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The ‘Studio 54 West’ that Provided Sanctuary for LGBTQ African Americans

A conversation with the director of the new documentary ‘Jewel’s Catch One,’ the iconic gay bar that transcended both race and sexuality

Filmmaker C. Fitz met Jewel Thais-Williams — the owner of Jewel’s Catch One, the oldest African-American LGBTQ disco in the country — after volunteering to direct a three-minute short about her for charity. But she soon realized there was a much greater story to tell. So she spent the next six years getting to know Thais-Williams. The result is Jewel’s Catch One, a feature-length documentary about the businesswoman, activist, and healer who stood up against hate and discrimination for four decades while running one of the most iconic LGBTQ clubs in the world.

In 1972, as a young African-American lesbian grocery clerk, Thais-Williams was dismayed to learn that black customers such as herself weren’t being served at The Diana Club, a bar in the Arlington Heights neighborhood of South L.A. She could relate, having faced rampant discrimination at gay bars in West Hollywood, which used to require three forms of ID from women and people of color. One day I’m gonna own that bar, the budding entrepreneur vowed, longing for a refuge where everyone was welcome regardless of age, means, race or gender.

So when it came up for sale a year later, Thais-Williams scraped together $17,000 — by any (legal) means necessary — and bought it. Two years after that, she purchased the entire building. The top floor became Jewel’s Catch One, the first large-scale discotheque in the U.S. operating within the black LGBTQ community, and for the next four decades, celebrities like Madonna, politicians like Maxine Waters and everyday people of all stripes — “gays, lesbians, bi’s, tri’s and otherwise” — converged on what came to be known as “Studio 54 West,” which was all the more impressive considering Thais-Williams often filled in as the club’s bartender, security guard, DJ, acupuncturist, vegan chef and electrician.

Still, the importance of Catch One to the LGBTQ community — as a bar, club, party and safe space before the term even took hold — is just now being fully realized, aided in part by its closure in 2015. (Thais-Williams, 78, pivoted into a full-time role as an acupuncturist.) Hauntingly, as Fitz explains, the final day of filming in 2016 coincided with the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting — which everyone knew could have just as easily been Catch One — further demonstrating how, for better or worse, gay clubs often come to signify something much larger, especially when they go away.

I recently spoke with Fitz about the ever-changing landscape of gayborhoods in America; how, in the early 1970s, perceived bastions of inclusivity were anything but; and what the disappearance of LGBTQ safe spaces means for the next generation of the LGBTQ community.

You refer to your film as an “unwritten textbook.” What do you mean?
It’s important that we hold onto our history, remembering how we got here and how change was made. It’s absolutely vital that our youth and future youth know everything this woman did for her community. A community that, in turn — despite social injustice, racial and cultural barriers and blatant harassment from police — devotedly supported her and the Catch for four decades. Jewel kept opening those doors for a reason: Because there was a need.

If that makes Jewel the professor in this analogy, what are the most important lessons?
The “Three Ps”: Patience, perseverance and pride. Patience waiting for social justice to occur; perseverance to create what was actually needed; and pride in your community to fuel it all.

When the Catch opened, were there nightlife options for gay men of color and lesbians in L.A.?
There was a lot of discrimination — even within the gay community — so options were limited. Even in the early 1970s, police would still raid gay bars and take every other person to jail. Since West Hollywood was predominately for white gay males, most of the clubs required several forms of ID from females and people of color.

Was this type of hate and discrimination routine in America in the early 1970s, or was it limited to L.A.?
It was a national issue. I won’t date myself, but I remember being asked for multiple pieces of identification in New York City at gay bars as well. People from different lifestyles were actually ordinanced against, with rules stating things like, “The management shall not permit any person to dance with another person of the same sex.” Something I was shocked to discover during the documentary was that during the AIDS crisis, a lot of the funds didn’t funnel into the black gay community, which led Jewel to raise funds for black AIDS victims.

When Jewel took the location over, it was predominantly a white male clientele. How did they respond?
She inherited a set of retired white men — the same ones who didn’t want blacks to drink with them. The first day, the bartender walked out on her and quit. So she had to get behind the bar and serve the patrons — at least those who hadn’t walked out. Jewel stood her ground, though. One man named Tex took her under his wing and said with a southern drawl, “Kid, I’ll show you all you need to know about making this place happen.” A couple weeks later, the old bartender returned and asked for his job back, which Jewel obliged. But not before making it clear that he now worked for her.

