IT BEGINS WITH MAKEUP. Loads of it.
For the first few weeks, Felicity tells me, the caked layers of clown white powder and rouge gave her horrible acne. Of course, every drag queen has her own routine and sensibilities, but at Darcelle XV there are rules—the makeup must be contrasting and loud, almost comically so. And only when it's finished do you tuck your dick back.
But first something has to be done about those balls.
Now—in the dressing room at Darcelle XV, surrounded by six tall drag queens—seems like as fine a time as any to learn. "Where do they go?" I ask. The response comes with the faintest bit of petulance, as if I should know.
"Back where they came from."
"When you were young, before they dropped," says Poison Waters. "They go back. Straight up."
I have a hard time picturing it, and fiddling around with the idea makes it no clearer. I pull my hand from my pants and Poison grabs it, taking a huge whiff. Maybe cast member Mr. Mitchell was right when he said I was entering a wolves' den.
"The first couple times it can hurt," Felicity says of learning to pop her balls up. "After a while you don't even feel them when they're up there." Next comes the tuck. "You put your dick right between the middle, and put on your dance belt," a tight pair of underwear specially designed to keep everything securely in place.
Nylons are the final piece, and all the girls at Darcelle's wear two pairs. Aside from offering the illusion of more shapely, smooth, and feminine legs, the tights spare the cast the trouble of shaving. In other areas—chests, arms, backs, and faces—they're not so lucky.
Preparation times vary by girl, as does the moment when they finally shift into character. Tiara, who takes about 30 minutes to get ready, says it's when she's finished with her makeup. Felicity is almost meditative about her sometimes two-hour routine, yet doesn't shift into character until the moment she sets foot on the stage. None of the girls can compare, however, to Darcelle's speed—she's done in five minutes flat. It's not surprising, really—by her own count Darcelle has performed well over 50,000 shows, a pace she still maintains, performing Wednesday through Saturday, with two shows on Friday and Saturday. Not bad for a 79-year-old.
Darcelle XV began, of all things, as a lesbian bar. Before there was Darcelle, there was simply Walter Cole, who in 1967 bought Demas, a run-down Greek bar in what was then a rough area of Northwest Portland. "Real skid row," Cole says (the feminine name and pronouns apply only while the costume is on).
"My customers were all winos and alcoholics," Cole continues. "But by nine o'clock they were already drunk so they were gone or passed out. Our gay friends told us they weren't going to cross Burnside—it was scary for them."
Cole hired Papa Scott, a lesbian bartender he calls "old-school," adding that she preferred to be called "dyke" and had a "heart bigger than she is." Papa Scott dressed like a man and always wore a suit. Her presence garnered a lesbian clientele for the bar. Still, winos owned the morning.
Drag performances began in either 1970 or '71, on a stage of two banquet tables pushed together. At the time, it was just Darcelle and Tina Standell. But a chance meeting would greatly change the tenor and seriousness of the show.
Cole and Roxy LeRoy became partners, both at home and in business, after a chance meeting almost 40 years ago. To this day the couple's relationship exudes an obvious vitality. They remember their first encounter like it was yesterday.
"We touched knees," says LeRoy. "It's kind of sleazy and romantic at the same time."
Cole, ever seeking the spotlight, butts in. "You were sitting at a bar stool," he says. "I reached over and touched his knee." Cole's voice then adopts its onstage patter. "We were at a queer bar—no wonder I didn't touch your cock!"
LeRoy was a dancer in a straight, Broadway-type show across town. "The next night I was there, and that's how we met," Cole says. Soon after LeRoy's production closed and Cole invited him to perform at Demas.
"He brought his tap shoes and music and dressed as a man and did his numbers and the dykes didn't think that was the most fun thing in the world," remembers Cole.
LeRoy agrees, "No, no applause at all."
Cole continues, "Lesbians back then wouldn't be caught dead walking around with a man—not even a gay man. It was a whole different time. They liked me because I had the bar and I could throw them out."
Tired of flailing, LeRoy tried something different—he went out in drag. "Red hair, a tutu, and tap shoes, the same music and off he went," Cole says. "They went crazy because they'd never seen a drag queen tap dance."
LeRoy wasn't the first man to perform in ladies' clothes at the club, but coming from Las Vegas he brought a whole new sensibility, modeling performances after traditional Vegas showgirls.
In 1972, Darcelle was crowned the 15th Empress of the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court (hence the "XV"). Not wanting to be seen as profiting from the association, they waited until her reign had concluded to rename the bar. Darcelle stepped down in October of '73, and on New Year's Eve, Demas became Darcelle XV. When Finocchio's, a legendary drag show in San Francisco, closed in 1999, Darcelle XV became the longest-running drag show in the United States—perhaps even worldwide.
The show has evolved since the '70s, but for years it's been set in stone. It consists mostly of dance routines and lip-synching to a soundtrack full of mostly tongue-in-cheek pop and Broadway standards. After the opening musical number Darcelle does a monologue, which changes only in her interaction with the audience. It's not uncommon for the club to get visitors from across the world, not to mention from every pocket of the Northwest. And without fail, it's always someone's birthday.
On Saturday night there are about 10 such celebrations, but none sticks out more than Monica, a waifish gay Asian boy celebrating his 21st. He tells Darcelle he works as a trapeze artist in a traveling circus. Talking with the audience is where Darcelle seems to have the most fun. Her wit cracks like a whip, but she's never mean spirited.
"We must learn to laugh at ourselves," Darcelle says. "Only then can we laugh at others." Holding up her end, Darcelle is most certainly self-deprecating. Later she points out a customer's belt buckle. "Tombstone for a dead dick," she laughs.
