Jewel Thais-Williams was born on May 9, 1939 in Gary, Indiana. The fifth of seven children, Jewel moved with her family to San Diego when she was four years old. After high school, she attended UCLA, held a wide variety of jobs from grocery store clerk to women’s prison guard, and eventually opened a clothing store with her sister.

In the 1970s, an economic downturn began to hurt Jewel’s store. Scanning the horizon for recession-proof business ventures, Jewel realized that bars generally did okay during bad times, and might even thrive. In 1973, Jewel purchased a bar that had generally shunned black patrons, and transformed it into Jewel’s Catch One.

Affectionately dubbed ‘The Catch’ by its customers, Jewel’s watering hole and party palace was the only black disco club in Los Angeles, and one of the first in America. Race, gender, or sexual preference aside, everyone was welcome to come and have a good time at The Catch. When business boomed, Jewel resisted calls to upgrade her club. Instead, she used her hard-earned profits to fund a continuous stream of community projects.  

In the late 1990s, Jewel went back to school to earn a master’s degree in oriental medicine, with the goal of providing preventative health care options to the black community.  In 2001, she opened the Village Health Foundation right next to The Catch, using proceeds from the business side to ensure that no one would be turned away for lack of funds. In 2015, after 42 years of late nights and thumping disco beats, Jewel sold The Catch, turning her full attention to her clinic.

Jewel served on the board of AIDS Project LA, and co-found the Minority AIDS Project. In addition to The Village Health Foundation, Jewel and her wife Rue own and operate Rue’s House, providing services to women and children living with HIV/AIDS. In 2012, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa presented Jewel with the Dream of Los Angeles Award for her vast, enduring contributions to the LA queer community, and the entire City of Angels.

OUTWORDS interviewed Jewel inside the rambling 1925 building that used to house The Catch, and which was then occupied by a nightclub called Union. Jewel’s interview was interrupted a few times by Union’s young owners bouncing in and out, perhaps hoping to catch a little of the former owner’s entrepreneurial magic. But there’s no magic to what Jewel accomplished. She did it with pride, integrity, hard work, and love.

I don't know if Tariqa mentioned, but literally from the beginning of this project, when I first began to conceive of it, I knew of your club and I knew of you. It's taken this long to get around. We've shot 97 interviews so far. You've been one of the people I've wanted to interview from the very beginning. I'm really honored that we get to.
Jewel Thais-Williams: I'm glad that we got together.
Mason Funk: Just let me know.
Janine: Will you count to 10 for me?
Jewel Thais-Williams: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10.
Janine: Thank you.
Mason Funk: [00:01:30] I realized that I haven’t done my final adjustment here. Let me just bring this ... Do me a favor. Start off and just tell me your name and spell it all out.
Jewel Thais-Williams: My name is Jewel Thais-Williams. That's J-E-W-E-L. The last name is a hyphenated one. It's T as in Tom, H-A-I-S hyphen W-I-L-L-I-A-M-S.
Mason Funk: Great. Thank you.
Janine: [00:02:00] Can you hold this real quick?
Mason Funk: [00:03:00] It'll just be basically ambient. Tell me when and where you were born, literally the date and the place, and then tell me a bit about your family.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:03:30] I was born in Gary, Indiana, May 9th, 1939. My folks came from Arkansas, a couple of little cities in Arkansas near Memphis, Tennessee. I was the fifth of seven of children. My folks did the migration from the South to the North when one of my mother's sisters, my aunt, had gone up with her husband to work at the steel mills in Gary. They sent word back that this was like the promised land.
I had a cousin that was the same age as my oldest brother. The fact that she was able to go to school was a big deal, a real school, as my dad would call it, was enough for my dad to want to take his kids North also, and for a better life and to become better educated too.
Mason Funk: [00:04:30] Was that a big priority at that time among folks, the idea of getting someplace where there were better educational opportunities? Was this part of the groundswell among the African American community in the South to look for places where life could be better than the South?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:05:00] Yeah. It was definitely a place and time for folks to migrate from the South to the North, because they were tenant farmers or cotton pickers or whatever. There was no light at the end of the tunnel, no place for them to feel like they could progress to or could take the next step up. We're talking about maybe two to three generations removed from slavery only. When I say removed from slavery, I'm not saying that slavery stops in 1865 or whatever because of the Proclamation, but slavery continued.
Of course my folks were a part of that continuation of the slavery process of working African Americans for little to nothing, keeping them as still title servants by having them, in order to stay in this house or whatever, they had to work in the fields, and we'll pay for everything, give you a little bit of money for groceries that you don't raise yourself. That's as far as you have to look at, as far as a future is concerned.
Then there was also situations of still lynchings and tarrings and featherings and etc. My mom had a brother that tried to organize the railroad, the ones who put the ties down and worked on the railroad and tried to unionize. It would be called today unionizing then. That was another urgent reason to leave town, because he was being sought after to kill.
Mason Funk: [00:07:00] Your parents moved to Gary before you were born, and you were born there?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Right. I had four older siblings. When they moved to Gary, I was born probably a year and a half or so after they had arrived in Gary.
Mason Funk: [00:07:30] In the long-term, what did your parents demonstrate for you that stuck with you, whether it's values or behaviors? What's in your DNA from them, beyond the literal physical DNA?
Jewel Thais-Williams: There's a lot of great things that they passed on to-
Mason Funk: Do me a favor. Refer to your parents so we know who you're talking about.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:08:00] There's a lot of good things that my parents passed on to not only me of course, but my other siblings too. One of them was to never give up and not dare to dream because it seems like it's impossible to achieve, but that through hard work, I call it now, I've translated for my generation, the two Ps, and that's having patience and perseverance, then you can accomplish anything that you want.
I thought with the way that my parents moved, there were folks going ... They're by that time in their 30s, early 30s probably, or late 20s. They were able to make this move to a place where, except for my aunt and uncle, they didn't know anything about it. I don't think my dad knew how to drive or whatever then. He learned how to and transported my family up there. Cutting down on the fear factor of the what ifs, "What if when I get there I don't have a job?" All that was probable, "What if when I get there I can't feed my family? What if?" The what ifs go on and on.
The truth of the matter is that they surpassed that. It was their belief in God, and because this was what motivated the slaves too I believe to keep on. Even though the traditional Bible, Protestant, or whatever kind of religion didn't exist, I think it even motivated whatever the religious, spiritual practices that the slaves had, in order to make the trip over, those that survived, and millions died. It was in their DNA too. My parents had the DNA of and the privilege of being the offspring of some pretty powerful ancestors.
Mason Funk: Do you remember growing up, anything that you ... Did you become aware at some point of something you wished you had that you didn't have?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:11:00] When I was growing up, wishing I had something that I didn't have, in order to maintain your sanity, or for me anyway, in order for me to maintain my sanity, I kept my thoughts, wishes, and desires within what was achievable for me, and what I accepted as being real. I wasn't prone to fantasy at all. Cinderella was not in my little chart of things to read and follow and wait for the prince to come and all of that stuff.
The reality was, after the first migration to Indiana, my mother's youngest brothers and my older cousins were drafted into the service during World War II, 1944, 1943, whatever. They moved, they as in the government, when they drafted them, sent them to the Virginia to train in the Navy, and then when the situation broke out in Pearl Harbor and in the South Pacific, then my cousins and younger uncles and that that were in the Navy were sent to San Diego to be deployed to the South Pacific.
