BY KAREN OCAMB | Jewel Thais-Williams opened the famed Jewel’s Catch One Disco as a business venture during the economic recession of 1972/73. She couldn’t resist: the neighbor bar on Crenshaw and Pico Blvds had refused to serve African Americans. However, her History degree from UCLA did not include bar business skills and California law did not allow women to tend bar. Then fate gave her an assist.
“When I walked in, the bartender walked out. But then an old redneck from Texas offered to help and took me under his wing,” Thais-Williams recalled. The bar became a hang out for old white guys during the day, blue collar black workers at night and eventually, black gay customers. “It didn’t matter what I intended the bar to be,” she said, “gay is what it became.”
By 1975, Catch One Disco was an underground hot spot featuring live performances by singers such as “Queen of Disco” Sylvester and Etta James with stars like Sammy Davis Jr., Warren Beatty and Madonna popping by. After she bought the building and opened the three dance floors, The Catch became a disco-refuge for blacks who faced racial and gender discrimination in L.A.’s white gay discos.
Thais-Williams became a mother figure to many, helping her “kids” get clean and sober and providing comfort to black gay men rejected by their families and church during the AIDS crisis. But Thais-Williams took the extra step, co-founding the Minority AIDS Project and the Imani Unidos Food Pantry in South L.A. and joining the Board of AIDS Project Los Angeles to bring their HIV/AIDS services “down to the hood.”
Additionally, with her wife Rue, Thais-Williams founded Rue’s House, the nation’s first housing facility for women with AIDS and their children, most of whom were poor and black. After the life-saving AIDS medications became available in 1996, they transitioned the house into a sober-living facility.
In the late 1990s, Thais-Williams became enraged after an appointment with a culturally incompetent doctor. “So many of the illnesses African Americans get—like hyper-tension and diabetes—are preventable. But instead of helping us with prevention education, the medical profession treats us with pills and cuts us open,” Thais Williams said. She went back to school and flew to China to study Traditional Chinese Medicine and in 2002, opened The Village Health Foundation as a low-cost clinic that provides alternative health and well-being care for her mostly minority clients.
At a City Hall ceremony for LGBT Heritage Month in June 2012, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented Thais-Williams with the Dream of Los Angeles Award “for her commitment to equality, her tireless advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable.”
Thais-Williams noted that she had seen “a few changes” in her 73 years. But “the fight is not over,” she said. “I want to be here to see it end—so let’s keep it rolling.”
Thais-Williams will indeed be rolling along Santa Monica Blvd as the Grand Marshall of the CSW Pride Parade. A documentary about The Catch, which she sold last year, is expected to be featured during this year’s Outfest Film Festival.