Apart from the monologue, there are two numbers repeated in every performance: "Rhinestone Cowboy" performed by Darcelle herself; and "Big Spender," where the girls expose big fake floppy penises that look like they belong to Muppets. It's more for the laugh than arousal, and about as dirty as the show gets. At gay clubs, I'm told, things are often racier, but the majority of Darcelle's audience is straight. The focus here is on performance, not titillation. It's more "R," than "X," and the girls like it that way.
"I want the audience to think, 'Ooh, she's good,'" Tiara explains. "Not, 'Oooh, she's nasty'—you know, the kind of nasty where, for enough money, she'd let you take her home."
Saturday's show is packed—not an empty seat in the house. A few women from Gresham crowd in around me at the back booth and start buying me drinks. One—more forward, buzzed, and presumably less married than the rest—wants to take shots. Well, she wants me to take shots. Broke, I oblige. Five minutes later she takes my hand in hers, and suddenly starts deep-throating my fingers.
Next Thursday is the polar opposite. The room is barren, with just seven customers, half of whom are friends of the cast. It's decided they'll perform nonetheless. Afterward Darcelle says she had a better time than she sometimes does during a sellout. There's a little more freedom to try new jokes or just fool around here, she says. Just like in pre-show, but now with a glass of wine, Darcelle mingles with the crowd, giving hugs, taking pictures, and cracking jokes. She reminds me of an old-school host or emcee—very Vegas-like, working the room with speed, gravitas, and grace, bouncing from group to group, charming them all.
Kind of like Don Rickles. With tits.
The allure of drag varies depending on whom you ask, but the girls here all seem to love their time in the spotlight. Many enjoy the relative fame working at Darcelle XV provides, and most come from theatrical backgrounds. Dressing in women's clothing has its advantages, the girls say. For Tiara, it's more than just performing.
"You can get away with a lot of stuff as a drag queen," she says. "You flirt more. I can't tell you how many ladies I've walked up to and been like, 'Oh my god, that's a nice rack,'" as she mimes squeezing their boobs. "This character can always find fun," Tiara continues. "With my male counterpart—whatever you want to call me—this isn't always the case."
Although working at Darcelle XV may make it easier to get dates, finding sturdy relationships can be difficult for the work-a-day drag queen. For Tiara, it's been an issue the whole time she's been there. Same with Felicity. At one time or another all the girls have felt it.
Prospective partners often have a hard time grasping the fact that the drag queens don't want to be women.
"I don't want my junk cut off," Felicity says. Turning her hands into devil horns she adds, "I'm a dude." For most of the cast, being asked to wear the costumes in their personal lives is a turn-off. If it's not gender confusion—or loving the woman, not the man underneath—prospective partners don't always cope well with their significant others getting so much attention. But playing host, dishing up compliments, and even flirting are part of the job.
Although sometimes the girls say it's just work, Darcelle XV has clearly become something more. The most tenured member of the cast (besides Darcelle herself) is Poison Waters. She's been there for almost 25 years. Tiara Desmond is next with 14. Mitchell, the cast's only male who performs out of drag, has spent his entire adult life in the club. He began at 17, lying to get in the door. That was 25-odd years ago.
Together they are catty, and like any family, there are rough patches. New girls come and go, but the core remains solid. They travel to out-of-town shows and pageants together. At one point Darcelle recounts the story of Tiara's mellowing through the years, sounding as much like a proud parent as a boss.
And like all families, Darcelle's will be tested. She can't do this forever, and as she approaches 80, that time may be on the horizon. I was stunned by Darcelle's vitality, and shocked to learn her real age. Occasionally, in struggling for a punchline or slurring a word it becomes apparent. But for the most part—and especially for 79—Darcelle is a marvel. Part of that she attributes to having spent a life doing what she loves. Offstage, Cole radiates the same charm and happy-go-lucky, easy-come easy-go attitude. But leaving won't be easy. LeRoy is testament to that.
After open-heart surgery, LeRoy returned to the stage vowing to keep on. But arthritis in his hips kept flaring up. He underwent one surgery, and managed to get back. Then it all came crashing down.
Headed to work one afternoon LeRoy missed a step. The fall drove the spike from hip surgery down into his femur and it shattered. Four more surgeries would follow. That was five years ago, and LeRoy hasn't performed since. He remains involved in daily production, though it does little to soften the blow.
"If I could go back on the stage I would tomorrow," says LeRoy. "For my whole life, since I was eight years old, that's all I've wanted to do." He begins to cry. "Performing onstage was my whole life."
While he still can, Cole says he'll never stop performing. "Even if I have to sit in a chair on the side the whole time, I'll emcee."
Everyone at Darcelle's was remarkably open, willing to discuss everything from tucking balls, to tranny-chasers, to hard economic times. But when we turned to the club's legacy the conversation jumped like a needle off a record. The mumbled consensus expects Poison Waters will take over emcee duties (as she sometimes does in the second show when Darcelle goes home early), while Cole's son, who currently runs the bar, will assume ownership of the club. Overall, it's important to everyone that the core sensibilities remain the same: fun, music, glitz, and glamour.
When the day Darcelle can no longer perform does finally arrive, I feel, it will be quick. For the last 40 years she and LeRoy have been unable or unwilling to spend much time away from the club. There haven't been many vacations. And that's fine, because onstage is exactly where Darcelle wants to be.
"I have never ever gotten ready to do a show at the house and said, 'I really don't feel like going in tonight,'" Darcelle says with LeRoy nodding in agreement.
"In all those years, not once."