Even though I wasn't there, I can imagine them saying, "Hey, the real promised land is not Chicago and freezing cold and that. There's palm trees here, sunshine every day, and plenty of jobs and things to do," because a lot of my mother's brothers and my cousins and that were carpenters too, so there was always these subdivisions that were going up, so it was plenty. It was the land of plenty, plenty of sunshine, plenty of food. You could grow your own gardens and didn't have to worry about the winter snows and all this kind of stuff. That's how I got to San Diego. I was four years old then. That's where I spent the next 14 years.
Mason Funk: Really your formative years were there, were in California.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:13:30] Yes, they were.
Mason Funk: You went to UCLA. Was it a big deal? Was it a big deal for you, a young African American woman, to go to UCLA to the university, in what would've been probably I guess the mid to late '50s?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Yeah.
Mason Funk: [00:14:00] Tell me your path to getting there, whether it was filled with obstacles or what.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:14:30] My path to getting to UCLA, I was a good student and student body president of my elementary school and junior high school and president of the Girls League and president of this and that, and had I guess established myself as a leader. I had become that. I didn't establish, because it was nothing that I really went after or was driven towards ever it appears, but it just seems as if I ended up in these spots that fate took me to, to be present there. I went to UCLA in 1957 when I graduated from high school. I just attended my 60th high school reunion a couple Sundays ago too.
It was overwhelming to me. I'll just put it like that. My oldest brother had gone to San Diego State, and then after sitting out a year, which was the situation in the country then, even though he had been accepted at Cal Berkeley, he had to wait for a year so that the only black that was in the pharmacy school would graduate. They would only let one black in the school at a time. I was used to the school thing. I had a couple of sisters in between, and they went to the City College here in Los Angeles. Then I had a brother that was at UCLA. He had gone through the L.A. City College system and was a regular matriculating student at UCLA.
I had applied there, was accepted, and I got this scholarship for $50 from one of the black sororities. I know I can remember there being 27,000 students there then, and probably less than 100 were African American. In fact, we probably had more Africans than African Americans at the school.
Mason Funk: Can you run back that? You said your brother had to wait to go to pharmacy school there until the other black student graduated. You could only have one.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:17:30] This is Cal Berkeley, University of California at Berkeley. They'd ended up being this great liberal school. At one time in their history was just that. It was not so liberal. My brother had to sit out of school, because he had finished his two years pre-pharmacy. He had to sit out a year before he could go to pharmacy school.
Mason Funk: Because he was black?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Yes, because he was black.
Mason Funk: As crazy as the question seems, what was the rationale for determining that you can only have one African American student at a time?
Jewel Thais-Williams: It was pretty widespread. It wasn't unique to Cal Berkeley.
Mason Funk: [00:18:00] [crosstalk 00:17:58].
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:18:30] We even have it now. At UCLA, the last freshman class that I remember, there was only 200 blacks out of 20,000 freshmen that came in. There's always been there. It's always been there. It changes form from time to time, but it still looks the same—racism.
Mason Funk: Was it a stated policy that the last black student had to graduate before the next one could come in, or was it just the way it all worked out?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:19:00] I couldn't tell you exactly. All I know is my brother knew that he couldn't go to school for a year. That I know. I don't know if it was written. It might have been. I just haven't investigated that part. It's highly probable that it was written in their rules and regulations for the school too.
Rue and I just bought a house 10 years ago in Lake Arrowhead, and the deed was it was not to be sold to any black folk, any of the property there, and that they couldn't inherit it either I think. Nobody could leave it to them. This was 1977 it was still there on the books. It might even be on the books in Berkeley as we speak. I have no idea.
Mason Funk: [00:20:00] During these years, when did your so-called sexual awakening occur?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Not until I was almost 25.
Mason Funk: Can you tell us about that?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:20:30] Yeah. I'll tell you about my sexual awakening. Actually, it got to be a waking up to a nightmare for me. It wasn't so easy, because of my background and the closeness of the family, and then especially my dad was very into old-time religion. We couldn't play cards in the house or checkers or dance or anything that might remotely resemble gambling, as he put it, or sinning of any type. We were limited as to what we knew about worldly things. Consequently, sexuality, whether it was homosexuality or heterosexuality, was not a discussion that we had around the dinner table. It just did not take place, period. I had no idea, none, about that.
The only folks that I saw different were the very effeminate men and the very butch women. It wasn't like there was a whole bunch of them. You might see one or a couple or something every five years or whatever that you knew that they were funny, but that was pretty much it as far as being knowledgeable about sex, period.
My coming out, I really didn't come out. I'll just put it that. I was drug from behind the closet door, that I didn't know was a closet. I thought it was just a powder room or whatever, but to be drug out into the open.
Mason Funk: What had started to happen inside of you though that made you aware that you were funny, or what feelings had begun or what awareness had begun to emerge internally I guess?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:23:00] The closest it came to my getting any idea about sexuality, about homosexuality, about lesbianism, was the fact that once I left San Diego and came up here, I would notice some women trying to hit on me from time to time, as in talking to me. It was like, "Psh, I don't want to be bothered with that," or, "I'm not into it," or whatever. I never thought of myself as being on the other side of that, of being actually the approachee instead of the one that's being approached. It didn't occur to me that it meant anything to me, that they were. It was their problem, their issue.
Then my coming out, I was working at a supermarket, and then this lady came in and she started working there. I used to identify her in my mind as the lacy slips, because we had these real thin nylon uniforms then, and you had to wear several slips underneath to keep from being able to see through it. I could see that hers were always lacy. I guess that was the first, even though I didn't know that that was what it was about, noticing that for myself, that there were girls and there were girls.
She invited herself over to dinner one night when I was leaving and asked if she could come by after her shift. So I said, "Yeah," because I had picked up a couple of things. I was gonna make myself some dinner. She said, "Would you make dinner for me?" I said, "Yeah, you just have to bring your own steak, because I'm out of here right now." She did bring her own steak and came and I fixed dinner for her.
Then she invited me to her place to dinner the next night. The difference was that she had some scotch at her place, and all I had was, I don't know, probably root beer or something going like that, orange drink. The scotch and the music and all of that, and then she asked me if I'd ever kissed a woman. I said, "Oh, no. No no no no, I never did that, no. Uh-uh." She said, "What do you think about that?"
Mason Funk: [00:26:30] Can you hold for one second for the siren? Maybe back up just a little bit to where she said, "Have you ever kissed a woman before?"
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:27:00] I told her, "No, I have never." I said, "I wouldn't kiss women like that," because I'm thinking of the butch women. She said, "Like what?" I described what I thought about lesbianism, and it had to do with just butch women, period. She said, "Did you ever think that they might have counterparts that look like me and act like me?" I said, "No, I never really thought about that." I always would see a couple of them together or three or a group that all looked very masculine. She said, "Well, they have their counterparts that look like me, that dress like me, wear makeup and all that stuff too, that they just hang around like buddies, what you saw."
Eventually she invited me out of my clothes, and I went fireman style. I had my uniform, my shoes, everything by the bed, just in case I needed to run out. That was my first experience. She was my first lover. We were together for 11 years. It was tough. She was a tough girl to come out with. I wouldn't recommend it.
Mason Funk: Tell me more. What was tough about her? What was tough about her and the relationship?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:28:30] She was eight years older, and a very brilliant woman. Her IQ was off the charts. Because of that, I think it made her slightly insane too, if not more than slightly insane. I had to deal with someone who was mentally ill also. It's tough trying to be in a first relationship with something new, someone new, a type that's new. I didn't do all that hot dating even before then, with guys and that. It wasn't like I was that busy and I knew about courting and being in a relationship and that. I'd never lived with anybody and none of that stuff. She had been married, and she had a child, married a couple of times in fact, and had a child.
