Walter Cole, Who Dazzled as Darcelle, the World’s Oldest Drag Performer, Dies at 92

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Mr. Cole had done straight theater before, usually cast in supporting roles as the doctor or the lawyer. As Walter Cole, he often said, he was just a shy man who’d grown up poor in a mill town. Darcelle was something else, however. She was outrageous, bejeweled and brave. Her act was bawdy banter and enthusiastic, if not exactly tuneful, singing.

And costumes! A self-taught tailor, Mr. Cole found his inner Bob Mackie to make his own outfits, sewing elaborate confections of feathers, rhinestones, pearls and satin. His first, and last, hand-rhinestoned gown, a flowing pink number edged with blue feathers and topped with a hand-stitched pearl bodice, took three months to complete and weighed in at 30 pounds. (He soon turned to pre-spangled fabrics.) A pearl-tasseled flapper gown weighed 80 pounds. His Christmas tree dress, a dazzle of colored lights powered by a 100-foot extension cord, was always a showstopper during his annual holiday performance, “A Girl for All Seasons.”

Over the decades, Mr. Cole made some 1,500 costumes.

The Darcelle XV Showplace grew into an institution, drawing gay and straight crowds alike. And Darcelle established herself as more than just an amiable showgirl. She was an advocate for Portland’s L.G.B.T.Q. community, particularly its younger members, and an indefatigable fund-raiser for many causes. She once raised $250,000 in 25 minutes for a local hospital during a radio campaign.

During the AIDS crisis, in the 1980s and early ’90s, Darcelle hosted innumerable fund-raisers for medical research, facilities for people with AIDS, and children whose lives were affected by the disease. A granite sculpture, created by the artist Cal Christensen as a public monument to Oregonians who had died of AIDS, was named in her honor, the Darcelle XV AIDS Memorial, installed in a Portland cemetery and dedicated in 2017.

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