C. Fitz via IMDb
Jewel Thais-Williams. Credit: C. Fitz via IMDb

In 1973, Jewel Thais-Williams opened a nightclub in Los Angeles called Jewel’s Catch One—and it quickly gained a reputation as the Studio 54 of the West.

For 42 years, the people at Jewel’s Catch One challenged racism and homophobia while offering assistance to those stricken by the AIDS epidemic and becoming a haven for African Americans, all while spurring innovation in fashion and music. In 2015, Jewel’s Catch One closed its doors.

A documentary about Jewel Thais-Williams and her club, Jewel’s Catch One, will be screened three times as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

During a recent phone interview with Thais-Williams and filmmaker C. Fitz, Thais-Williams talked about disco and her club’s legacy.

“It definitely had an impact on the gay and lesbian population, because at that time in California, specifically in Los Angeles, there were laws against those of the same sex dancing with each other,” Thais-Williams said. “With disco, we could all be in the same room dancing and not touching each other—still having a lot of fun, and forgetting that the reason we were doing that was because we were not permitted to.”

Fitz said Thais-Williams did more than just open a club; she transformed the community.

“In the film, we have Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King, who had the hit ‘Shame,’ and Jewel and Evelyn speak specifically about that time,” she said about the club’s early days. “There was a whole lot of shame around (race and sexuality) outside of her club with family members and the community, and Catch One offered a place where they could be together and dance. … A lot of celebrities have stories about what Catch One meant to them and to the community.”

Thais-Williams said that in many ways, Los Angeles in the 1970s remained segregated.

“One of the clubs that started around that same time and was in West Hollywood—that club owner did not allow people of color or women into his establishment, and that was in the 1970s,” Thais-Williams said. “The Catch One was formally the Diana Ballroom and opened in the 1920s, and I had the opportunity to meet with Ella Fitzgerald right before she passed away. She used to play that ballroom with the big bands, and the black entertainers had to go up through the back stairs, and once their set was over, had to leave through the back stairs. They couldn’t stay and mingle with the patrons. That kind of segregation has gone on since we arrived here from Africa.”

Thais-Williams wasn’t just a business owner; she helped build and establish the LGBT community in Los Angeles. In June, she was the grand marshal of Los Angeles Pride. She is also the founder and executive director of the Village Health Foundation, a nonprofit natural-health clinic.

“The gay community back then was really big,” Thais-Williams said about the club’s heyday. “We had established businesses, banks and hotels, and we were involved in politics in the Democratic Party without being exclusive. We had a significant presence to where the lawmakers would consult with us about different bills and advances they had planned to make sure they didn’t step on our toes. We were in sync with the fact we had to fight homophobia throughout every level of life.”

Thais-Williams explained why Jewel’s Catch One closed last year.

“Forty-two years of hard work!” said Thais-Williams with a laugh. “(The closure had to do with) changes in society that we’ve seen across the board, whether it’s heterosexual or homosexual. … A lot of folks were in the club scene because it was the only place where gays and lesbians could go and openly communicate, seduce, meet friends, meet lovers and eventually meet spouses. That was the safe place, and Catch represented that for them. Everybody knew they were welcome, no matter who they were. It was the time for gay rights and our becoming known and available to the broader society.”

Fitz said the documentary is about more than the club, and that she’s been amazed at the great reception Jewel’s Catch One has received thus far.

“We’ve played locally, across the country and in London,” Fitz said. “What’s amazing and what I found true at the very beginning is that there’s a message in it that one person can make a difference. A lot of people have left the theater with that in their hearts. That’s the importance in our film. It tells one woman’s story, but it tells her story through the AIDS crisis, helping folks by making a soup kitchen in the parking lot, by creating the AIDS Minority Project, and by creating a shelter for women with AIDS and their children. It’s not just the club, but what she did on that corner, all the way through her health clinic today. She’s never stopped, and it’s very inspirational for anyone sitting in the theater.”

Jewel’s Catch One will be screened on Saturday, Jan. 7; Sunday, Jan. 8; and Tuesday, Jan. 10, as part of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, which takes place Monday, Jan. 2, through Monday, Jan. 16. Tickets for individual films are $13, and various passes are available. For more information, call 760-322-2930, or visit www.psfilmfest.org.

A native of Cleveland, Ohio, Brian Blueskye moved to the Coachella Valley in 2005. He was the assistant editor and staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent from 2013 to 2019. He is currently the...