Mason Funk: It was a real baptism by fire it sounds like.
Jewel Thais-Williams: Beg your pardon?
Mason Funk: [00:29:30] It was a real baptism by fire it seems like.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:30:00] Yeah. She was a very, very strong woman, and cunning and manipulative, just to give you a couple ideas. She worked for the neighborhood legal services as a secretary, assistant, or something like that. Then they lost a director, who was always an attorney. She applied for and got that position, and kept it for I don't know how long. Then this was after we broke up, she ended up being over at Cal State Los Angeles as an assistant dean. All of this with only one class, and that's because she followed me to an accounting class, did she have of college work. None of the rest of it. If she saw something that she wanted, it was hers. You might as well just give it up, because she was gonna get it some kind of way. She had to manipulate or whatever, cry, beg, it didn't matter.
Mason Funk: [00:31:00] 11 years is a lot, but is there an incident that stands out in your mind in terms of your relationship with her that epitomizes the insanity, the challenge, or maybe even the good as well as the bad? Is there a story that comes to mind?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:31:30] Yeah. There's lots of them. In general, like I said, I rolled it up into a ball, she was tough, tough to get around. Being, like I said, borderline, when she was angry, I didn't sleep too well.
Mason Funk: We have visitors.
Jewel Thais-Williams: It's cool.
Mason Funk: Hello.
Speaker 4: I'm sorry.
Mason Funk: That's all right.
Speaker 4: I'm just doing a walkthrough.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:32:00] Yeah
Speaker 4: Hi there. How are you?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Hey, I'm doing good. How are you feeling?
Speaker 4: I'm doing well.
Jewel Thais-Williams: Good. Good good. We'll hold until they get done.
Mason Funk: Yeah, probably so.
Janine: Should I cut?
Jewel Thais-Williams: It seems like.
Janine: Rolling.
Mason Funk: [00:32:30] Let's start to talk about the establishment, Jewel's Catch One, because I know there's a story of how it all came to be. I know you’ve told that story before, but set the stage for what you were doing and how you had this idea of wanting to either work in or own a bar. What happened?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:33:30] I had a women's clothing store that I had gone into business with my youngest sister and I to open this store. The reason for opening it was because over the years, from 1957, I dropped out of UCLA in 1958, couldn't find a job, couldn't support myself here, so I ended up going back home and getting a job in San Diego, going to school down there for a little bit. I wanted to come back to L.A., so I did, and I was able to find this job in a grocery store, where I met Marian because I'd grown up in my uncle's grocery store and worked since the time I was nine years old, every other Sunday. Then I had other jobs, once I became a teenager, in addition to working in my uncle's store.
Fast-forward, I was working in a market across the street from here. I would hear from some of the black customers that they weren't welcome at the little corner bar that's downstairs. The upstairs bar, the '60s had faded into nothing. I'll tell you a little bit more about that as we get closer to my getting up in here.
In order for me to finish school, like I said, I had dropped out in '58 and I had taken I don't know how many classes, but it was a lot of different classes, different places, because I had jobs where they would change the shift and then I'd have to drop out, but I had accumulated all of these units over a 14-year period of time. It was just for me that I wanted it. I didn't tell anyone else except Marian, my partner at that time, that I was going to go back to school and get my degree. I didn't need it for anything I felt, because by then I knew that being self-employed for me was my only choice. Not that I wasn't a good employee. I was probably one of the best, because I gave it my all then, but I didn't want to work for anybody for the rest of my life.
An opportunity came for me to get into a dress shop with my youngest sister. We did light manufacturing, women's clothing and accessories, alterations. Then a recession hit in 1970, '71. Women stopped buying their clothes as much. The families still get their things, because the wife is still working or whatever, but her buying her clothes each season, a couple of pieces to go to the job in, was not happening then. They start doing their own hair and their own nails. Wherever they can cut down, it's usually a part of their self-sacrificing nature, to be a mother and wife, to do these things. I said, "I need something that's recession-proof," I said to myself.
Then I remembered one of my brothers had owned several liquor stores around town. When I mentioned it to him, he said, "Why don't you get a liquor store, Jewel?" I was like, "Nah, that's too impersonal. I can't do that." Then it made me think about a bar. I said, "I can do that probably." Then I thought about this bar in particular, but if I didn't do that one, then I would do another one, another place someplace, and that it would be pretty much a lesbian and gay bar.
Every day I would get the L.A. Times, and I'd look at business opportunities in it. I'd check off the clubs or restaurants or whatever they had, bars where I could go. Then I would go out after I closed the dress shop down, and take a look at them and see if it would be anything that I wanted.
One night there was one not too far from here that was in the previous L.A. Times that I hadn't made it around too. I did my rounds. I said, "I think I'll just drive by the place." It was called the Diana’s Club. "I think I'll just drive by the Diana's Club and see what's happening with that." I did. I drove by. I didn't see any for sale sign. I went on up the street and I came back. Since it's on the corner, I said, "Let me check the other side to see." Nothing.
But when I got back to my dress shop and picked up the paper to look for the next places the following night to go, it was right there. I wasn't real certain, because the market that I worked at was 4000, I remember that. This one was 4067 or 4061. I said, "That must be the little club that's down on the corner of Crenshaw and Pico."
I had to jump in my car and run over and confirm the address. I just couldn't believe my fate. I didn't sleep. I didn't even go home that night. I just stayed around waiting for 7:00 or 8:00.
Mason Funk: Sorry. Is that the elevator?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:40:00] Yeah. Hopefully they won't be there too long.
Mason Funk: Just back up and say you didn't even sleep.
Jewel Thais-Williams: I hadn't been to sleep that night before. I didn't go. I was too anxious and too excited about the possibility to go. They opened at 7:00 in the morning, and I was here before they ...
Mason Funk: [00:40:30] Sorry. That was loud. They opened at 7:00 in the morning, start there again.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:41:00] Opened at 7:00, and I was there for the opening. They told me that the owner wouldn't be in until about 10:00. So I went back to the dress shop and just hung out there until it was almost 10:00. I came and I met the owner, who was the widow of the man that had had the club for several, maybe 20 years or so. Her name was Mary. I asked how much she wanted for it. She told me, and I said, "Okay." We signed the dotted line, gave her a check for 1,000 bucks. As I was walking out the door, one of the competitors, that would be one of my competitors now that I owned this club, was walking in. He was going to talk to her. By the time I got back to my place, she's calling me and said, "He just offered me twice as much as I ... " "We've already signed. Sorry."
Mason Funk: Did she stick to her word?
Jewel Thais-Williams: She had to. We had a signed contract.
Mason Funk: [00:42:00] In reading articles about you, I remember there being a story of ... Maybe this is after you acquired the club. Was part of your motivation that there was a lack of clubs around this one in particular that wouldn't serve African American folks?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Yeah. The way the-
Mason Funk: Give me the time frame roughly on the [crosstalk 00:42:14].
Jewel Thais-Williams: This was 1973.
Mason Funk: [00:42:30] Just for the elevator, hold again. In 1973, start with that.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:43:00] It was in 1973 that I purchased the Diana Club, the small club that was downstairs, and paid rent. It wasn't like I got the bricks and mortar too. I purchased the business and leased the club. Then a pool table with sawdust on the floor and all the old stuff from the '30s then still existed.
Mason Funk: Just a second. Thought I heard somebody coming in.
Jewel Thais-Williams: I had a lot to do, lot of work to do.
