Jewel Thais-Williams stands on the roof of Jewel's Catch One. Photo courtesy of QFilms.
In 1972, Jewel Thais-Williams purchased a nondescript strip of real estate near the intersection of Pico and Crenshaw Boulevards in Los Angeles for $18,000.
The premise of her purchase was simple: she wanted to create a disco club for anyone and everyone. She painted the place, blacked out the windows, and made the interior as private as she could for the burgeoning LGBT community in Los Angeles.
Before long, the place evolved into what was known as the “Studio 54 of the West Coast,” complete with a robust LGBT crowd, celebrities and disco queens.
The QFilms Opening Night Selection, Jewel’s Catch One, traces the beginnings of the legendary dance club, its evolution into a community center through the AIDS crisis, the challenges presented by homophobia, especially the event of one particular alleged arson. But mostly, it hones in on the legacy of Thais-Williams as businesswoman and community healer, who successfully ran one of the rare black-owned LGBT clubs in the country for over 40 years.
With four screenings at various film festivals throughout the country, including Outfest and Provincetown International Film Festival, the documentary will grace the screen of Long Beach’s Art Theatre on Thursday, September 8 at 7:00PM.
“We’re super psyched about Long Beach,” the film’s director, C. Fitz, told the Post today. “It took six years to make, and clientele of the Catch reach into Long Beach… folks from the Catch have spread out.”
The film will feature a Q&A with Fitz afterward, in addition to appearances that include disco queens Thea Austin (singer of “Rhythm is a Dancer”) and Thelma Houston (singer of “Don’t Leave Me This Way”), who were known to frequent the club in its heyday.
Screenshot from feature of a packed crowd for Jewel's Catch One.
Fitz became drawn to the story of Jewel and her famous nightclub after she was asked to direct a two to three minute film of her life, she said.
“I told her that I was gonna have to make another film, because there was too much to tell to fit into two or three minutes!” said Fitz.
The film has screened to sold-out audiences, something Fitz said is likely due to the universal appeal of the story, especially in a summer with incidents like the mass shooting in Orlando.
At the Rhode Island International Film Festival, the feature was awarded the “First Prize” in the “Best Documentary” category, sending the documentary on a journey into the hearts and minds of people beyond LA.
The film makes it clear that Thais-Williams, who married her longtime partner a few years ago and served as the Grand Marshall of this year’s Los Angeles Pride Parade, made in impact beyond the four walls of the disco club to the community at large, even returning to school for a master’s degree in eastern medicine to practice acupuncture within the city.
The club was a bastion of hope and love during the AIDS crisis. Thais-Williams turned her parking lot into a soup kitchen for those affected, and founded the Village Health Foundation for paying and non-paying clients suffering from HIV, heart disease, cancer and other pain-related issues.
Fitz said that moment in the film—though tragic—was her favorite.
“It’s so important shining a light on history and what Jewel did,” said Fitz. “It’s amazing what one person can do. That’s the moment her story changed into a bigger story.”
An arson fire in 1985, rampant homophobia and inspections by cops, and the city’s refusal to grant Thais-Williams permits spotlight the dark prejudice prevalent in the city and nation’s history, and the recent shootings show the work to be done to this day.
Madonna and Christina Aguilara were frequenting the club in the early 2000s, the documentary shows, with Madonna hosting her album launch party for 2000 within the club’s halls. Music plays a large role in the film in and of itself, featuring music from many well-known artists—affiliated with disco and dance music—who often hopped over to the club to dance their worries away in a private location, where inclusivity was stressed above all else.
Catch One was so well-known in LA that Rep. Maxine Waters event sat in for an interview with Fitz, and is featured in the documentary.
But the momentum didn’t last forever. Last summer, Catch One closed, with hefty coverage by the Los Angeles Times, a nod to the ongoing legacy of Thais-Williams.
She credited the decline in business to the rise in dating apps and more widespread acceptance, especially in urban centers, of the LGBT community.
“You know, there’s a point made in the move that Jewel did her job, and she did it so well that there’s less of a need…” said Fitz.
Yet, Thais-Williams isn’t done. After closing Catch One’s doors last summer, Thais-Williams purchased a building that will expand the Village Health Foundation, to continue promoting healing of all forms among the community.
Fitz, a full-time producer and director of marketing and social media content, said she felt lucky to tell Thais-Williams’ story. She decided to create her second feature documentary based on the nightclub because she felt the universal themes throughout the story resonate on a universal scale.
“At 77, she’s opening a new health center,” said Fitz, with traces of awe in her voice. “People want to become feature filmmakers and that’s great. I did it because I had to. I had to serve and get that story on film.”