Why did the white establishment view Jewel and Catch One as such a threat?
Because she stood up for her community and created a space where everyone was welcome, which was threatening to neighbors, the city and police. As Jewel explains in the film, “It was the gay issue for black people, and the black, gay and woman issue for the broader community.” She was arsoned in 1985. The fire station was only five minutes away, and yet, it took them 20 minutes to respond. By that time, however, the building was up in smoke. She got a cash offer the next day, which she refused, vowing to rebuild. Imagine having weathered the AIDS crisis, and then, suddenly, your home is burnt down and you’re offered no help to rebuild. It would’ve taken most people over the edge, but Jewel rose from the ashes.

What was the Catch like in its heyday?
It was the place to be. In the early evening, there were older white folks and blue-collar workers having a beer after work; then the gay and lesbian kids would show up. Before you knew it, everybody was partying together — for example, shared birthday parties with a black lesbian and a 75-year-old straight white man cutting the birthday cake together. Soon, lines formed were around the block, with people arriving in outrageous outfits and makeup because the Catch was a trendsetting space to be seen.

Jewel had her own set of rules, though: No paparazzi and no bothering the celebrities for autographs or anything like that. That’s why people like Madonna and Sharon Stone came — everyone left them alone. Its rumored the boys even taught Madonna how to vogue! They’d do a Soul Train line, but it was really a vogueing line, which she fell in love with. The demographics of the club shifted when Madonna started coming, though. Suddenly, there were more whites than people of color, who stopped coming due to the white population following Madonna around. Jewel got accused of being a racist, but she explained the reason why the club was mostly white was because her black patrons stayed away. She challenged critics to refute that, which they could not.

How did the AIDS epidemic fundamentally change the Catch?
It was obviously a major crisis, but an even deeper crisis in the black community. It was a tragic time for Catch One and also for Jewel, who lost a lot of friends. Every time you turned around, there was another funeral. The Catch became a nucleus for men inflicted with the disease who didn’t have family, raising money for services, contacting next of kin and providing a shoulder to cry on.

Jewel turned the parking lot into a soup kitchen and ran a meals-on-wheels program out of the club. Ostracized young men — dumped by boyfriends and with nowhere else to turn — came to the Catch for a hot meal and a hug. One man came into the bar at happy hour — half the size that he once was — and several patrons left because at the time there was so many unknowns about HIV and AIDS and some thought they could get sick just by coming in contact. But In Jewel fashion, she hugged him immediately. In Jewel fashion, she hugged him immediately, without fear. Again, she was just trying to serve her community, which led to the formation of the Minority AIDS Project, which raised funds for black AIDS victims.

Jewel established the Village Health Foundation in 2001 and operated various businesses devoted to the wellness, including a vegan internet cafe and the Village Health Clinic, where no one was turned away. Why was it important to Jewel for the Catch to be more than just a nightclub?
Because it simply needed to be. Jewel is an entrepreneur, but she’s also a healer. Some people walked into the Catch with suicidal tendencies, but when they saw people who looked like them and acted like them, it gave them a reason to live.

When Jewel recognized a need for nutritional food in her community, she opened a vegan restaurant at the club. For many patrons, happy hour at the Catch was the only meal they ate all day. On the bulletin boards there, you’d see announcements for various 12-step meetings and support groups. As Dr. Don Kilhefner notes in the film, “It was so much more than a gay club — it was a village for her gay brothers and sisters south of Wilshire Boulevard.”

At the age of 56, Jewel earned a master’s degree in traditional Chinese medicine. She could’ve opened the Village Health Clinic in Beverly Hills, where people could afford to pay for her services, but in order to serve her community — those who were invisible to society — she knew she needed to be near the Catch. Over 10 years, she has served more than 6,000 people, and the waiting room looks like a meeting of the U.N. General Assembly, with all the colors of the rainbow present. She never turned anyone away for lack of funds, accepting whatever patients had in their pocket at the time. One person even gave her a bag of lemons as payment, which she gladly accepted.

Jewel’s Catch One closed for good in 2015. With iconic gay bastions going away due to gentrification and changing demographics, what do you think the future holds for the gay community?
It’s a shame that the Catch One and places like it are going away. Fortunately, people are uniting in a lot of important marches across the country. I think online is definitely a place where people can reach out to find community. Yes, they’re virtual, but at least they’re places where you can reach out for help. And hopefully, these organizations will continue to bring us together in real life, too.

I hope the film inspires change as well. Watching what Jewel did over so many years hopefully inspires people to reach out to neighbors in their own backyard and find out how they can help. It’s important for our film and for Jewel that we inspire change, so anyone touched by the story of Jewel’s Catch One must pay it forward.