Mason Funk: [00:43:30] What was the situation like vis a vis establishments where African American folks could go and congregate in, say, the early '70s in L.A? Was there still a lot of either subtle or overt discrimination and racism in terms of places where folks could congregate? Sorry. Hi. Is that something that was pretty prevalent in the community?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Oh yeah, without a doubt.
Mason Funk: Can you talk about-
Jewel Thais-Williams: Not only with straight people, but of course with gays and lesbians, it was totally separated too by color, what few that were around then.
Mason Funk: [00:44:00] Can you paint me a bit more of a picture of what there was and what there wasn't for gays and lesbians, and especially for African American gays and lesbians?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:44:30] The African American gay and lesbian bars were usually small ones, and in of course our neighborhoods, so we also had to deal with the discrimination of the African American hetero community too. They were generally small. They were drinking places. There was no dance clubs per se for us. The women had a place called Hi Dolly that was a gentleman's club by day, and then they would rent it out at night. One night a week, the lesbians could go out to that place. It was in a county unincorporated area, so you didn't have the harassment from the police. The sheriffs were, and still are, I understand, a little bit more lenient as far as harassing folks just because of their sexuality, their race, and whatever.
Mason Funk: Once you signed the lease for what was called the Diana Club at the time, what were the next steps you went through to, again, make it your own?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:46:00] The next step was to raise enough money to pay for it, because I had to do 18,000. It was 18,000, and I gave her 1,000 down. I had 30 days ostensibly to raise another 17,000, and having no really good ideas about where that was gonna come from. At the end, actually I stretched it out. Instead of 30 days, I did something to stretch it to 60 days, and in 60 days, I had the money then.
Mason Funk: [00:47:00] You said it was a leap of faith. But you also talk about the importance of going after things and not letting fear inhibit us. I can only imagine, say, you put the $1,000 down, and you had to come up with $17,000 and you had no idea where it was gonna come from. Where did you find the courage, or was it just blind faith, or how did you know you'd be successful, or did you not?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:47:30] I didn't think about not being successful. It was more about how to get it and who to get it from and to stay on the path of doing that until you get it. I went to everybody that I thought and every institution that I thought would. There was a lot of “no’s” in between.
I had applied for an SBA loan, and they never give black folks enough money to do what they need to do anyway. There's a built-in failure component to SBA loans in the hood anyway, in the neighborhood.
Then you have the nightclub part of it, that folks think that's risky. Even after having been here for 25 or 30 years, I would still get that as an excuse when I went out to borrow money, as it being risky, when they had my money in their bank for 10 or 15 years, 20 years, and still had a lot of it there. Didn't matter. There was a red lining.
Just looking back on it, it had to be blind, real blind, in order to think that I could raise 17,000 in 30 days, but I was able to add another 30 on there. I had relatives, whatever, wherever I got it from.
Mason Funk: To clarify for me, this was raising money so that you could basically pay off, essentially complete the purchase?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Yeah, so I could close.
Mason Funk: You had to find investors.
Jewel Thais-Williams: We had to close.
Janine: [00:49:30] [inaudible 00:49:22].
Mason Funk: Do you remember when you completed the transaction and you were able to come and deliver the remaining 17,000?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Yeah, I do.
Mason Funk: What was that like for you? Preface your answer by saying, "When I was able to ... "
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:50:00] The day that I walked in with my clearance from the ABC saying that I owned the liquor license and presented the former owner with the check for the balance of the money and had it, and it was mine then, I just start wondering probably about the next thing. I've never been one to jump up and down for joy, because if you jump up, you might come down on a nail or something. Just keep your feet on the ground. Everything is temporary. It's fleeting. I try not to get caught up in the downsides or the upsides, just skateboard to the middle of it.
Mason Funk: First of all, how did you conceive of the name? Where'd the name come from? When did you change it?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:51:30] That's a book all by itself right there, because I didn't. I did not change it. It was the Diana's Club. People would call me Diana. I answered to it, because they thought it was my name. The folks that didn't know, that live in this area, thought I was Diana. It was okay with me. I had no problem with that.
After maybe four or five or more years of working and not taking a vacation, my sister and one of my girl friends at the time ... My youngest sister was helping me. She was back. She had gone off. The same one that I got the dress shop with, she had gone off and finished her schooling and had a relationship and yada yada and was back home. I would use her from time to time then to fill in as bartender or whatever.
One day she came in and presented me with a ticket for a cruise. It was a Caribbean cruise. She said, "You're going on vacation. You've not been one in I can't even remember when you've taken a vacation, but you're going on one now. Here's your ticket. Plane leaves tomorrow, going to Miami, where you'll get on the ship and that. This is all that you need for it. Yes, I took your money and bought it, but you're going to go on a vacation. Final word. It's already done."
She said, "Don't be calling back here and that." Of course the first thing I did when I got out there on the water was to call back, and it cost me $65. That was the first and the last call. She wouldn't have to worry about me checking in on them on a daily basis.
When I got back, she and this friend of mine had taken the neon "Diana's" down and had "Jewel's." That's how the Jewel's Room downstairs was born. We had live entertainment at first too. After I cleaned out the sawdust and started to put my mark on it, then it became a entertainment spot. I had live entertainment six days a week. Ultimately I was gonna make a separate club, but then we got into buying the building, which took away whatever moneys that I had combined to keep on expanding the downstairs and dressing it up. I was able to buy the building, and then it got on to being the real Catch One.
Mason Funk: [00:55:00] Where did the name Catch One come from?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:55:30] Friend of mine. This was a saying that guys did. They were going out catching. That was what they called what they did, pick up, whatever. They called it catching. That's one of my good friends. He was talking about that, and together we came up with the name Catch One. I said, "What about Catch One?" He said, "Yeah, that's cool," or he might've said, "What about the Catch One?" I said, "Oh, that's cool."
Then my first business cards, I put "or more" at the bottom of it, because this was the beginning, maybe towards the middle I guess, of the sexual revolution that was taking place. Folks were coming out then and identifying as being gay.
Mason Funk: I heard, I'm not sure of the eras, but that for a while it was one type of bar during the day and then a gay bar at night.
Mason Funk: Was that in the early days?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:56:30] That was definitely in the early days, when I still had the white clientele, older white retired clientele, the ones that didn't want the black folks to drink in with them. It morphed into I call it my three masks or my three faces that I would have to put on. I'd have the older white folk during the daytime, and then the African American blue-collar workers and that. They weren't that gay-friendly either. They would come in, like they could now, and have their beers and whatever and go on home. Then around 10:00 or 11:00, I call them my children, that's when my children arrived.
I was always concerned about them mixing and all that, but it happened anyway on its own. Then pretty soon they were all just getting along and enjoying and having birthday parties together and just partying and [inaudible 00:57:37] generally and getting to know each other. It worked out wonderfully.
Mason Funk: [00:58:00] How did the business get so successful, the original then the whole building? I'm always impressed by people who can just start a business and run it and make it successful, because that's not really how my brain works. How did you grow it? How did you expand it and, like I say, get to the point where you could buy the whole building?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [00:58:30] One of the books that I won't write is how I did it, because I don't know. I think at the basis of my being is I'm frugal to start off with, and I'm not wasteful, contrary to a lot of people that come in and the first $500 then they put it down on a $5,000 car or whatever. I rolled with whatever came. I kept my expenses down low.
Then Marian and I broke up shortly after I bought the building. Then she and I had amassed at least a nest egg in property really, but the first home we bought, I was 24 then, and it was in a nice area, so I could get immediate income from that. I was working at the supermarket then. I'd always get zero dependents so at the end of the year I'd get 1,000 or 1,100 or whatever kind of dollars. At that time, that was enough to put down on a house then and rent one and charge enough rent there to do it. I guess probably with the real estate stuff then, I was able then to get moneys if I needed to.
