By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
|Photos by Ted Soqui|
When I was in college in the early ’80s and still yearning to be the dance-floor queen I never got to be in high school, my good friend Duane and I routinely took to the streets on a Friday or Saturday night in search of the great R&B beats of our recent adolescence. Club music at the time was still transitioning out of disco into more stylized techno that had attitude and plenty of beat, but often not enough fat-bottomed soul to satisfy our need to prove in public that we really couldboogie down on a dime, throw our hands in the air like we just didn’t care. I was beginning to think my prom in 1979 had been my last chance until Duane suggested one Saturday that we go to a place called Jewel’s Catch One on Pico; it was primarily a gay spot, he said, but the music was reputed to be the best. The place was a revelation — big, but hot and close like a house party, and the thumping music (one great song after another, no usual biding of time between an inspired tune and a filler) overrode the usual clubgoer concerns about hair, clothes, sexual inclination and marital status. It was a close-knit community of funk that for us validated the old times and christened our new life as free and single adults, a coming-out party that was held every week. We sampled many other clubs after that and even enjoyed them, but none was ever the feast offered by the Catch.
The Catch One turned 30 this year. It may no longer be the heady discovery of old, but it’s evolved into something possibly better: the most dependable place in town to satisfy serious dance appetites of all ages, as well as a yen for community that, in an era of dance music and nightclubs strictly formatted by race and other considerations, is greater than ever. A recent Saturday night at the Catch celebrating its birthday was a case in point. The main-room disco was packed with revelers who were chiefly black but of all colors and configurations — white, Asian, gay, lesbian, straight, single, coupled up. The thumping music is now mainly hip-hop and breakbeats, but the primacy of a good groove is the same; some people danced in pairs, others in odd numbers or in circles, others alone. When disco diva Thelma Houston came out onstage and performed a set — her hit record “Don’t Leave Me This Way” was first spun by DJs at the Catch — the crowd mostly stood at attention, including many not born when Houston was popular, and when she segued into a hip-hop mix version of her signature song, the room broke eagerly back into dance. Black go-go-cum-burlesque dancers of both sexes took to their raised platforms and gyrated madly above the fray. Parties went on all over the building in somewhat lower keys, from the downstairs bar/eatery/dance floor called Jewel’s Room to a spacious air-conditioned foyer just off the disco that was literally a cooling-off room. It all added up to a big-tent feeling that is rare among nightclubs, which are transitory by nature, and that still almost exclusively belongs to Catch One.
The Catch has been called the longest-running dance club in the city, if not the country, and the oldest and largest black gay club anywhere, but even if none of those things were true, it would still have the best story. Owner Jewel Thais-Williams — like her club, she is widely known by her first name — appears less club owner than earthy big sister, a wiry woman with flowing gray dreadlocks, a thoughtful demeanor but a sharp, inquisitive air that all combine to make her seem far younger than her age, 64. Williams first got the idea for the club in the late 1960s when she worked as a checker in a supermarket on Pico across the street from what was then a hostess dancing bar. The place had long catered to white men and was hostile to blacks, and Williams vowed to one day take it over and make it as accessible to as many people as possible. The time was ripe; she had business experience running a women’s boutique but, she says with a straight face, “was looking to get into something a little more stable.” She bought the club in 1973, without a moment to lose: Minutes after closing the deal, the proprietor of another club called the Horizon came into the place to inquire about buying it. Though the Horizon was a known gay bar, Williams had no initial plans to make her place a destination for black gay men, but it quickly established itself as such. Many a night, she says, she and another friend would be the only women there. Williams is lesbian but admits she wrestled with her own sexuality for years; building the Catch as a premier black gay club clearly encouraged her own development in more ways than one.
Williams has also always been much more than a club owner. Being black, female, lesbian and community-oriented has made her an activist on many fronts over the years: founding board member of the Minority AIDS Project, retired board member of AIDS Project Los Angeles, co-founder of the predominantly gay and lesbian Unity Fellowship Church. Her latest socially conscious endeavor is the Village Health Clinic, a nonprofit alternative-medicine establishment housed in a building next door to the Catch that Williams purchased three years ago. Though open to all, the clinic is aimed at improving the statistically poor health of African-Americans and other people of color through nutrition, acupuncture, acupressure and herbal therapy. Partly because she saw the ranks of her club clientele decimated by AIDS in the ’80s and ’90s, and partly because she lived through drug and alcohol abuse about 20 years ago, Williams has made good health a virtual crusade. She’s been a vegan for the last 15 years; five years ago she earned a license to practice acupuncture and has an abiding interest in other kinds of traditional Chinese medicine. That she runs a liquor-serving nightclub and a clean-living center side by side, two businesses that hardly seem to go together, bothers Williams not at all — or not anymore.
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