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Crown Jewel

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 could boogie 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.

“I’ve often thought of the paradox, but alcohol is not the problem, it’s the people drinking it,” muses Williams, who is 17 years sober. “And in order to reach people who are drinking, you have to go where they are. I did think at one point that if living right meant giving up the business, I’d do that. But I didn’t. If I did think that, I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.”

In the boom time of the 1980s, the Catch One was one of those Hollywood overnight success stories that had about a 10-year lead-in. Dance maven and professional gender-bender Madonna started hanging out — picking up, among other things, some raw material for her “Vogue” single — and other celebrities followed suit. Some of the West Hollywood set started migrating east to Crenshaw and Pico, and the crossover was officially on. Events producer Bryan Rabin remembers first venturing to the Catch in 1988 and being the only white boy in the room — and loving it. “I’d never experienced anything like that before,” he says. “Dancing in that room, with the DJs playing the real stuff . . . it was really otherworldly, but I never felt excluded. It was one of the shaping experiences of my life.” Veteran Catch DJ Claudette “Sexy DJ” Colbert helped introduce hip-hop to the club in its pre-bling-bling days of Kool Moe Dee, Queen Latifah, Keith Sweat and Guy. Colbert rocked the Catch back when virtually no women DJs were given a chance to do so at big venues. “I did a party for a gay and lesbian group one weekend, and Jewel and [her partner] Rue came up to me and said, ‘Do you want to work?’” recalls Colbert, who sported a distinctive look of skintight bodysuits and a bald head crowned with a Roman-helmet Mohawk. “I was living in San Francisco and only down here for the event. I wound up staying, and Jewel hired me on the spot.”

But glory and hard times came in equal measure at Catch One, and always had. From the beginning, Williams fought off potential disaster — harassment by cops and vice squads, resentment of neighboring merchants, aggressive bids to buy the property as the demographics around the Catch shifted and became part of a thriving Koreatown. Then in 1985 came the fire that shut down the Catch’s upstairs main room for two years. Williams rebuilt, though the arson case was never solved. She has her ideas about what happened that she hasn’t entirely put aside, but she remains philosophical. “I weathered that storm,” she says, “like I weathered a lot of other ones.” She and the club got a timely boost a couple of years ago when Rabin convinced Madonna’s record label to hold its release party for her dance-heavy album Music at the Catch. Rabin took the opportunity to give the somewhat worse-for-the-wear club a face-lift that included re-carpeting upstairs and down. “I love Jewel,” says Rabin. “She’s done so much and given to so many. The place was kind of a money pit, but what she asked for, we gave her.”

 

Williams talks obligingly about the hardship but prefers to talk about what’s going right: the health clinic and the longevity and unique stature of the Catch, which may be an increasing burden but is also a clear point of pride. Though still in the business of trends, she doesn’t care to know too much about current affairs, particularly about the machinations of the Bush administration. “Right now I want to be ignorant of what’s going on,” she says. “I used to have the news on constantly, but I really haven’t seen the headlines since the dictator took over the nation. The only way I keep a purpose is to keep doing what I’m doing.” Williams acknowledges the Catch One has had to change in order to survive; one big change is doing outside-promotion events, which used to be almost exclusively in-house. Williams says too many clubs these days are going after the same demographic and siphoning off Catch customers. “It saddens me that people don’t have quite the loyalty they used to,” she says. “But if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.” She disparages the message of hardcore hip-hop but is encouraged by the younger generation’s tolerance, which she says was often missing in the old. “What I’m seeing now in a lot of kids is a lot fewer prejudices and less concern about gender — they just want to be whoever and whatever they are. Purple hair, black fingernails, whatever. That’s really exciting to me.”

Exciting enough to keep Williams at the Catch? She has thought of selling more than once and says flatly that she’s burned out. But it’s obvious that the Catch is too much her baby to let go to just anyone; at this point it is less a business to sell than a torch to pass. “If someone wants to take it over, great,” she says. “But hopefully it’s going to be a black person and a lesbian. I’ve had the privilege of being here for a long time — the average life of a club is two and a half years — and seeing lots of changes. I can say goodbye with no regrets, but I would like to maintain a place that’s in the community — and that’s ours.” But Williams is not exactly on her last dance, and likely never will be. She reminds herself that she went back to school at the age of 56 to study acupuncture “because I knew I was too young at heart to retire,” she says. “I was looking for another way to be helpful.” For stalwart Catch fans, being here has been help enough. “It’s home for a lot of us,” says DJ Colbert, who now works Friday nights at the Factory. “I miss the Catch sometimes. But I have the vibe inside me, and I take it with me wherever I go.”


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