I always paid the debt off as quickly as possible too. If it was 10 years and I could pay it off in 10 months, then it was a done deal. It was that kind of just not going into a bunch of debt and wanting to own it, to have ownership of it. You didn't have to worry about anybody taking it away then.
Mason Funk: [01:01:00] At the height of the club in terms of a live entertainment spot, who were some of the acts and the bands that you remember coming in here and performing? I know there were so many. Some of the highlights for you.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:01:30] Highlights for me was Sylvester. He had to be, because when I had opened downstairs, Etta James and Esther Phillips, I don't know if you know them, occasionally local people would come, sometimes we would get folks from the Atlanta Underground, the popular local singers from there to come. That's pretty much what the downstairs was about.
Then by the time we came up here in 1975, it was big-time disco. I said, "Hooray!" because I didn't have to pay a band and all that. I could pay one disc jockey. I didn't have all these multiple personalities to deal with. It's like, "Oh man." The disco was the thing. Then the folks came in and played the tracks.
One of the first people that I had up here was Sylvester. At that time, he actually played with a live band. Then as he grew in popularity and this whole idea of doing tracks, which was a new concept too, to laying the tracks, put them up there, and you don't have to have a band, you don't have to have anything but your CD of the background music. Sylvester, we had Thelma Houston, other folks from the disco era, the Tons of Fun, YMCA, the ones that were popular then.
Mason Funk: [01:03:00] Did you ever take a minute during this era ... We're heading up towards obviously the huge change that occurred in the '80s with the AIDS epidemic, but at the height of this disco era when the sexual revolution was happening, and here you were running this huge disco, did you ever pinch yourself and say, "My gosh, look where I've come from. Look where I am now." Meantime, I don't know if your family was still ... What they thought of what you were doing.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:04:00] No. People think, but I was not one to take the pictures with the stars or approach them or any of that stuff. They said, "You can have a gallery all up and down the stairs and that." I don't know if it was my shyness or what that kept me with my feet on the ground and knowing that I was blessed, because I would ask some of the kids who said, "I can do this and I can sing and I'm so fabulous." Then I said, "What did you do to get that? What did you do to get that?" It takes the will to practice and rehearse and all that kind of stuff. You came here with the voice.
I came here with the gifts of being able to maneuver in a business way that was from what I call the hanky with the money tied in the bra, because we never had that much. It was nine of us with my parents included, in a two-room house forever, and before that it was seven of us in a one-room place. One of the people that I dated, she said I had a plantation mentality that I just kept on hanging onto, to make sure that my next day was taken care of, that sort of thing.
Mason Funk: [01:05:30] Can you expand on that a little bit? What did she mean when she said you had a plantation mentality? Just one second. Sorry.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:06:00] The plantation mentality I interpreted anyway to be of folks that were poor and always thought that they were poor and act like they were poor, and they stayed poor for the rest of their lives. I think this is what she meant, rather than spending, because she would spend. I never felt the need to have more than what you needed. That's got stretched a little bit later on and in my later years. During the formative times that I was putting the club together and all these folks were coming around, I just needed work clothes. I didn't need a bunch of stuff. Ended up with a bunch of stuff, but it wasn't my doing either. It was somebody else's.
Mason Funk: [01:07:00] Interesting. I want to get to the AIDS epidemic in a minute here, although we'll probably take a little break, but the last question for the minute is, there was a real split I think still going on between L.A.'s white gay world and the folks that you were having here down at the club. Was there much crossover or was it really almost like segregation all over again?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:07:30] It was like segregation, not all over again. It never ended, not even in this country. Segregation never ended. In my opinion, it would've been better off, looking back in hindsight, if it officially never ended too. I think it would've been better for us black folk if it hadn't, because we had our own things going, and we could've made it just fine.
This desire to be treated equally has been embedded from slavery times or whatever. We're always seeking to be or doing or whatever that the broader community is doing. We want those things for ourselves, which is understandable. I'm not knocking it at all. It just didn't ever appeal to me. I was more about establishing my own and making it as desirable and as glorious as you possibly could, so that it would compete.
Then there was folks that still wanted to go where they weren't wanted. I worked with the ACLU getting folks into the clubs that they wanted to go to, without any ... They would just be talked to any old kind of way and whatever. We worked on that. They had a chapter in ACLU for gay and lesbian rights. I told them that ours were different, so we needed a subchapter of black and gay and lesbian rights chapters. I added that up for a couple years or so.
Mason Funk: What did you tell them in terms of the different ways that the black gay and lesbian experience was fundamentally different from just the broader? How did you establish for them, "Look, we have our own needs and our own priorities." What would be the examples or the reasons you would give the ACLU for that?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:10:00] For the differences in-
Mason Funk: Yeah, like why did you-
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:10:30] The most obvious is the economic one. You could start with that, that our places, my place even, could not answer to Studio One with the moneys that they had at their disposal to make. I could never have the money to do all of this stuff, to tear down and clean all the walls, because he'd probably put, after buying it from me, another million or two or three or whatever, and to have the money to do that. There was always that comparison about it, and the feeling too that I had that went along with it, that my place wasn't enough. Trying to impart nationalism into what was happening to us was difficult to get to our people.
Mason Funk: [01:11:30] You said something that I thought was really interesting, that you think that in some ways the whole push towards integration has not necessarily served the black community well. Some people feel that the push among the gay community towards assimilation has also not served the gay community well, the queer community. Do you see a parallel between those two issues?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:12:00] Yeah, I do. I totally agree with the non-assimilation. Yes, we need to get along. We need to be a viable part of our whole, which is the entire population, but we do not need to lose what makes us who we are. Black folk, they have a little different rhythm in that, a different way of speaking. They have a different history. They've got a different DNA. They've got different ancestors and that.
The gays, I just think that we were just thrown the creative gifts and that, piano players. Not only with the occupations that we identify with and chuckle over and whatever, the hairdressers and that makeup artists and the nurses and that sort of thing, but just the basic creativity. I think that wherever the best are, whether they're a basketball player, football player, whether they're a heart surgeon or whatever, that there's gotta be a little realness off up in there with them. We have a tendency to I think have been given more skills in order to be able to stand out and be the best.
Mason Funk: That's interesting. I appreciate that.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:14:00] Jewel theory.
Mason Funk: I appreciate your point of view. Let's talk a little break.
Jewel Thais-Williams: I've seen it too just with the people that I know and I've met, even the entertainers, the actors, and that. You look at the heads of studios and this and that. They all got a little flavor.
Mason Funk: [01:14:30] I love that. That's really interesting. I appreciate that point of view. Let's take a little break. I have to swap out one media card for another. Then we'll resume in maybe five to seven minutes or so.
Jewel Thais-Williams: Cool.
Mason Funk: Thank you. Richard Zaldivar, who runs that organization, is another one of our [crosstalk 01:14:42].
Jewel Thais-Williams: Oh yeah, I know Richard from way, way, way, way, way, way, way back.
Mason Funk: You know Richard from way back?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Oh yeah. And [inaudible name] has given me couple of chips. I'll always have enough. I'll always have enough to do what I want to do.
Mason Funk: [01:15:00] It sounds like you know how to manage money like nobody's business, like you know how to take a small amount and do a lot with it.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:15:30] That's pretty much what I've designed with moneys that I got was, when I get the balance of it, then I'll think in terms of the building and foundation. Now it's to help people along the way that are doing things, that need a few bucks to get over. They wouldn’t come under the guidelines of most ... This whole thing with grants is a farce now anyway.
