Located “in the ‘hood” at Pico Boulevard off Crenshaw, Los Angeles’ iconic “the Catch,” as some folks called it, catered mostly to the African-American gay and lesbian community, but over the nightclub’s entire 42-year run – which, sadly, ended last summer – owner Jewel Thais-Williams made sure everyone was welcome. Filmmaker C. Fitz’s documentary Jewel’s Catch One, which covers the decades of glorious nights at the historic hotspot, will be making its New York premiere at the Urbanworld Film Festival at AMC Empire Theater on Sept. 24.
Opened in 1973, during its heyday, Jewel’s Catch One had a line of patrons that stretched for blocks. The club was compared to NYC’s famed Studio 54, but since its community of patrons often dealt with harassment from the police and others, it cultivated an openly-resistant spirit akin to legendary Greenwich Village bar and gay rights incubator Stonewall. As much as “the Catch” was a dance music lover’s feast, it was also a refuge from racist door policies and rejection that faced folks of color at mainstream clubs, making it attractive to straight club-goers too.
“My motivation was that there was a need for a place that was comfortable, but had as much style and grace as those other places,” says 76-year-old Thais-Williams from her home in Los Angeles. For 42 fabulous years – its doors closed in July 2015 after a final “Last Dance” party – Catch One was a shining star in the community that also became well known for fashion shows and live performances.
“Sylvester played there in 1974 with Two Tons of Fun and played with a five-piece band,” Thais-Williams recalls. “The next time he performed, it was to tracks.” In addition to the disco (soul) divas of both sexes that performed at Catch One including Thelma Houston, Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King and Bonnie Pointer, later celebrities like Madonna and Sharon Stone also began hanging out there. “It was one of the few places where they could be incognito.”
The fifth of seven children, Thais-Williams was born 1939 in Gary, Indiana, where she was raised by a strict mother; the family moved to San Diego when she was nine. Although she’d have a variety of jobs, including working as a sheriff at a women’s prison, prior to opening the Catch, she and her sister owned a women’s clothing manufacturing shop. However, in 1973, as Fitz’s doc shows clearly, the club became her home – literally. Living downstairs, Jewel’s bedroom was directly beneath the dance floor.
Documentary director Fitz didn’t meet Thais-Williams until 2010, but she quickly realized that the entrepreneur and the club bearing her name would be the perfect subject for a documentary. “I was supposed to do a piece on Jewel that was only a few minutes, but I realized after researching and talking to her that I would have to do a complete documentary. What a life she has had.”
Narrated by CCH Pounder, the film pulls the viewer into the wonderful story of Jewel’s Catch One with a few archival photos, interviews with former patrons and more than a few notable appreciators, including Rep. Maxine Waters, Sandra Bernhard and the aforementioned disco divas, including Houston and King. “The hardest challenge of making the film was editing the project and having to leave so many wonderful stories on the cutting room floor,” C. Fitz says. “But, we did our best to encapsulate the important pieces of Jewel’s history with the great stories people were telling us.”
Of course, every great club has to have an equally illustrious DJ, and at Jewel’s Catch One, the resident spin master was Billy Long, who started at the club in 1974 and remained there until his death in 2005. “Billy was like me,” Thais-Williams says. “He lived for the club. His dedication was to art, music and the glory of Catch One.”
Designer Glenn Duvall Pettway, who operates the Chicago-based House of Duvall, worked at Jewel’s Catch One as a bartender for five years in the mid-1980s. “I saw the club the first day I moved to Los Angeles and lied my way into a job the next day. Catch One was a staple of the community, and Jewel was no-nonsense who feared no one, but she also represented peace. DJ Billy Long made sure the dance floor was party central.” Jewel also allowed Pettway to do two fashion shows at the club. “Singer Teena Marie was a regular, and she gave me $300 to make an outfit for her, but she never came to pick it up.”
While filmmaker C. Fitz had a lot to pack into one film, including important side stories on the vegan restaurant and health clinic Thais-Williams opened in the same building, she has done a impressive job exploring the significance and importance of Jewel’s Catch One. “Sometimes I look back and wonder how was it possible,” Thais-Williams says with a laugh, “but it was. And that was the case.”
About the author:
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.