Cabaret is alive and kicking up a storm at the longtime Old Town nightclub Darcelle XV
Darcelle, the alter ego of 72-year-old Walter Cole, saunters onstage in a dress made of fake pearl strands. Rouge brightens her cheeks, and there's a blond bouffant wig on her head.
'My hair is by Viagra,' she says. 'You spray a little on, and up it goes!'
Then she gets really naughty. She informs a 21-year-old birthday girl in the audience that her breasts look square. 'I can tell she's a blonde because she forgot to take the Kleenex out of the box,' she tells the audience in her husky voice.
Equal parts fun-loving and catty, this grande dame has been calling the shots at Darcelle XV in Old Town since 1967. The 'XV' refers to her early '70s reign as the 15th empress of the Imperial Sovereign Rose Court (an Oregon organization that raises money for charities within the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community).
Along with her partner, Rocky, Darcelle runs the cabaret-style nightclub out of a humble storefront in Old Town. The simple white sign out front may not dazzle you, but the interior certainly will.
Swank booths covered in artificial fur line the back of the room. Club regulars Ñ mostly gay men Ñ hold court in the booths. Straight couples, bachelorettes and clusters of middle-aged women move to the front of the room and plunk down in chairs that are a little hard on the hindquarters.
'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' 'Disco Inferno' and other gay standards play on the stereo before the show. Two strobe lights pulse like crazy, making you feel drunk before the server arrives with your first daiquiri.
Take a moment to stroll down memory lane before the lights dim for the show Ñ or before you're too woozy to stand up properly. Thirty-five years of Portland drag queen history hangs on the walls, with countless head shots of Darcelle and her sassy showgirls. Or you can sit tight and watch video recordings of drag shows on a multitude of TV sets around the room.
In a savvy marketing ploy, the staff takes photos of incoming guests with drag queens as they enter the club. A little later Ñ after the customers have tossed back a vodka tonic or two Ñ the staff offers these precious moments for a mere $5. Most folks fork over an Abe Lincoln.
But on with the show.
Darcelle emcees the production and does a few solo numbers. She graciously shares the spotlight with a company of lip-synching princesses who shimmy and twirl their way through RuPaul's 'Supermodel' and other toe-tappers. Only Mitchell Underwood, a peppy short man, is not in drag. He escorts the ladies in some routines and does a dead-on impersonation of Elton John in his solo shtick.
On an elevated stage outlined by blinking red lights, Monique, Ginger and the rest of the gals blaze through glitzy production numbers that could hold their own in Las Vegas. Customers approach the stage midsong to slip dollar bills into the performers' trampy red dresses and devil costumes.
In a rendition of 'Rhinestone Cowboy' that borders on frightening, the portly Darcelle faces the audience wearing black chaps and a cowgirl shirt. Then she turns around and starts shaking the naked derrire that her risquŽ pants reveal. The undaunted audience hoots, hollers and slips money beneath her ultrathin G-string.
As the crowd fawns over her voluminous backside, it seems that Darcelle's announcement at the beginning of the show has come true: 'The drunker you get, the prettier I am.'