The pandemic? We hated it. But it brought about some inspired developments, such as Poison Waters (AKA Kevin Cook) learning to use Zoom. The Darcelle XV Showplace co-host really took to the medium, and now on the rare day in Portland where Poison Waters isn’t hosting an event, it might be because she’s leading a corporate remote retreat—or teaching an online class about local history.
Since 2020, she has taught a web class as part of the non-credit, community education program at Portland Community College, and for the thrifty price of $45, we sat in on a three-hour class called Histories of Drag Performance in Portland.
Though the course goes back far further than Poison Waters’ 35 years of drag performance, she conveys decades of information with humor and personal stories. We’re by no means trying to spoil the class; there’s so much there. We’re just hoping to give you a taste and encourage someone to give her a book deal.
Portland has been a stronghold for drag for far longer than people think.
The class format of Histories of Drag Performance in Portland is largely a slideshow of unearthed historical images, with charming narrational instruction provided by Poison Waters. One of the early revelations is a promotional photo of drag and vaudeville performer Julian Eltinge from a Portland tour stop in 1915. “Portland was one of their most popular stops,” Poison Waters narrated. “[They performed at] the Heilig Theater, on Southwest Broadway. It later became the Fox Theater, until it was demolished and became the Fox Tower.”
The Crystal Hotel was once the home of Silverado.
In 2011, as McMenamins prepared to reveal its renovated Crystal Hotel—next door to the Crystal Ballroom—the company reached out to Poison Waters about hosting the grand opening. “They wanted to bring back a little history,” she explained. “The hotel used to be the Silverado, which was a gay mens nightclub. Upstairs was a gay men’s bathhouse. I worked at the Silverado strip club downstairs—not in the bathhouse, just to be clear—hosting events and stuff,” she clarified.
The empty block at Southwest 6th and Hoyt is where we should actually build a Darcelle XV park.
One of the city’s grand romances, that of Darcelle XV (AKA Walter Cole) and Roxy Neuhardt, began in the Roaring Twenties nightclub of the Hoyt Hotel. “Roxie was a dancer in the show, and Darcelle went to see it. They met, fell in love—their relationship has been detailed in several books, magazines, documentaries, a one-man play, etc.” she described. “It’s a big empty parking lot now, and has been my entire adult life.”
Darcelle XV received inspiration (and wardrobe) from Gracie Hansen.
On the night Darcelle / Walter Cole met Roxy, Gracie Hansen was the person he was actually there to see. “He said that she was the first female drag queen he ever met,” Poison Waters said. “He just loved her over-the-top persona. When Gracie was moving back to Seattle, she gifted Darcelle a lot of her gowns and jewelry.”
In the late '40s, Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee promised to clean up Portland—then promptly lost her next election.
Poison Waters referenced Darcelle’s memoir Just Call Me Darcelle when relating the tale of Portland’s Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee: “Portland had a thriving gay community in the ‘40s until Mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee started a campaign to rid Portland of sin.” McCullough Lee pushed for raids on gay establishments and anything else she deemed delinquent. She didn’t win her second term election. Food for thought for our current city hall.
The historic philanthropy of Oregon’s Rose Court is connected to a '70s-era gambling law.
The history of Oregon’s longstanding, philanthropic Imperial Sovereign Rose Court can be cavernous and conflicting. “Back then, queens didn’t have to have a pageant; you could just decide ‘I’m queen of Hooha Damn Damn,’ and no one was going to argue with you,” Poison Waters explained. In 1970, the Oregon Legislature passed a law allowing gambling at nonprofit organizations and Dahl & Penne Card Room—a gay bar in the same neighborhood as Darcelle’s (still Dima’s Tavern at the time)—received one of three gambling licenses. “So the house, you know, the bar couldn’t take any profit; all the proceeds went directly to [charity]. That’s really where all of that started,” Poison Waters said. As the queer court and pageant movement was becoming popular in Portland, at the same time, they adopted the practice and never stopped.
The story behind the number that took LaWanda Jackson to Las Vegas.
This might already be common knowledge, but it was news to us. We knew Portland-born performer Lawanda Jackson worked at Darcelle’s during her pre-Vegas career. However, we didn’t know that she first gained recognition via a show-stopping duet, where she performed as both Diana Ross and Lionel Richie. “She put it together herself.” Poison Waters said. “It was her concept and costume. It was so unique and so fabulous, that when somebody saw her do it here in Portland, they booked her to come to Las Vegas.”
Darcelle XV Showplace holds the Guinness World Record for longest drag performance.
Okay, if you read the Mercury regularly, you already know this, but the tremendous and glamorous effort deserves repeat mentions. On July 12, 2023, Darcelle XV Showplace set a new world record for longest drag artist stage show. “I think I’m still sleep deprived from it,” Poison Waters said. “It was rough, but it was so fun. It was so Portland.”
[In the print version of this article, former Portland mayor Dorothy McCullough Lee's last name was misspelled as McCall. The Mercury regrets this error. -eds.]