I've known Jewel Thais-Williams since the late 1980s when I first started in the LGBT press. From day one, the respect for Jewel was palpable; people would part and make way for her when she and her wife, Rue, walked in a room. It was respect that she had earned over years of creating spaces for LGBT people of color to feel safe, welcome and loved. It is almost hard to fathom that it's been 40 years since Jewel opened her Catch One Disco in the mid-Wilshire district of Los Angeles--and that The Catch continues today, despite harassment from the LAPD back in the day and the AIDS crisis that took so many open and closeted African American same-gender-loving men to whom Jewel became "mother." Jewel continues to be honored by such luminaries as L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at last year's launch of LGBT Heritage Month.
But she has always felt more at home in the community she loves and serves. And from May 24 to May 27, Jewel will celebrate the 40th anniversary of her historic Los Angeles gay nightclub and disco with four days of parties, awards and activities over the Memorial Day Weekend at the famous disco and LAX Hilton Hotel. Catch One Disco is one of the oldest and longest running LGBT discos in America and has served as a community center and cultural institution in much the same way as Harlem Renaissance nightclubs served New York's African Americans and progressives in the 1920s. It is for good reason that Jewel Thais-Williams is considered an icon and inspiration in the L.A. LGBT community.
The country was mired in a recession in 1972-73 when Thais-Williams decided to get out of the women's clothing business. "When economic times are bad, women stop buying things for themselves, so I started looking for a recession-proof business" Thais-Williams says, "My brother suggested I buy a liquor store - but that was too impersonal. But then as I was looking in the L.A. Times, I saw there was a neighborhood bar for sale. I knew about the bar because I worked across the street four years earlier and later kept passing by it looking for opportunities. I didn't think much about it because it didn't allow black folks in. And now it was for sale."
Thais-Williams borrowed and hocked possession to buy the bar. But other problems quickly became apparent: she had no bartending or bar business skills and, in 1973, California did not allow women to tend bar. "But business is business," Thais-Williams, a UCLA graduate, says. "So even though I walked in cold, I still took action based on core business principles."
What happened next surprised Thais-Williams and grounded her in what would become a core principle of her own: to serve humanity, no matter race or status.
"When I walked in, the bartender walked out. But then an old redneck from Texas offered to help and took me under his wing. Eventually, he became my mentor and close friend. And then the wine and liquor sale distributors helped out, giving me advice on how to run the bar and how to work with employees. Pretty soon, everything started to fall into place."
The neighborhood bar patrons were mostly old white guys during the day, then blue collar African American workers who'd stop in before going home - and then at night, with word getting out that the bar was owned by a black lady, more and more black gays started frequenting the bar at night. "It didn't matter what I intended the bar to be," she says, "gay is what it became."
In 1975, Catch One Disco--named for the promise of "catching" a partner or lover--became an "underground" oasis for gays, progressives, artists, and people who appreciated mixed diversity and singers such as Etta James who would perform live. Eventually, she bought the entire building, affording her the opportunity to provide three dance floors, DJ-run disco music, and themed-events in the smaller rooms. And at a time when white gay discos and bars would demand three pieces of identification and other gender and racially-specific restrictions, The Catch was a retreat where LGBT African Americans could feel free, respected, dance and network--and where TV and pop stars from Sammy Davis Jr. to Warren Beatty and Madonna could safely hang out and have fun. Madonna held an album release party at The Catch, and several TV and film scenes have been filmed there, as well.
Catch One also symbolized Black empowerment, especially during the depression of the AIDS crisis when Thais-Williams provided space for different "Houses" of style to stage runway shows and contests in a manner considerably more upbeat--but just as catty--as Paris is Burning. And even though she ran a bar, Thais-Williams always put her patrons, her family, her "kids" first; helping them get clean and sober, helping them deal with their AIDS diagnosis and helping resolve "family" issues.
Indeed, during the AIDS crisis, Thais-Williams co-founded the Minority AIDS Project and the Imani Unidos Food Pantry in South L.A. and she joined the AIDS Project Los Angeles Board of Directors to bring the services they provided "down to the hood." With her wife Rue, Thais-Williams also founded Rue's House, the country's first housing facility for women with AIDS and their children, most of whom were poor and black. During the L.A. Riots in 1991, the neighbors protected Rue's House, which is located on 39th and Normandie, near the epicenter of the riots. After the life-saving AIDS medications became available in 1996, they transitioned the house into a sober-living facility.
Catch One Disco was also threatened during the L.A. Riots. When the rioters set fire to the Korean grocery store across the street on Pico Boulevard - a scene watched live on TV - Thais-Williams was at an APLA board meeting and dashed from Beverly Hills to Mid-Wilshire. She intended to stay and defend the building, but Rue convinced her to leave. As they were driving away, Thais-Williams looked out her window and saw rioters breaking in. She thought all was lost. But when she called the disco the next morning, not expecting an answer, former Army Sgt. Teresa Brown picked up and told her all was well. She had worked at the club and had run over to see if she could help. When she saw the rioters, "I told them to get the f-ck out," she told Thais-Williams, "and they did!" For the next couple of days, Jewel and Rue Thais-Williams provided water and food for local neighbors in need.
In the late 1990s, Thais-Williams had a spiritual experience after an appointment with a culturally incompetent doctor. "So many of the illnesses African Americans get - like hyper-tension and diabetes - are preventable. But instead of helping us with prevention education - the medical profession treats us with pills and cuts us open," Thais Williams says, still angry by the frustrating doctor's visit. "I wanted to change that."
Thais-Williams went back to school and even went to China to study Traditional Chinese Medicine to learn safe alternative medical treatments. In 2002, she opened The Village Health Foundation as a low-cost, sliding scale health clinic that not only provides alternative care for her mostly minority clients but also tends to their health education, and emotional, mental and spiritual well-being.
The four-day 40th anniversary celebration of Catch One Disco is a fundraiser for the Village Health Foundation to enable Thais-Williams to continue serving her family of LGBT folks - and anyone who needs help. The event features:
- Friday, May 24th - VIP Platinum Welcome Reception followed by the Black Party and Catch One Talent Night Reunion hosted by L.A.'s Finest Promoters with All-Star Catch One Diva's Concert with live performances by local artist and the city's best DJ's.
- Saturday, May 25th - SWEAT Retro Disco Ball featuring special guest recording artist Yolanda "YoYo" Whittaker and music by former and now iconic Catch One DJs. Invited DJs include the incredible Bobby Martin, Sexy Claudette, Sidney Perry, and DJ Ben.
- Sunday, May 26th, continues the celebration with the Catch One 40th Anniversary Banquet & Awards Dinner hosted by the hilarious and talented actor/singer TC Carson of the hit TV show Living Single and a live performance by legendary actress, Jenifer Lewis. Invited guests include: Congressperson Maxine Waters, 9th District Councilmember Jan Perry, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and Congressperson Karen Bass.
- Monday, May 27th, the Catch One Happy Hour will round out the festivities with live music and a traditional Catch One Lip Sync Contest and Dance Party, hosted by the legendary Al Von.
The Catch One 40th Anniversary celebration will be held at both the Catch One Disco and the LAX Hilton where Thais- Williams has reserved a block of rooms for $95 a night. For information about tickets and other details, please visit: www.catchone.org or call (424) 24 Catch (424-242-2824).