Jewel’s Catch One: A Haven for the Black LGBTQ Community | KCET
Jewel’s Catch One: A Haven for the Black LGBTQ Community
Films and articles from "Curating the City: LGBTQ Historic Places in L.A." and presented in partnership with the Los Angeles Conservancy: The Los Angeles Conservancy preserves the historic places that make Greater Los Angeles unique. They work through education and advocacy to raise awareness of our shared cultural heritage, prevent the needless destruction of significant sites and historic neighborhoods, empower people to save the places they love, and foster strong preservation laws and incentives.
A private, member-based nonprofit, the Conservancy works throughout L.A. County, spanning 88 cities as well as unincorporated areas.
The proposed demolition of the Los Angeles Central Library led to the Conservancy’s founding in 1978. What started as a handful of concerned citizens is now the largest local preservation group in the U.S., with more than 6,000 member households and hundreds of volunteers.
Founded in 1973 in Los Angeles’ Arlington Heights neighborhood, Jewel’s Catch One is widely believed to be the first large-scale discotheque in the U.S. to serve and operate within the black LGBTQ community. As a beloved social space for over four decades, Catch One exemplifies how bars and nightclubs nurtured a rare sense of belonging and helped pioneer social change for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer-identified people in the twentieth century.
Jewel Thais-Williams owned and operated the club from its founding until its closure in July 2015. With her wife, Rue Thais-Williams, she also spearheaded the creation of Rue’s House in the same building in 1989, which provided vital services to women and children living with HIV and AIDS.
Housed in the modest 1925 Mediterranean Revival building at 4067 W. Pico Blvd., the club contained three dance floors and three bars, offering dancing and a bar scene that catered to different tastes in music and style. The upper floor boasted a large dance floor with a stage, and the lower level was reserved for weekly themed parties.
Over the years, Jewel’s Catch One hosted numerous celebrities and performers, including Madonna, Bette Midler, Keenen Ivory Wayans, Sammy Davis, Jr., Warren Beatty, Melba Moore, Phyllis Hyman, Freda Payne, Chaka Khan, The Weather Girls, Rick James, Sharon Stone, and Esther Phillips. It helped launch the careers of a number of performers and quickly became known as the Studio 54 of Los Angeles.
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The club also served as a popular filming location, appearing in numerous movies and television shows including “Black American Princess,” “I, Tina,” “Pretty Woman,” and “Cold Case.”
For more than forty years, Jewel’s Catch One solidified its standing as one of the few locations in Los Angeles where black LGBTQ individuals could socialize and gather without encountering racial discrimination or homophobia.
Beginning in 1985, the club housed the Unity Fellowship Church of Christ, which Bishop Carl Bean formed to serve LGBTQ African-Americans. When the church first opened its doors, the majority of worshipers were patrons of Catch One. The congregation later moved to a building on Jefferson Boulevard.
That same year, the club suffered a disastrous fire, which forced Jewel to close the doors to the main ballroom for two years. Though arson was suspected, the fire department never completed a formal investigation. While many black-owned businesses were shuttered around that time, Catch One continued to weather changes in the neighborhood.
In addition to hosting lively dance parties, Jewel ensured that the club functioned as a space for social activism, fundraising, and community healing. When outside resources were limited, she and Rue helped raise money in support of HIV/AIDS education and healthcare, recognizing the disproportionate number of LGBTQ people of color who were affected by the disease. The couple met through Unity Church.
Affectionately known as “Mama Jewel,” Jewel convened numerous community forums on HIV/AIDS and with elected officials, and she provided her patrons with a loving support system. The open-door policy of the club defied popular practices at the time, welcoming all regardless of sexual, gender, or racial identity.
Jewel and Rue co-founded Rue’s House next to the club in 1989. Rue’s House became the first residential home in the country for homeless women and children living with HIV and AIDS. Services for women with the disease were particularly limited at the time, as many believed that only men could contract HIV or AIDS. The disease had a devastating effect on the Catch One community, which mobilized its surviving members to come together as an extended family.
In 1997, Rue’s House closed because of the increasing availability of HIV/AIDS services in Los Angeles. Most recently, the space served as Village Manor, a center for adults recovering from substance abuse.
Though Jewel’s Catch One held its final dance party in 2015, it continues to symbolize the enduring connection in LGBTQ history between bars/nightclubs and community activism. These social spaces inherently and deliberately represented acts of defiance by bringing marginalized people together, despite harassment and outright violence from law enforcement and members of the public.
Places like Catch One reveal the ways in which LGBTQ communities struggled and fought for safe spaces and homes in sites that often stood on the fringes of larger cities. In many cases, these types of establishments survived on invisibility or anonymity. While some operated from architecturally interesting buildings, others were housed in modest, nondescript structures in unassuming locations.
As an everyday gathering space, Catch One – along with Studio One (now The Factory) in West Hollywood, Redz in Boyle Heights, Circus Disco in Hollywood, and others – helps tell a fundamental story about the intersection of race, gender, class, and sexual identity in the built environment of Greater Los Angeles. Together, these clubs reveal painful realities about patterns of discrimination within historically marginalized groups. These issues remain relevant today, and these places demonstrate how a single building may evoke different memories, associations, and responses from different people.
At the height of the disco era, many nightclubs remained segregated along racial and class lines, due largely to exclusionary door policies. Jewel’s Catch One represented a direct response to the discrimination that transgender and cisgender women and people of color often experienced at popular establishments in West Hollywood, creating an affirmative space for the black LGBTQ community. Despite relentless pressure from law enforcement and others in the neighborhood, the club persevered in its efforts to serve those who might otherwise live on society’s outskirts.
In early 2015, Jewel Thais-Williams announced that the iconic nightclub would close its doors after 42 years and that the property would be listed for sale. Jewel told the Los Angeles Times, “I felt, and others have said, it’s an institution. It was ours, but it’s time to move on."
News of a sale broke in November 2015, and Union Nightclub opened in Catch One’s former home in January 2016. A feature-length documentary titled “Jewel’s Catch One” premiered at Outfest in July 2016. The film charts the history and significance of the club and its proprietress to the LGBTQ and African American communities. Information about upcoming screenings available here.
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