Mason Funk: With what?
Jewel Thais-Williams: Grants.
Mason Funk: [01:16:00] Oh, with grants. Really?
Jewel Thais-Williams: It's all about the bigger ones getting bigger, and they get to pick and choose from their friends who's gonna get the bigger grant, part of the bigger grant. We're making it anyway.
Janine: Speeding.
Mason Funk: [01:16:30] We're speeding. Let's go to obviously a really dark era, which is the onset of the AIDS epidemic. By the way, let me just have a real quick look at the frame.
Janine: [01:17:00] That red line is also just part of it too .
Mason Funk: I think that's good right there. Do you remember the first inklings you had that something was going on that turned into this epidemic? If you can mention it by name or tell us what you're talking about.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:17:30] I was in Houston. I had opened up another Catch One there. My plan was to open five Catch Ones, starting with this one here, throughout the Southwest. It was booming then with the oil. I, "Why don't I go down there and try to tap into that?"
Mason Funk: One second. Start over again. It was booming.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:18:00] The Southwest was booming. I had selected four other cities, because I wanted five. Don't ask me why the number five came up. Anyway, I wanted five clubs. One would be in Houston. One would be in Denver. One would be in Oklahoma City. One would be in either Albuquerque or Santa Fe, New Mexico. Those were the four cities in addition to L.A. that I had identified, those five, because I was thinking Phoenix too, in Arizona. It was five other cities in addition to the one that year.
I have a tendency to, once something is settled, rather than just sell that then I want to go and do more and more and more. That's where that came from. The Catch was running well. I do have a need to keep doing. I'm a doer, sometimes leaving the being out, but I'm definitely a doer. Now I try to do more of the being than the doing.
Off to Houston I went, didn't know anybody there. Made my way around. Finally somebody introduced me to someone. They introduced me to someone and I got a building. It was beautiful. The design that I had in my mind of a baseball field, that would be the dance floor that was in the shape of a diamond. I had little push carts that I would sell beers and stuff on, my bleachers for people to sit on. This was my idea. I was introduced to this guy that was an architectural artist. I told him what I had in mind. He drew a rendering, and yeah, there it is, it's my Houston place.
That was my first stop and my last stop on this road thing, because that's where the two things happened, oil embargo, and AIDS. The whole Southwest economic system pretty much collapsed up under the oil embargo, and then AIDS took out the gay and lesbian part of it too, or it was mostly gays then. The women partied more at home. They would have their private dances at different halls and stuff like that on special days. The guys pretty much went out every night. That was the way that they operated.
In Houston I had a drag show. The hostess was a queen named April. One night it was the drag show night, and she didn't show up. When a few people came in, I kept asking, "Where's April? Where's April?" Someone knew that she was in the hospital. I said, "Okay. The show will go on." It went on. A couple of weeks later, someone came in and told me that April was dead. "What'd she die of?" "They think pneumonia." "Okay." Two weeks, gone.
Within another week or two, several other people that were sick in the hospital with "pneumonia." In a short time, they were expired. This thing kept repeating itself. Then my youngest sister, who was running the club out here for me, she called and was telling me about a couple people out here that were sick. I said, "This is some tie in here somewhere." They called it GRID I think then. That word came out. Then I had to come home. Then I had to come back to L.A. and see about my home folk. That's what I did. I came in, and people were dying and getting sick, dying, getting sick. That went on for about three or four years regularly with that, and then it'd start to taper off when they got drugs together for it.
Mason Funk: How was it for you? You call the people who would come to your club, you'd call them your kids.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:23:30] Painful stuff. Painful. I would go see them at the hospices. I would go see them at their homes. Later when I started doing acupuncture I would go by and do some kids at their home. Then my first acupuncture real venture was going to the AIDS Prevention Team office and taking what Chung Hee, who's a young lady that studied with me at school, she and I would do what we called our gypsy clinic. I had a SUV. I put two tables in it and all the herbs and needles and stuff like that. We would go to the AIDS Prevention office that's not too far away from here every Wednesday and treat folk.
This was in the early 1980s then. These were folks that I had known, and not only was I their family, because a lot of them didn't have any, ostracized already with the gay thing, so you know what it was, once they found out that they had AIDS, then if they didn't have lovers or friends or whatever to be around them when they were sick, then too many of them just died alone, without anybody to care for them.
Mason Funk: [01:25:30] You had created a space where people could come and have fun, be free, and it's almost like a meteor falling out of the sky. I guess I might be projecting a little bit, because this maybe is what I would imagine I would feel, is that somehow I had done something wrong by providing a place where people could be so happy and that this was God's judgment or something. Did those kinds of feelings ever cross your heart or your soul?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:26:30] Not at all. Not in the least bit, because for one reason, I heard all of that business about God and about you could be punished and all of that, but when I was little I ran a couple of tests on God to see if it was true that I would be struck down, and I wasn't, so it was like, "Psh, I'm done with that." I just didn't believe that that was what God operated from and that God was not this Santa Claus dude that made a list and checked it twice and, "Oh, you were naughty, and so you can't ... " Nah. No.
Mason Funk: [01:27:00] In spite of being raised in this very intensely religious environment, you just said, "No way."
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:27:30] I also worked right across the street in my uncle's store. The big storefront window faced the Baptist church. On Sundays I could sit there and check the preachers coming out and who they were going home with and who they were leaving and the ushers and all that stuff. I had a scope on it already. I was, I later found out an adult child that was just on vigil all the time, just watching, wasn't telling anybody, wasn't outing anybody or whatever, just taking it all in. I saw a lot. I said, "I'm not gonna give my nickels anymore to them and that place."
Mason Funk: [inaudible 01:27:42].
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:28:00] Like I said, the test was already done, so I knew it was not God's doing at all, but I did suspect other folks, other entities outside of God, for making this thing happen, the AIDS virus.
Mason Funk: Like what or who?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:28:30] I would think pharmaceuticals, those folks that believe in population control, etc, etc. It's not likely that it was a monkey. That was supposed to be one of the theories or whatever. I got it too that most of the folks that died on the frontline of the disease were visitors of the bathhouses too. I thought maybe something was going on in them that was making people sick too, intentionally. I don't think it was unintentional.
Mason Funk: It's funny, not funny, but you mention that, and there are parallels of course that we know of with regard to African Americans and introduction of illegal substances, so it's not as farfetched as some people.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:29:30] No. No no no. We had the Tuskegee and we had some other things that have gone on, experiments. We don't even know the breadth of it, I feel, of what all is going on. I was looking around to see if I brought my phone in. When you look at this little black box that's not attached to anything at all, that can receive billions of phone calls from any place in the world, then what is really going on here? What is really going on here, if that can happen? That's just one things. There's marvels and whatever. No one has been able to explain to me, yeah, the towers over there and all that, but how you can separate billions of numbers and countries and all this kind of stuff into ... Anyway, that's a whole other story, another interview.
Mason Funk: [01:31:00] Interesting. I appreciate getting your thoughts on that. What were the particular challenges, to spell it out for us, of African American men in the AIDS epidemic? What were particular challenges that were unique to the black community, especially black men?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:31:30] Especially the African American gay men are attached to church and religion and that, so it meant a great deal for them to be ostracized. They were the piano players. They were the choir directors. They were the ministers. They were a lot of things. For them not to be welcomed in their own space that sometimes a lot of them had created or helped create in that, and they gotta go now, when they were maybe up in the hierarchy of the church, important positions and that. Then a lot of folks, a lot of them got "cancer" and the other autoimmune, whatever, however they could disguise it as, so that they wouldn't have to call it by name. It was a tough time. Like I said, a lot of them didn't have any home to go to.
