'Jewel's Catch One': 42 Years of Dance, Activism & Perseverance

Mar 30, 2017

The month of March is marked as a time to celebrate women’s history in America, and for many, Jewel Thais-Williams is an important figure in that history.

She’s the founder of the legendary Los Angeles night club - the Catch One. For 42 years, the Catch was a place where politicians and everyday people of all colors, cultures and backgrounds could come together and dance the night away – and more importantly, be accepted.

Thais-Williams opened the club in the mid ‘70s, during a time of rampant racism and open discrimination against the LGBT community, even ahead of the AIDS crisis. As a lesbian in the African-American community, she felt a need to open a place that could serve as a sanctuary for everyone. The Catch One was the oldest black-owned disco in America  and it wasn't just a place to dance, but a community hub that expanded into a vegan café and community health center - all under the leadership of Thais-Williams.

"Jewel's Catch One was an amazing place for people to celebrate life, celebrate music. She had the best DJ, they played the best music, and everyone was welcome," says singer-songwriter Thea Austin.

Austin was a regular at the Catch One, and she's featured in a recent documentary, Jewel’s Catch One, which chronicles the club’s, and its owner’s journey.  It includes interviews with Sharon Stone, Thelma Houston and many others.

Director, writer, and producer C. Fitz says the documentary started as a volunteer project to spotlight Thais-Williams' community work, but turned into a six year endeavor.

Credit Jewel's Catch One / facebook.com

"I was just shaking my head saying, 'I don't know how I'm going to fit all of this into two or three minutes, we need to do a documentary on (Jewel),'" she recalls.

"Her life is so huge and it's undocumented. And it was my job...in telling the world about her voice that stood up against hate and racism and homophobia, so I was definitely nervous, but I'm happy with it," adds Fitz.

Thais-Williams came from "very, very humble beginnings." One of seven children, Thais-Williams said that her parents were dedicated to the success of their kids. Her father was a union representative, and he was often fighting for rights and pushing back against discrimination based on race and age.

"Even though, when I was a kid I might not have been aware of all of these things, the residue of it stayed with me," says Thais-Williams. "Everyday (my parents) pushed the possibility of hope and possibilities of achieving something, of making something of yourself that they didn't have access to in their time and place, but they wanted it for us."

Her family's tenacity influenced Thais-Williams and her work ethic, which kept Jewel's Catch One open for four decades - despite opposition from locals, red tape from bureaucrats and temporary closure from arson. She recently sold the Catch, but the current owners have made the building a historic landmark which still serves as a musical venue.

Credit C Fitz / Jewel's Catch One

Thais-Williams' perseverance continues today. This past summer, she opened up her second health clinic in Los Angeles.  Thais Williams humbly admits that "maybe there is some importance" to her story.

And, Fitz notes that traveling with the documentary in the United States and around the globe has been an amazing experience that continuously feeds inspiration.

"It's been pretty amazing," she says. "Audiences...leave the film inspired just by watching her life, her incredible life and all the things she accomplished. So the film is really an unwritten textbook. It's an example of how one person can make a difference, how they can take their life and serve their community in a lot of different ways."

"At the end of our interview for the documentary, Fitz asked me what would I change about my life," says Thais-Williams. "There were some pretty horrendous things that happened over the years from early childhood on, and I was able to respond honestly that I wouldn't change anything. Because that end result I'm pleased with and I think I worked on what it was that I came here for, and that was to help initiate change not only for myself but for others."