By Julie Pendray
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. — How could a young, black lesbian in the age of rampant discrimination keep one of the country’s biggest night clubs — considered the Club 54 of the West — going for 42 years, through arson, police “harrassment,” patron arrests and poverty? “Incredible hard work and vision,” according to her friends in “Jewel’s Catch One,” a documentary in the True Stories section of Palm Springs International Film Festival. At a time when dance club laws banned same-sex dancing, Jewel Thais-Williams sustained what became a safe haven for people of all races, cultures and genders, even as her patrons were denied entry to other Los Angeles nightspots. U.S. Rep. Maxine Waters calls Thais-Williams a national role model for her work with homeless, ill, gay men during the AIDs epidemic. The night club closed in 2015.
“Jewel’s Catch One” begins with photos of the frequent police presence and arrests at the club. Then we meet a mélange of fascinating characters, including celebrities. Memorable disco tunes provide the rhythm, mixed with anecdotal accounts of the drama, intrigue, pathos and humor surrounding the place. It’s an emotional journey that takes us through pizzazz and high fashion, unravels during the HIV epidemic, breaks with the defeat of a burned down promise and rises through Thais-Williams’ alcoholism and drug abuse to a place of serenity, acceptance, love and compassion. We see the transformation not only in historical footage and interviews with stars such as Sharon Stone, Thelma Houston, Sandra Bernhard and Bonnie Pointer but also in the way the light shines more brightly from Thais-Williams’ eyes as the years progress. This is the development not only of a night club and community but of a woman giving her own life, and the lives of others, more meaning. The story reminds us that sometimes we may be different and sometimes we fail. Our hearts may shatter. We may have all the odds against us. But we can survive. Not only that, we can gather a family of friends around us, make a contribution that holds others up, have fun along the way, adjust with the times, chuckle at our own shortcomings and let go when it’s time, even if it’s with tears.
“I am an activist for my communities … people of color, lesbians and gay… poor … hungry … disadvantaged … discriminated populations,” Thais-Williams says in the film. She is grounded in a sense of calling, having started the club with $500 in her pocket, according to Gene La Pietra, owner of LA’s Circus Disco and Arena Nightclub.
Sometimes stories of people who gather community around them are born of sadness. Thais-Williams chokes up at one moment in the movie, as she remembers “the only compliment” her mother ever gave her, when the woman visited the club and asked quietly, “Is this all yours?” Thais-Williams went from helping run her uncle’s corner grocery on her own on occasion at age 9 to owning a club that sometimes squeezed in 1,700 people a night, well beyond its legal limit. The disco drew stars not for the limelight, we’re told, but to be themselves, dancing on Pico Boulevard at Crenshaw, where paparazzi seldom go. Madonna is said to have learned how to “vogue” in this spot, where she held her 2000 album release party. “Pretty Woman” and other movies were filmed there.
The name of the club stems from the street jargon “prowling to catch someone,” Thais-Williams says. She created a place where many people found a match among the pounding bass vibration under the mirrored ball, on the polished and buffed hard wood floor. “They had the bangin-est music of the time,” says singer Thea Austin.
“People used to dress in their finest when they went there,” recalls Sandra Bernhard.
Thais-Williams didn’t stop at offering a place to “be.” She developed a non-profit health foundation offering Chinese medicine and she provided help even when people couldn’t afford it. She went back to school in her 50s to become an acupuncturist and also ran a vegan restaurant. She is known for hugging the fatally ill who came to her club looking like a shadow of their former selves, when everyone else was afraid to touch them and when their partners had dumped them because of AIDs. She held the AIDs babies. Her spouse, Rue Thais-Williams, started the first residential facility in the area for women and children with AIDs so families could stay together. Together, the women worked hard to educate and raise funding for AIDs awareness because they observed that the health needs of black gays were not attended to in the same way as other segments of society. The health foundation was funded mostly by income from the disco club.
As times changed, Catch One ultimately did not maintain the following of those it served. One Jewel fan in this movie emotionally concedes that Jewel’s community let her down. However, in 2016, the die-hard advocate was honored as the grand marshal of the LA Pride Parade.
“Jewel’s Catch One” has screened to sold-out audiences at Outfest, UrbanWorld and BFI London film festivals. It was written, shot, edited and directed by C. Fitz, who was executive producer with Jewel. Both women are expected to attend all Palm Springs’ screenings of this documentary on Jan. 7, 8 and 10. For times, venues and the full festival schedule click here. A disco “after party” will be held at 9 p.m. Jan. 7 at Chill Bar Palm Springs, 217 E. Arenas Road.
Copyright to Julie Pendray & SpecialsNotOnTheMenu.com