Then you had the differences in the agencies, whereas this agent's agency in a very predominant Caucasian and wealthy area would have the resources, and then of course they were the ones that would have the million-dollar fundraisers, and somebody else donated 2, 3 million or whatever, whereas over here, where at least the most percentage-wise anyway folks were suffering with AIDS, couldn't raise a dime. It's one more time with the great divide.
Mason Funk: What were some of the steps you took to try to get services to the folks who needed it the most, who weren't getting services? What were some of the things you did?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:33:30] I was asked to be on the board of APLA. I went, but I let them know what my ground rules were, and that was that you have to help the kids in the hood, make sure that they were getting some of what it is that you're getting.
Mason Funk: [01:34:00] How was that received? What was that like joining the board of this wealthy, powerful organization run mostly, if not exclusively, by white men? What was it like to step into that space?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:34:30] Internally it wasn't easy, because you have a little girl from the hood that has worked to get to the top of a certain level that wasn't even, according to your own people, compared to the Studio One or whatever, it's still bad, so feeling inferior at first, a lot, because I was on the board with some heavy-duty owners of studios and producers and CBS connections and all kinds of stuff that went on. Great people, had no problem with that, but internally, that's what I was feeling less than.
Then my friend Dr. Donald Kilhefner, who's a union psychologist, and I'd been seeing him then as a client, and he said, "Jewel, everybody brings something that only they can bring to that board, and you have your spot too. You have things to bring to it. It's just as valuable, if not more valuable, than the millions that this one can bring in." That helped fluff me up a little bit, and I walk in there, "Yeah, okay. I got my stuff that I have, and I'm here to share it, because I want us all to work towards bringing an end to this."
Mason Funk: [crosstalk 01:35:51]. Sorry. Go ahead.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:36:00] I want us black folk to get our share of that pie too.
Mason Funk: Did you feel you were successful in broadening the focus and bringing some resources?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:36:30] I think so. I think so. We had them do a couple of fundraisers there, a couple like the Stonewall Democratic Club did a fundraiser for Rue's House, my spouse's house. We started the first one for women and children with AIDS. We were able to get a little bit of help from them.
Mostly the things that I was involved in, I also funded them too, pretty much. But the kids didn't calculate that in when they would put me down about not having painted something or did something or whatever. It's like, "No, the money went to the minority...." I didn't say all this, because I didn't need to justify anything. As long as I knew in my own heart what I was doing, then I didn't.
I knew, "I'm doing more than what probably anybody else would do or most people would do as far as putting out the Minority AIDS Project, Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, Rue's House, [inaudible 01:37:23] which is a food bank, and a couple of other smaller groups. Rue's House was sponsored by the Catch One, as was the early days of the Minority AIDS Project, and even after that.
Mason Funk: [01:38:00] You referenced people putting you down. I wasn't clear on what people so-called put you down for.
Jewel Thais-Williams: Because I didn't spend the money reinvesting in the club and making it sparkle and that. They'd call it raggedy and all kinds of stuff.
Mason Funk: People would actually criticize you for that?
Mason Funk: I don't understand that mentality. I'm not part of that community who would criticize you for not making your club prettier. What was their thought process?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:38:30] I don't know, because I don't think like that either. One of the things that did come to mind is the same reason why they would want to go to a Studio One and be abused at the door, not let in and all of that, wanting to be someplace where they weren't welcome, wanting what they didn't have, and thinking that I should be able to provide that for them, to some degree. Folks like that, there's no pleasing. I don't even try to. I just try to do what's in my heart to do. If you like it, fine. If you don't, then that's okay too. Still send blessings your way.
Mason Funk: [01:39:30] Tell us a bit more, because I want to make sure we don't skip over Rue's House. You've mentioned it, but what was Rue's House and who is Rue? What was the purpose of that project?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:40:00] The purpose of the project Rue's House was to offer a space for women and children, for women especially to keep their children if they had to, and a place where they could keep them, and the social workers and whatever would allow them to stay together, because they were in a safe space, and wouldn't just automatically take them away, because sometimes they were kids with prostitutes or whatever or whatever. They were able to have a home, and each one had their room that they could decorate and do. It was just a wonderful space.
Rue was an animal lover, so she had, I don't know, iguanas and turtles and all this kind of stuff, snakes and little marmoset monkeys and a whole bunch of other illegal things like ferrets and whatever.
She wanted to do something to help. I had the home already. I had bought it for the purpose of either sober living or a homeless shelter or something. This opportunity came up where she could be involved, and not only involved, but to run, manage, make the suggestion. It was her space to do what she wanted to do with it. She's my spouse too, now of 29 years.
Mason Funk: [01:41:30] How did you and Rue meet? Mention her by name.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:42:00] Rue and I met at Unity Fellowship of Christ Church, the one that the Reverend Carl Bean started, that was also the parent company to the Minority AIDS Project. She actually lived out in other neighborhoods, Pacific Palisades or whatever. She had a desire to connect with the hood. So she had come to Unity Fellowship. She had heard about it and had become involved in it. I was gonna do a fundraiser for them, a ongoing one with bingo. Then Reverend Bean asked for a volunteer to help do that, and then she volunteered. He said, "Then you need to connect with Sister Williams, and you guys work out the bingo thing. Get it going for us." As it turned out, we weren't able to, for legal reasons, to do it. For non-legal reasons, we got together, which was pretty cool.
Mason Funk: That's wonderful. You say she was living in the Palisades?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:43:30] Yeah, she'd lived there and Twin Peaks, all these places that sometimes it was a room here or there, but she had her own, a room in the Pacific Palisades. She had her own place in Twin Peaks. She always just managed to get cool places to live for her.
Mason Funk: [01:44:00] She wanted to connect with the hood. It brings to mind a question I had. Jewel's eventually, obviously, its influence spread beyond the black community. When I moved to L.A. in the '90s, I would come to Jewel's. Folks brought me here. I always wondered what you thought when ... What was it that you feel like attracted white kids from West Hollywood or wherever to come to Jewel's? What were they finding here that maybe they weren't finding elsewhere?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:44:30] By the time you got here, Madonna was the attraction, and Sharon Stone. You might run into any of those kind of folks here. That's when the big influx of white folks started coming. Those that were in the know, like Madonna, knew after coming here for the first time, that this was a banging place. The music was the best. I have to say so myself. We could stay open until 4:00 or 5:00 in the morning, 6:00 if we wanted to. They could go to other places and still come here and do the after-hours thing.
Then when Madonna came, and folks used to come from San Francisco, drive down and whatever, just from all over, anywhere, to get a glimpse of her, and then I looked up and it was all white people there. It was no longer a black establishment. Okay.
Naturally, the black kids who were the ones that wanted to go out to the white clubs jumped into me about having all white people here. I had to end up calling a little townhouse meeting and let them know the difference between me and them, and that I did not tell them not to come to the club, they elected not to come, and the reason why they weren't there to prevent it from ever becoming all-white was because they was busy out trying to be with the white people. Whose fault is that?
I called them out, because they had a whole campaign, t-shirts, "Make the Catch Black Again," and all this kind of stuff. It was like, "Y'all come to the party and let's be real." None of them came. None of the opposition came. We just went on carrying on with our party then.
Mason Funk: That's interesting. I never imagined that there would be this kind of a controversy over ... I can see why they would feel like, "Hey, we've lost our space," so to speak. I remember it being very mixed when I came [crosstalk 01:46:42].
