QUEENS OF HEART
This feature-length documentary brings to the screen the first psychological study of drag performance, set in the oldest surviving female impersonation club in the United States. Seventy-five year old Darcelle XV comforts and confronts her audiences, from the brides gone wild and their nervous male companions, to gays and lesbians celebrating a step in coming out. The documentary takes viewers behind the scenes, showing how the work of drag requires a deep understanding of human psychology.
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The Story Behind Queens of Heart
Located in the Old Town district of Portland, Oregon, Darcelle XV and Company is the longest surviving drag club in the United States. Since 1967, the venue has provided a social space where people from all walks of life in the community have come to celebrate, mourn, heal, or simply to have fun. Following the proud tradition of Stonewall, where drag queens fought New York police in the early gay rights uprising, Darcelle's has served as a hub for political activism.
Walter Cole, a.k.a. Darcelle, was born and raised in Linnton, Oregon, a small logging town located north of Portland on the banks of the Willamette River. Growing up during the Depression, his childhood was marked by painful struggle, particularly the death of his mother when he was a young boy. After leaving the military as a young man, Walter made his way to Portland to open a beatnik coffee house. He married his high school sweetheart, and settled with his wife and two children in a Southeast Portland home.
In 1967, Walter met Roc "Roxy" Neuhardt, a dancer and choreographer from Los Vegas who would become his life partner. Walter had always been interested in acting, and with their shared passions for theater the two began to discuss plans for a run-down tavern known as Demas that Walter had purchased in 1967. Located on Third Street in Old Town, Demas attracted a diverse crowd of marginalized Portlanders, patronized by working class and street locals during the day and by a lesbian clientele at night.
With a largely makeshift apparatus that consisted of a board on two table tops, a slide projector for a spotlight, and an antiquated LP stereo serving as a sound system, Roxy and Walter began incorporating drag performance into the tavern's entertainment. Walter sewed the costumes and performed along with Tina Sandel, a mutual friend who had already been performing drag in other Portland venues. It was not until 1972, five years after Walter took over the venue, that Roxy "gussied up" Walter in drag to compete in the Portland Forum's annual drag show at the Hoyt Hotel, and the Darcelle persona was born. The following year, under Roxy's management and choreography, Darcelle returned to the Forum show and dazzled audiences before being crowned Empress Darcelle XV.
As activists in Portland's progressive community, Darcelle and her cast continue to work tirelessly in bringing compassion to civic life. Over four decades, their club has served as a gathering place, hosting fundraising events for gay rights, health care, food for the homeless and people affected by HIV/AIDS. Both inside the club and in the many communities she visits, Darcelle dazzles, nurtures and inspires, bringing out the best in all of us.
Social Action Research Focus
Queens of Heart: Community Therapists in Drag began as a video project, titled That's No Lady, carried out by graduate students in a class on gender, psychology, and film taught at Portland State University by Professor Jan Haaken. The project grew into a four-year study of performer and audience interactions at Darcelle XV, a female impersonation club in Portland Oregon. Enlisting methods in social action research, an area within Psychology that emphasizes community collaboration, Queens of Heart grew into a feature-length documentary. Over 200 hours of raw footage were analyzed, using a coding manual that was based on initial interviews and observations at the club. The manual consisted of a series of themes with corresponding codes that were then applied to segments of the footage. The storyline for the documentary was constructed around those themes and video work samples presented to the community to ensure the faithfulness of the documentary to the participants' actual experiences.
Psychologists and lay people alike often hold simplistic and stereotypical notions about cross-dressing. Our interest was in challenging those assumptions. One set of questions in the initial interviews focused on the performers' own motivations for engaging in this kind of work, which were often quite different from what the audiences assumed about performers.