Recognizing the Passing of Walter Willard Cole, Sr.

Floor Speech

Date: April 24, 2023
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. BLUMENAUER. Mr. Speaker, I rise today to remember the passing of a true Portland icon. A beloved member of the LGBTQ+ community, a pioneer for equality, and a dazzling performer, Walter Willard Cole Sr. embodied the spirit of Portland. Walter passed away on March 23rd in Portland, Oregon after a long and accomplished life. I am honored to have known Walter and deeply admire his many contributions to our city, both as a civic leader, small business owner, activist, philanthropist--and yes--as the drag performer Darcelle.

For decades, Darcelle was a fixture in Portland's live entertainment scene, captivating audiences as the world's oldest working drag queen. For over 50 years Darcelle entertained patrons acting as master of ceremonies to a cadre of drag performers and dancers, all the while bantering with audience members and performing memorable routines in extravagant, hand-made gowns.

In 1967, Walter purchased a bar in Portland's Old Town neighborhood, then skid row, that would later be known as the Darcelle XV Showplace. Well before the gay rights movement took hold, Darcelle XV experienced its share of protests, threats, and hardships. Yet Walter persisted, creating a welcoming and inclusive space for audiences to relax, laugh, and enjoy a show.

As LGBTQ+ acceptance grew throughout Portland and the country, the nightclub's impact cannot be understated. Darcelle had a way of putting people at ease and created an environment where patrons, both gay and straight, felt comfortable and welcomed. At Darcelle XV, drag queens had a stage to perfect their act before taking their performance on the road, showcasing their talents for the broader public. The nightclub and Walter's stewardship were influential in advancing mainstream acceptance of drag performance and contributed significantly to the broader societal acceptance of gay rights. Today, Darcelle XV is considered a Portland institution and a pioneering establishment in the fight for LGBTQ+ equality.

Outside the club, Walter was a fierce advocate for Portland's LGBTQ+ community. He understood and embraced his position as a community leader who worked to create positive and lasting change. Walter used his performances to raise awareness and funds for the causes he cared deeply about. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 90s, Walter stood up for his community. He helped raise money for medical research, people living with AIDS, and their families.

In 2020, I was honored to support the effort to preserve Walter's legacy by including Darcelle XV in the National Register of Historic Places. This was the first institution recognized in Oregon that honored our LGBTQ+ community and its history. I'm glad we were able to honor Walter's work in this way and protect his legacy for generations to come.

Walter will be dearly missed by his friends and family, the LGBTQ+ community, and all of Portland.