‘Jewel’s Catch One’ highlights the lesbian owner of a historic gay club

I can’t say I’ve ever had the pleasure of dancing up a storm at Jewel’s Catch One in LA and sadly I never will–it closed in 2015. I suspect a lot of you are in the same boat, but fortunately, we can get pretty close to the Catch One experience, which spanned over four decades, by taking in writer-director C. Fitz’s documentary, Jewel’s Catch One.

So what’s so special about this particular nightclub? A number of things, from reportedly being the oldest black-owned club in the U.S. to its status as being the “unofficial Studio 54 of the West Coast.” But more impressive than that, I believe, was its reputation for being a fantastic gay club that welcomed all, which was only made possible through the work of its founder and owner, Jewel Thais-Williams. A force of nature of a woman and an out lesbian, Jewel was not only a smart business owner but a civil rights leader who tackled racism, police harassment, the AIDS crisis and homophobia, all of which converged at Catch One.

photo courtesy of C. Fitz

In 1973, it was unthinkable that a poor black lesbian would be able to buy her own business and compete with white male owners. But with just $500 to her name, Jewel bought the downstairs portion of the corner she would come to dominate. By 1975, she owned the entire building, having bought the upstairs part she would name the Catch One. In those early days, Jewel put in so many hours that she actually ended up sleeping on the club’s pool table.

The Catch One opened its doors to everyone at a time when people were often denied entry elsewhere because of race, gender, sexual orientation and so on. It quickly gained a reputation for being the go-to place for the black gay community in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, with that reputation came the attention of the cops, who would visit the club every night.

Still, by the end of the ‘70s, the club was extremely popular. Talent like that of DJ Billy Long’s cemented the Catch One’s status of being “the” place to dance. During its heyday, it was normal to see 1,600-1,700 people packed in there, well-exceeding regulations. And you better believe almost every single one of those folks were dressed to impress.

You know who probably didn’t want to stand out, though? The many celebrities that attended. Featured in the documentary are interviews with the likes of Sharon Stone, Sandra Bernhard, Bonnie Pointer, Jenifer Lewis and more. Most famous, however, were Madonna’s visits (it’s been said Catch One was where she learned how to vogue). She even booked the venue to host the release party for her 2000 album Music.

While the ‘70s were good to the Catch One, the ‘80s were the start of a dark period, both for the club and Jewel. From ‘79 to ‘86, Jewel had been using drugs and drinking heavily. Then in 1985, the club was the victim of arson, and it would take two years to reopen. But the biggest hit by far was the AIDS crisis that rocked the gay community.

The AIDS crisis literally took patrons away from the Catch One. It was during these most difficult of times that Jewel really stepped up. She kept men off the streets, fed them and just generally provided comfort and a safe space. She also did a lot of fundraising for the black gay community, which was overwhelmingly overlooked, and in 1985 co-founded the Minority AIDS Project. She also co-founded Rue’s House with her wife, Rue Thais-Williams (also interviewed for the documentary), in 1989, which sheltered women and children with AIDS or who were HIV-positive.

The ‘90s would see Jewel spread her attention yet again. At the age of 56, she pursued studies in Chinese medicine so she could work as a healer. In 2001, she established the Village Health Foundation right next door to the club. The clinic is a not-for-profit that doesn’t turn anyone away. Also nearby the club was a vegan restaurant Jewel opened up in the late 2000s that has since closed.

What of the club in the 2000s? Well, it never really recaptured the heights of its gay glory days. The age limit was lowered to 18 and near its end, it was more popular amongst lesbians than gay men. Even so, it was Jewel’s decision to rent the space out to other party promoters that kept the business going. Still, the club continued to play an important part in the community as queer organizers regularly met there.

But in 2015, Jewel decided it was time to finally say “goodbye” to Catch One. Her focus is now primarily on the clinic, even though her wife hopes that being 77-years-old, she might finally think about retiring. Something tells me that’s not going to happen.

That’s a lot of loving and living that C. Fitz has managed to pack into one documentary, but it’s done brilliantly. 

In 2017 AfterEllen visited and spoke with Jewel Thais-Williams in an exclusive video:

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