'Everybody Could Feel Safe': Remembering LA's Revolutionary Black Gay Nightclub
Jewel's Catch One, the longest-running black gay club in Los Angeles history, closed its doors last year. We spoke to filmmaker C Fitz and nightclub owner Jewel Thais-Williams about a new documentary that commemorates the historic venue.
When Jewel's Catch One opened its doors in 1973, owner Jewel Thais-Williams didn't expect it to enter history as one of the country's first black-owned gay nightclubs, or the longest-running venue of its kind in Los Angeles. But if there's one hard truth brought home by the Orlando shooting, it's that clubs have always played an integral part of LGBTQ life—a place for queer men and women to socialize and meet freely in relative safety. That vital need for community and sanctuary is at the heart of a new documentary about Thais-Williams by filmmaker C Fitz, simply titled Jewel's Catch One.
Known to regulars simply as "Catch One" or "the Catch," the club wasn't just your average friendly neighborhood disco. It was a place where black gay men and women could meet and socialize away from the homophobia and racism endemic in 70s and 80s Los Angeles; it became a safe haven and organizing point for the LGBTQ community as the AIDS crisis swept through the country, and even the unlikely epicenter of the city's emerging industrial music scene thanks to a long-running night called Das Bunker.
We spoke to Fitz and Thais-Williams about Catch One, the LGBTQ clubbing scene, and what it felt like to wrap the film and attend the Los Angeles Pride Parade just one day after news of the Orlando shooting broke out.
BROADLY: How did you two first meet?
C Fitz: I met Jewel back in 2010, so it's been a six year journey of creating this film. I was researching her because I offered to direct a two minute piece because she was being honored for her community service. The very first day I met her, I was shaking my head, thinking, Gosh, how am I going to fit all of this into two minutes? I said, "We need to do a documentary on you and all of this." What Jewel did was undocumented. People didn't know about it—and what a shame not to bring it to the surface! Six years later, that's our film: Jewel's Catch One.
How did you feel when you were approached to star in your own documentary, Jewel?
Jewel Thais-Williams: I did think of writing a book one day, but never thought that I would see myself on the big screen. It was very humbling and quite unexpected.
What made you want to set up the Catch in the first place?
Thais-Williams: I wanted a place where everybody could feel safe and have a good time. In the early 1970s, there was definite division between where blacks could go and where people of color in general could go to party in our community. This separation of races and class was something that I thought should be addressed, and also, personally, it came at a time when a recession was going on and a real need for people to enjoy themselves. The stars all lined up for me to open a little corner nightclub [and for it] to [become] one of the largest dance clubs in the country.
Why do you think dancing—going to a club—was so important for LGBTQ people, especially back then?
Thais-Williams: It's first and foremost a way to be around your own kind so you can relax. Too many of the LGBT kids were ostracized by their parents, churches, by their peers. You might have to change clothes before you went back to your neighborhood or home, depending on how you were dressing that night, but [people] could come to the Catch and be themselves and find out how beautiful that could be.
What would you say was the biggest challenge running the Catch?
Thais-Williams: The biggest challenge was to stay open. The authorities, the bureaucrats, the neighbors, religious, building and safety folks, you name it [were trying to shut us down]. In my 42 years, we had two, three [police] citations. One of them had to do with the music being too loud and so I was served with this summons and charged with a weapon used as being my stereo equipment. There was arson in 1985; the fire department came in and didn't even do any kind of investigation on the fire. I had to keep calling and writing and begging for some explanation as to who started the fire. The answer that I got back from the fire chief after about six months of trying was that it was MO.
Did you ever feel discouraged or feel like it was too difficult to run a club in this atmosphere?
Thais-Williams: On the contrary, it really made me say, "I am not going until I am ready to go. I will not be forced. We are obeying all the laws." I was just not going to be denied that for myself. I could not let it happen.
Can you talk a bit about why the Catch closed? How do you feel about this all coming to an end?
Thais-Williams: I have mixed emotions, of course. Times have changed. The need was not—it might have been there a little bit but not nearly—as great when I first started, of course. Folks are allowed to go any and everywhere that they want to. But primarily, the nightclub business in general in Los Angeles—I don't know about the rest of the country or the world—it's taken a dive. There are big concerts and people just don't have enough money to go out every night like they did. They have other choices now. There are clubs where they would have been uncomfortable to go are [now] as anxious to have their business as ours was. Coupled with that, broader society [is] embracing us more and that more. And it was time, too. It was time for an old girl to hang up her shoes and move on.
Fitz: I heard about it before it hit the news. Me and Jewel had become friends over the last six years and it was big news to our life, our film. But it was also a good touching point to end the film. It allows us to celebrate her legacy. Catch served its purpose. We stand on her shoulders of all that she created and that safe haven that was so needed back in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. It's bittersweet.
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Do you think that younger LGBTQ people appreciate how difficult it was back then to even go out to a club? Is it something we take for granted these days?
Fitz: I think that Jewel mentions [that] even in the film. They've moved on to the apps, social media—they're not forced even to meet at a club anymore. Back then, that was the only way that you could meet LGBT folks safely and openly. And that is not as necessary anymore because of what people like Jewel pioneered. She helped move us forward so that we don't need places like the Catch, the way we did in the 70s and 80s. It's a lot of fun to go out dancing, but it's not as necessary. The Catch had multiple purposes back then.
Even today, going out to a gay club now can be dangerous. I'm just thinking about the Orlando shooting—which I think made people remember that LGBTQ venues can still be targets for hate.
Fitz: We actually wrapped our film the day before Orlando happened and Jewel was the Grand Marshall in the LA Pride Parade. We were nervous. It's still scary out there. We still need to do our jobs to debunk hate and Jewel is one of those voices that people listen to—going through the LA Gay Pride Parade, people were screaming from the side, "Thank you Jewel, thank you Jewel." We need more voices like hers clearly after Orlando.
Jewel, how did you feel when you first heard about Orlando?
Thais-Williams: I was devastated... I was getting dressed for a ride in the Parade as the Grand Marshall, and I had an outfit laid out. Between the tears, the hurt, and the pain, I said I had to show something. So I looked for a black headband that I could put around my arm, and I didn't have one. So I just changed into black attire.
I knew how important it was not to have any fear.
I knew how important it was not to have any fear. It became more than that; it became part of me not to be afraid. I was riding down the parade route and we even had an incident that was really close. [Police] had arrested someone that had some weapons a few miles away from where the parade was. Even this could not take away the joy and enthusiasm that I felt from the crowd and I felt in my own heart. I never thought about what kind of risk it would be, never, ever. How it could be? I just thought about how great a community that I am a part of and how blessed I am to be among my folk, and they are still happy and gay no matter what. We have that.
Jewel's Catch One is playing at the BFI London Film Festival on October 8 and 9. Tickets are available here.