Meet Jewel Thais-Williams
Although Pride Month is just in our rearview mirror, nostalgia has set in as the 50th anniversary of the grand opening of Catch One reminds all people alike of the power of one influential woman; Jewel Thais-Williams. “Jewel’s Catch One” is a tribute in documentary form to one of the longest-standing, eclectic, Black female-owned disco clubs in the United States. Jewel’s Catch One which is located at 4067 W. Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles served as a beacon of hope and a positive cultural staple for members of the LGBTQ+ Black community.
As of 2015, the former disco club is now known as the Union and although the name has changed, the historical remnants of the once frequently-populated club have yet to be forgotten. So much so that the club has recently been restored to its original name: Jewel’s Catch One.
Jewel Thais-Williams, the 84-year-old owner and founder of Catch One, is a well-known and revered staple in the Black LGBTQ+ community, namely for her unapologetic determination, her proud declaration of support for the Black LGBTQ+ community, and her prolific, and exceptionally influential disco nightclub. Over the course of 42 years, Jewel became a business tycoon. Jewel’s vision of acceptance transcended all barriers once in her way, allowing local Black LGBTQ+ members to find a safe haven amongst the closed doors and adversities plaguing them at that time.
Dissension existed amongst different ethnicities in the LGBTQ+ community dating as far back as 1959. Several incidents of discrimination created a negative environment for Black LGBTQ+. Reportedly, an incident by the name of Cooper Donuts Riot— resulting in several biased arrests amongst members of the LGBTQ+ who were loitering at the shop on Main Street in Downtown Los Angeles. The Stonewall riots in New York occurred just 10 years later causing more police and LGBTQ+ tension, after nearly a week of police raiding bars, and lastly the Sip-Ins, which began in 1968 in Griffith Park, and would continue as a “silent and peaceful form of protest.” Here, the idea was for patrons to go into a bar and request to be served as a test to how they would be treated not unlike the “sit-ins” that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement.
Jewel endured a great deal of racism. Hailing from Arkansas, the family moved to Gary, Ind. in her childhood and later arrived in San Diego which she said was “just a recreation of the South” in terms of segregation de facto.
Her father was a strict disciplinarian. He was very conservative she said. Her mother wasn’t much different. Neither encouraged her to “co-mingle” with peers outside of school, as she had more than enough siblings to interact with at home. Although challenging, Jewel credits her father for relocating in order to pursue career advancement and allow his children to receive a better education. Jewel’s entrepreneurial mind is owed to a few events including; having authority over a small corner store at just nine years old on weekends, opening a boutique as an adult, and growing up impoverished. She desired to become the owner of her destiny.
She recalls her early attempts at searching for a job, “That was the only way out, feeling the pain of being a chocolate girl— before anyone said anything or did anything or accepted your application-they’d already dismissed you, but that’s not right!”
Jewel recalls the discrimination in Los Angeles in those days.
“The most popular gay clubs in West Hollywood wouldn’t allow the DJs to play music that would encourage Black youth to come and dance. You’d have to have a couple of IDs, at least two in order to get in, women had to wear closed-toed shoes. The guys knew how to dress! They’d wear silk shirts and were required to wear name tags on them with glue- ruining their shirts. That was one of the reasons I decided to open up a club, even though I wasn’t a club person— I thought it was ridiculous.” The owner of one of the hottest gay clubs in West Hollywood, was openly racist and made sure to continuously adjust and create new rules to make it hard for Blacks to keep the party going.
While Jewel was working at a local establishment she overheard Caucasian individuals saying how they didn’t care for people of color in bars, she then dreamt to herself, that one of these days she’ll own the building and make it accessible to everyone. Thus the idea of Catch One was born!
The most exciting part of the documentary are the segments and successes that Jewel achieved in more than 40 years of her Black-owned business. In the early 1970s she put a $1,000 down payment on the building, formerly known as the Diana Club, and quickly paid the remaining $17,000. She swept, mopped, buffed, cleaned, painted–and even learned to tend bar–to create a “safe and welcoming environment” for her patrons.
It worked. The Catch One would become a major hot spot for Black youth, White celebrities, and people of all color. So much so that some patrons created shirts requesting that the Catch One remained Black-owned. As well, a number of celebrities took notice of the club, among them Donna Summer, Luther Vandross, Madonna, Janet Jackson, and Bette Midler.
During this time, Jewel had to postpone her UCLA education due to financial constraints. In 1988, however, she returned to school to earn her Master of Arts in Oriental Medicine from Samra University in Los Angeles and opened an acupuncture clinic called the Village Health Foundation (now the Village Hope Foundation) at 4149 W. Pico Blvd., just across from Catch One.
The Village Health Foundation’s main purpose was to treat people suffering with AIDS using nontoxic treatments. Additionally, they used acupuncture and herbs to help assist in pain management, hypertension, breast cancer, high blood pressure, arthritis, diabetes, heart disease, and chronic disease. The Catch One was not just a disco or nightclub, but, rather, a place where issues affecting the LGBTQ+ community were addressed, such as the AIDS epidemic. Over the years Catch One hosted many fundraisers and charity events in support of those persons suffering from AIDS.
Williams warmly recalls a funny circumstance in which a patron bragged boisterously about how well they knew the owner (i.e. Jewel), little did she know that Jewel enjoyed flying under the radar and treated everyone equally, oftentimes she only knew celebrities arrived through word of mouth. Little did this young woman know, Jewel was standing right behind her, shouting out “Hey Jewel!” Jewel found this quite amusing, but an all-in-good-fun memory.
“I ended up in the perfect place for me, somebody who never partied, somehow at 32 years old, I ended up with a bar. It wasn’t a chance thing by a long shot.”
Williams was considered a “threat” to law enforcement who frequently harassed her at Catch One. She recalled how squad cars blocked the front of the club, searched behind bars and ticketed bartenders, and trailed Jewel home. She said she knew not to reach for her purse in the back of her car, instead letting the officer know where it was. She declared, “You’re not going to blow my head off ‘cause I was reaching.”
A fire was set in her nightclub, leading to her club being shut down for just over two years. The firefighters who investigated made sure to make nasty comments about hoping the place would have burned down and failing to further investigate or hold anyone responsible. Buyers offered large sums of money, but Jewel’s response was simple, “You’ve got it wrong boo. I don’t know when or how but we’ll open again.” Jewel always suspected the fire was set to intimidate her and force her out of a “much sought after” piece of real estate.
Open again, they did and continued to offer a positive environment for those searching. She notes that disco was it, a sound of expression, and set the stage for voguing as well as providing a way for individuals to “Catch One,” meaning secure themselves a date and or in some instances a partner, while abiding by the homophobic laws that prohibited same-sex dancing.
Jewel jokingly remarks that at the age of 84, she still struggles with conversations regarding her sexuality “ I am still working on it. It took almost that long-it was probably around my late 30s or early 40s. I was a late bloomer in that regard.”
Jewel, a vegan for more than three decades, is still thriving. She remains a telehealth consultant for those in pain. She remains actively involved in discussing the HIV/AIDS crisis. She and wife, Rue, have been happily married for 34 years.
The music may have slowed, but the “Dancing Queen” as she’s sometimes referred to continues to sway, gently and beautifully.
Jewel says, “It was just comradery and being around people that were good people. They were used to being on the bottom of the totem pole, so you didn’t have a whole bunch of prejudices regardless of whether they were racial or otherwise. Ya know, it was about the party and folks getting along.”