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Portland drag club recognized in the National Register of Historic Places

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The city of Portland, Ore., this week celebrated a new location on the National Register of Historic Places - a drag club. Reporter Katia Riddle was there and has this report.

KATIA RIDDLE, BYLINE: It was a small but joyous crowd that gathered in downtown Portland on a cold and sunny afternoon to witness history - the unveiling of a permanent plaque in the sidewalk.

EARL BLUMENAUER: This recognition is something that each of us can be proud of.

RIDDLE: Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer spoke standing in front of Darcelle's, an aging but festive drag club that is now officially part of U.S. history.

(APPLAUSE)

RIDDLE: The story of this club begins more than 50 years ago with a man named Walter Cole. It was a painful time for him. He'd just told his wife he was gay.

WALTER COLE: I was happy with my marriage, but I had to be who I really am.

RIDDLE: Leaving his wife and their two kids was one of the hardest things he'd ever done. He bought this club shortly after that, hoping to make a little money, but he didn't have a plan. The first day he unlocked the door, he says, he discovered it was neglected and rundown.

COLE: And I looked around. I started to cry. I said, what the hell have I done?

RIDDLE: But soon he met the man who would become his life partner. The two of them started performing drag together at his bar. On stage, Walter Cole became the queen Darcelle. In those early days, they used a home stereo and a banquet table for a stage.

FRANKIE FARROW: It was like something that only gay people knew about at that time.

RIDDLE: Frankie Farrow has been coming here for decades. He sits at a booth. On the walls hang hundreds of framed pictures of bejeweled and feathered queens past. Farrow remembers when Darcelle's felt like a secret society.

FARROW: Straight away, it started a community.

RIDDLE: Today, audiences are far more diverse. Bachelorette parties are a regular occurrence here. But the club still provides safe harbor for queer men of all generations. Thirty-four-year-old Ty Bennett is bartending.

TY BENNETT: I struggled.

RIDDLE: He says, as a gay kid in a small town in Indiana, he experienced bullying and hate.

BENNETT: Barely, barely making it through and really trying my best to hold on.

RIDDLE: Tears come to Bennett's eyes when he talks about what this place means to him.

BENNETT: I truly value the impact that Darcelle has had on queer history.

RIDDLE: While the club helped Walter Cole to foster community and find himself, he was still estranged from his kids for years.

MARIDEE WOODSON: I just remember missing him horribly.

RIDDLE: Maridee Woodson struggled when her father came out, but over time, she stopped caring that he was gay and just wanted her dad back. She sees him almost every day now. Her own kids brag about having a grandpa who's a drag queen.

WOODSON: They had no problem telling their friends.

RIDDLE: They were proud of him.

WOODSON: Yes, yes.

RIDDLE: As a local celebrity, Cole has embraced the role of ambassador, normalizing queer and drag culture, like the time he encouraged a woman to be open minded with her husband, a straight man who loved dressing in women's clothes. Years later, the woman reported back.

COLE: She said, we have three children. I'm happily married to this man, and we have matching nightgowns.

RIDDLE: You saved your marriage.

COLE: Yes, yes.

RIDDLE: Cole spends so much time at the club, it's like a second home. Guinness Book lists Darcelle as the oldest still-performing drag queen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) The soul...

RIDDLE: This recording is from a performance two days before Darcelle's 91st birthday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) That never learns to live.

RIDDLE: When she's on stage, Darcelle sometimes needs to lean on her walker now, but she's decorated it with rhinestones, so it fits right in. For NPR News, I'm Katia Riddle in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.