Great Read

Jewel's Catch One disco's demise marks era's end for L.A.'s gay blacks

In 1973 Jewel Thais-Williams opened LA's Catch One, one of the 1st black discos in the U.S. Now it's closing

In sequined dresses and leather jackets, afro puffs and high-top fades, they lined up outside the stucco nightclub on Pico Boulevard off Crenshaw, sometimes wrapping around the block. Once inside, they danced under strobe lights and a lone disco ball in the center of two of its seven rooms. Celebrities would make pit stops when they were in town — from Madonna and Sharon Stone to "Queen of Disco" Sylvester.

As the sun rose, they left drenched in euphoria and sweat.

But the joy experienced at Jewel's Catch One club was more than a weekend choice for fun; it was an act of defiance by black lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the face of clubs in West Hollywood where they felt unwanted because of their race.

Jewel Thais-Williams is a petite 76-year-old with a short gray afro. When she started clubbing in the early 1970s, gay clubs often denied her entrance because she was black and female. When allowed in, she would often be double-carded, having to show two forms of identification.

There was no space where black gays could enjoy themselves in one another's company, escaping what they saw as the racial discrimination of West Hollywood and the homophobia of the African American community.

So in 1973 she opened Catch One, one of the first black discos in the country.

Forty-two years later, the Catch is known as the last black-owned gay club in Los Angeles. But nightly crowds have dwindled from the near-thousands to just a handful, and by the end of the summer, the Catch will close.

"I felt, and others have said, it's an institution," Thais-Williams said. "It was ours, but it's time to move on."

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Built for secrecy, with blacked-out windows and dark doors, the first gay clubs served as havens from the homophobia of broader society. But for those dealing with other identities, such as race and class, these clubs were even more important.

Whites had bathhouses, health organizations and other spaces. For black gays, their clubs were often the only gathering place they had.

When the HIV epidemic broke out, white gays banded together, using their clubs as spaces for fundraising and political galvanization. But early on, black gays did not see HIV as an issue affecting them, because the media and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention portrayed the virus as a white gay disease.

By the time blacks realized it did affect them, the damage had been done and club-going practices had shifted. The black gay clubs, serving an already limited number of people, were left without clubbers as the community shrunk.

Jeffrey Pub on the South Side of Chicago holds the mantle as the last black-owned gay club in that city. Detroit hasn't had one since the closure of the Continental in the late 1990s.

In Los Angeles, black gays are now attracted to the newness and central location of West Hollywood, where club-hopping is possible. That and the advent of the Internet and cellphone dating apps contributed to the Catch's decline.

Bianca Wilson, senior scholar of public policy at UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute, called the disappearance of black gay spaces concerning.

"Having community space at the intersection of both gender, sexuality and race has been really important as a resource for navigating racism, homophobia and heterosexism," she said.

Shane'a Thomas, an adjunct professor at USC's School of Social Work, said these clubs are more than just party spaces, they're institutions of affirmation.

"We have to find a space to validate who we are," Thomas said. "There's something about being around others like you, how great it feels to be affirmed in a place where people look like you."

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In West Hollywood, black party promoters are taking up Thais-Williams' fight from the early '70s: creating spaces for black gays and lesbians.

In the middle of a dark room illuminated only by strobe lights, hips roll and shoulders juke to the latest rap and hip-hop tracks.

It's Sunday night at the Rage nightclub in West Hollywood. The dozens of people spilling onto the club's street-front patio stand out from the barrage of typical West Hollywood club-hoppers on Santa Monica Boulevard. The majority of them are black, and they come here because it's one of only two places where they say they can hear the music they love in the company of almost exclusively people who look like them — even if it's only on Sundays.

Brandon Anthony, 29, is the promoter of the weekly "urban night." He became a party promoter three years ago after noticing there was no space where he as a black gay man felt valued, he said.

Even in Southern California's gay haven, Anthony said it felt like his money, the money of black people, wasn't wanted — hip-hop music was restricted to only Top 40 hits, black go-go dancers weren't hired, and security seemed to rev up only for incidents involving blacks as opposed to those with whites.

"There are no black gay clubs in West Hollywood that cater to us," he said. "They weren't catering to the black LGBT community, so we made it cater to us."

Across the street from Rage is Penthouse, another club where on Sundays hip-hop is the music of choice.

Ivan Daniel, 53, who helps put on the weekly event, straddles the line between the nightlife of old and what he sees as a new age. Since 2004, he says he's helped to usher in an age in which he said blacks and others who just enjoy hip-hop culture can come to the city to party.

"We had to almost train the area on how to deal with the African American population, to appreciate us," he said.

One of the city's most popular, and legendary, clubs is the Abbey. Its founder, David Cooley, noted that he's made every effort over the years to create a welcoming space for all regardless of race.

"Diversity is what makes our business so strong," Cooley said.

But it's one thing to have a black gay night and another to have a black gay space, Anthony said.

Having a club in the gay bastion would help the black LGBT community fight racial prejudice they still face in West Hollywood, said Jamari Amour, 30, a professional dancer.

"People look down on you like, 'When we're done here, we're going to walk to our condos down the street and you're going to drive back to the ghetto," Amour said.

But being able to party in West Hollywood allows many black gays the opportunity to temporarily shift classes, if just for one night.

"It's a lot classier to be in West Hollywood, rather than being at the Catch, in the ghetto, on Crenshaw and Pico," Amour said. "I feel like when people get to West Hollywood they feel like 'I made it!'"

Such a belief is unfortunate, Thais-Williams said, because the area around the Catch used to thrive with black businesses and LGBT fervor.

"People in general don't have appreciation anymore for their own institutions," she said. "All we want is something that's shiny because our attention span is only going to last for one season and then you want to go somewhere else. The younger kids went to school and associated with both the straight people and nonblacks, so they feel free to go to those spots. The whole gay scene as it relates to nightclubs has changed — a lot."

Thais-Williams, who will focus on her health clinic next door, is trying to find a buyer for the property. When she does, she'll hold a final event to end on a good note.

Staring at the ceiling of the Catch's "disco" room, Thais-Williams pointed out one of the mirror balls. It's been a staple of the club since 1985, a sign of rebirth after its top floor mysteriously burned; she blames business gentrifiers in the area for the blaze, but an official cause was never determined.

She had to close for two years to rebuild but was defiant in the face of those she said wanted her out.

"I don't think so, boo," she remembered saying. "You've got to come bigger and better than that."

The Catch survived the fire. Thais-Williams never dreamed it would be done in by the lack of support by those she wished to serve all those decades ago.

trevell.anderson@latimes.com

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