She opened one of the country’s first major gay clubs for African Americans
Photograph by Emily Shur
The red neon sign inside Jewel’s Catch One Disco doesn’t flicker anymore—the Arlington Heights nightclub held its last dance in July—but for 40 years its cursive letters illuminated a subculture that was welcomed by few other places in L.A.: The venue was a dance hall for black gay youths.
Jewel Thais-Williams wasn’t out in 1973, when she purchased the business, then called Diana’s. At the time it was a hangout for white retirees. She took two years to transform it into the historic space it would become. Now 76, she’s looking to sell the place. Here she shares three turning points:
“My first day, the bartender walked out. He said, ‘I can’t work for you.’ One of the regulars—I called him Tex—was at the end of the bar. He said, ‘I’ve been drinking here since the ’30s, and I know every aspect of this business.’ He taught me everything, including how to play pool. About two weeks later the bartender came back for his job. I gave it to him.”
“Eventually the blue-collar blacks who lived in the neighborhood started to come in to drink hard liquor. I wanted to have a supper club atmosphere, so we got a band. Meanwhile the lesbians I knew started coming in, too. I have to be amazed at what happened myself! I keep a photo of an older white guy and this black lesbian sharing a birthday cake.”
“When I reopened as Jewel’s, the vice squad came in. Officers sat me down and said, ‘Do you know that there’s all kinds of unsavory people here?’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t doubt it. It’s a public place. It’s your job to figure out who’s committing crimes.’ It never occurred to me to be afraid that I wouldn’t make it.”