As last month’s massacre in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub demonstrated all too tragically, gay clubs have often served a purpose higher than simple dance spots or watering holes: at times, they’re badly-needed sanctuaries — a description that certainly seems appropriate for Los Angeles’ Jewel’s Catch One, which served as the city’s premier black gay club for 42 years before closing just last year.
Directed by C. Fitz, “Jewel’s Catch One” is an undeniably loving documentary tribute to the club and its longtime owner Jewel Thais-Williams, tagging along with the soft-spoken septuagenarian as she details her reign as an unlikely nightlife impresario-turned-activist, philanthropist, acupuncturist, and vegan restaurateur. Clearly a passion project, Fitz’s film is a scrappy, sometimes scattered endeavor that can veer into retirement-tribute-video testimonial at times, but at its best, it’s a worthy and necessary slice of history that should be a natural choice for LGBT fests.
Mixing archival gems with talking head interviews and (not nearly enough) footage of Thais-Williams in action around her club, “Jewel’s Catch One” has a fascinating subject at its center. Frustrated by the unwelcoming treatment at white-owned gay clubs, Thais-Williams bought out a neighborhood bar near the intersection of Pico and Crenshaw in 1973. Without alienating her working-class after-work regulars, she turned the upstairs room into a thriving, throbbing disco at night, a spot tailored to the underserved black and brown queer community.
Vibrant photos and footage from the wild glory days of the ’70s illustrate what one former denizen calls the “unofficial West Coast Studio 54,” its status all the more impressive considering Thais-Williams was often forced to fill in as the club’s bartender, DJ, and electrician. (We see the 76-year-old still fearlessly flying up ladders to tinker with the sound system.) Police raids were common from the start, a suspected arson attack closed the club for a period, and AIDS hit the community hard in the 1980s, inspiring Thais-Williams to organize fundraisers and start her own shelter for women with HIV.
The Catch One became a hot spot for celebrities like Madonna and Sandra Bernhard in the 1990s, and Sharon Stone speaks of frequenting the club because it was the only place she could dance without being bothered. “Paparazzi were not coming down to Crenshaw and Pico,” another regular notes. (Of course, there was plenty of star power in earlier decades: Disco diva Thelma Houston recalls listening to an acetate of her soon-to-be No. 1 1977 hit “Don’t Leave Me This Way” for the first time in the club.) Yet the Catch One’s lifeblood was provided by the more local crowd, and Fitz does well to paint a picture of the club as both a decadent party space and a de facto community resource center for people who felt alienated from both the straight community and the largely white gay culture in West Hollywood.
Thais-Williams speaks freely of her life, her struggles with addiction, and her eventual decision to retire the Catch One, but one still leaves the film wanting to know more. We understand what inspired her to open the club, but what drove this even-keeled woman to tirelessly keep it running for 42 years — an eternity in nightclub terms? It also would’ve been nice to hear more from her sardonic, quick-witted wife Rue, whom Thais-Williams was finally allowed to marry after two decades together.
The film’s technical quality can be hit-or-miss at times, but Fitz still corrals a wealth of interview subjects, from stars and former club DJs to congresswoman Maxine Waters, all with their own stories to tell.