inside the legendary club where l.a.'s black lgbt community found its groove
A new film celebrates Catch One and its owner of over 40 years, Jewel Thais-Williams.
Jewel's Catch One in Los Angeles has been referred to as 'the Studio 54 of the West Coast,' but that doesn't do justice to this LGBT institution. A bar, club, party and safe space before the terminology of safe spaces took hold, Catch One was a crucial hub of the black LGBT community for over 40 years. Manhattan's starry Studio 54 may have earned mythological status in clubbing culture, but Catch One arguably has the more enduring legacy.
It's a legacy that filmmaker C.Fitz encapsulates in a new documentary, Jewel's Catch One, which screened at the London Film Festival this weekend. The film shines a disco light on one of America's most significant LGBT spaces and its driving force, Jewel Thais Williams, who in 1973 took ownership of a downstairs bar on the corner of Pico and Norton Street in Los Angeles' Arlington Heights for $500. At the time, she ran a vegan restaurant and was an acupuncturist at a non profit traditional Chinese medicine clinic. But it wasn't her lack of experience in the bar trade or her job juggling that raised eyebrows when Jewel took over the bar but the fact that — as she states in the documentary — that she was "poor, lesbian, female, and black." As she took ownership, one barman resigned from the job; he returned several weeks later after seeing what a success she was making of it.
But this was only the start of the Catch One success story as Jewel turned the upstairs into dancehall and the club into a thriving, vital space for LGBT people of color. Her motivation, she says, was to create a space where all people could come and hang out at a time when ethnic minorities were not entirely welcome in the West Hollywood gay scene and black clubs weren't cool with their LGBT brothers and sisters. Catch One was somewhere, Jewel says, that they didn't "have to have concerns about being their true selves without being subject to prejudices or ridicule."
Equally, Jewel developed a knack for throwing the best parties. The wasn't just about community service; it was a place to hook up (The Catch, as it was also known, was a rift on local slang for that idea of 'catching someone'), to hear the hottest new records (Thelma Houston heard the first play of her Grammy winning "Don't Leave Me This Way" in Catch in 1978) and, by the mid 80s, to celebrity-spot, as Madonna, Sharon Stone, and Sandra Bernhard joined the party (the latter two contribute to the new film). Iconic films like Beaches, Pretty Woman, and more recently, Straight Outta Compton all featured scenes set in The Catch.
It wasn't all party, all the time though. The AIDS epidemic played out in Catch One, as it did in LGBT clubs across the country. The Catch was already a safe haven for young, black men who were not out to family and friends. As C.Fitz's film explains, the horrific physical symptoms of AIDS forced them out from the closet. Many were rejected and came to find community and sanctuary at the club. The film, then, becomes more than the story of a club or one extremely driven woman. "We see the real raw reality of this history through Jewel losing more than half her patrons over the years," the filmmaker explains. "And then we get even more personal as we tell one unique story of a man who was a regular at The Catch. We hear his story as Jewel and his friends see the deadly disease wither him away to nothing and Jewel was the only one that would touch him, hug him."
The club's history, as told in Jewel's Catch One, reflects the wider LGBT experience. The challenges Jewel faced — police harassment, bureaucratic meddling from government agencies, sexism, and racism from within the LGBT community — resonate beyond the corner of Pico and Norton. There was an arson attack on the club in 1985 but it survived and thrived, Jewel remaining at the helm (and often, legendarily, sleeping on a pool table) for 42 years. Last year, aged 76, she closed the club for the final time but continues to her activism in the local community. The club has since reopened as a new venue called Union, which hosted the LA premiere of C.Fitz's film.
The filmmaker's aim, back when she began the project in 2010, was always to record the significance of the club, but also the activism of its longstanding owner. "It was a massive amount of undocumented community service and work overcoming social injustices that this one woman did for her community, says C.Fitz. "This alone needed to be documented and preserved as she is a pioneer whose shoulders we stand on." And in an era where the role and existence of LGBT spaces is shifting, it is important, says the filmmaker, to document their value. "These are real people in our community, not just the elite, the privileged, and it's important to our future generations to learn and understand how we got to today."
Text Colin Crummy