot: She made me feel okay to be me. When I first saw her, I felt really insecure. Then, I realized: Someone, dipped in glitter and rhinestones, with big eyelashes, has got our back.
Donna Earnest, patron for 38 years: We have pictures from every New Year’s Eve in an album. We go back a long way. The last time I saw Darcelle, I told him that I had more pictures of his ass than I did of my husband.
BinKyee Bellflower, the first queen to step onstage March 24: I have a lot of admiration for people who paved the way for us. For 20 years, I’ve kept my silence. I came to America five years ago from Malaysia, a very closeted Muslim country. Two months ago, before I flew home, Darcelle held my hands and said “BinKyee, tell your parents how happy you are.” And I did that. Darcelle has given me courage to speak up. And my parents love me for it.
Poison: This week, I spent a lot of time with Darcelle. She told me to “be kind.” She said, “Keep this going. Don’t forget me.” I said, “Your name’s in lights, bitch!”
Deb Johnston, friend: He passed on 03/23/2023. Add it up. It’s XV.