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:47:00] Eventually, even before Madonna, it was mixed, and then after her influence died down, and after the chat that I had with them, said, "Y'all deserted it, so you deserve whatever it is that took the place of you when you left out of here."
I used to say, which wasn't quite true, but I'd say it anyway, I'd say, "Because it has to do with who's paying." I said, "If I have 1,000 baboons at the door, then it'd be baboon night. That's just the way I roll. Y'all stopped paying. I got bills to pay, and I gotta keep it open, so it's available for them, as long as they obey the rules and don't try to put other people down." I said, "There hasn't been any incidents of any kind of racism. There's been some blacks that came during the peak times of the white folks' arrival." I loved it when it was mixed. Initially it was all guys. We metamorphed into all kinds of stuff over those 42 years that I was here.
Mason Funk: [01:48:30] So much we could talk about, but time is always an issue. I don't want to fail to talk about the Village Health Foundation and how that came about.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:49:00] I had what I call my time in the wilderness, my seven years in the wilderness, where at almost 40 I used drugs for the first time in my life, and I also increased my drinking, which I didn't do much of until I was in my early 30s or whatever, until I got to the club. Once I started, then it snowballed into a serious habit, serious addiction. It lasted for seven years. I had feelings about if you get caught, this would destroy your folks and all the people that you've been holding up this banner for, supposedly.
Finally, after, like I said, seven years in, I could feel the patter of feet getting closer and closer to me as a drug addict, as an alcoholic. I said, "No, I can't let this happen." So I got sober.
The first day of sobriety, I hadn't scheduled anybody for a happy hour, because I usually did that, so I worked happy hour, and I said, "If I make it through this, then I'm good to go then." I made it through not only that happy hour, but several other ones. I never had to stop coming to the club. What I had to do was know that in my heart, if it called for that, then I'd be out of here.
I wasn't gonna let anything get in the way of what I could see happening for myself that was more than any of this other stuff that I had done before. It was bigger than all of that, that I'd be a different kind of example to my children, as you say I call them, and had to experience that in order to show them that there was a way out and you could still, because my biggest thing was, "Will I be able to party still?" because I was shy, as I'd mentioned before, so it's like, "Will I be able to carry on conversations and be okay with that?" That was a concern.
After the first day, I got this, and I know we're never supposed to say never, but I said, "I can't fathom myself ever wanting to go back to that." I was willing to do anything that was required of me not to go back.
Anyway, fast-forward after a year or two of sobriety and that, and I started to get a little bit bored again. This had happened the first time when I started using drugs, because the club was running on its own, I was no longer needed, and I had all this time on my hands. I'm starting to get some time on my hands again now, had all the people in place to work again. I've tested myself. I can come in and do whatever I need to do around the club and not be tempted. I better do something else. Before, I'd gone to Houston to open a club. I always had other things that I would do. After about four or five years, then I'd start getting antsy and I want to do something else.
I went to Dr. Don Kilhefner, and I said, "Dr. Don, I need to do something else. I need to find something to do, something else to do. I got the club. It's rolling. I need to do something else." He asked me what I was interested in, and I told him that when I was a kid, I was a little overweight, a little chunky, and I was always looking for the magic bullet to lose weight and be able to eat that hamburger, french fries, and drink a chocolate malt and then a fried apple pie, maybe a Hostess cupcake, but I was never able to do that. Growing up, I was always on some diet or the other or watching something. I told him I did have an interest in herbs and supplements and natural healing stuff.
He said, "Okay, I've got a friend." Not a friend, but he had a patient that had just started acupuncture school. He said, "Not only do you learn the herbs, but you learn your acupuncture, you get your license, you can make a living doing it if you ever have to."
It took me about a year to make up my mind to go. When I did, I went and it was the same feeling that I had when this is the right place, this is what I'm supposed to be doing.
Then I liken the Chinese medicine and their way of life, the way it was when I was a kid and we were using the African asphidity and different things. My grandmother would mix up some potions of this or that whenever we had a cold and that. She was 93 when she passed, and she never went to the doctor in her life.
All of us kids had perfect attendance for all those 12 years of high school and then some. Whatever it was, if they heard you cough, then you went to school, but you made it through to the night, and you had stuff that was rubbed down and bags of this and sacks of that that was put up under your armpits, whatever. You didn't want to, because my mom had this deal that if you stayed home from school, you wouldn't feel any better in bed than you would if you were up scrubbing the floors and washing the walls down. When I'd get back from work, then all the bathroom and this gotta be waxed and this. It wasn't a good idea to miss school.
I liked the fact that the Chinese dealt with their health stuff on a daily basis in the foods that they ate. Then I liked the family situations that they had. At one time the black kids were the ones that were winning the spelling bees and stuff here in town, here and nationally too. That had drifted away, and we have all these others. I said, "It's gotta be in the food and the medicine and in the philosophy." We need to go back. Black folk need to go back to being able to provide that in the neighborhood where it's accessible and affordable.
I've never dealt in exclusivity too. I want to make that clear, that in fact, my best friend is a white gay guy and that, so I've not had any ... I've always wanted to make sure that we as a people got what we deserve. We worked hard to get over here and hard after we got here. We built and made this country. I don't care what they say about whatever. Then a lot of us are mixed with Indians of various types, so we're Native people and that. Come on now. Let's do this.
Mason Funk: [01:58:30] You're right, it makes sense to me that it's not about whether your friends are white or African American or whatever, but you wanted to make sure that your people have their needs met.
Jewel Thais-Williams: Yeah, because the guy that I was telling you about that's my best friend, he's blacker than I am, in a lot of different ways. He'll go to the theater in the hood where they're talking back at the screen and all that, but not with me.
Mason Funk: Was there resistance when you started the Village Health Foundation? Was it hard to gain acceptance within the black community for the kind of medicine you wanted to practice?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:59:00] Oh yeah.
Mason Funk: Tell me about that.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [01:59:30] It still exists too, that there is some backlash. There's black folks that come in there that it'll be their first time. They want one of the Asian folks that I have working for me to do their acupuncture. They don't believe that I can do it. The beat goes on.
Mason Funk: They want an Asian person? They don't think that you'll know how to do it?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:00:00] Right. When they find out that I'm the founder, "She's the founder?" Yeah, boo. I've turned up in my life in places where folks thought I shouldn't have. It's a greater force working, and I show up where I should.
Mason Funk: [02:00:30] Jewel, I have to say, I find it all very inspiring. I really do. I'm not blowing smoke. I think I might've read something where you talked about the gay civil rights movement, the black civil rights movement needing to find ways, this may have been you, this may have been somebody else, but these two movements, along with women, the women's movement, have not always found ways to support each other. They've sometimes just been on their own tracks or their own paths without a lot of what people call intersectionality. I know it's a huge topic.
What are your thoughts on finding a way for these different pockets of American life where people are trying to get to a better place, working together better and not creating silos? I know that's a very broad question.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:01:30] I just feel that that's the only way that we can get to where I think all of those groups want, and that's a place where there's peace, harmony, and togetherness. We all need each other. We've tried that. We had the groups like the 99%, but that wasn't all-inclusive, and I'm sure that it wasn't by nature, but it just didn't happen. The leaders of all these various groups I think need to get together and make a plan to work together on some of the things.
We're not talking position here. What we're talking about is a lifetime for not only ourselves, but future generations, for there to be a chance of peace in this world, of harmony, of enoughness, of everything, whether it's food or money or whatever, everybody has enough, where everybody has enough of what they need. I don't think that any group can do it in isolation.
Mason Funk: [02:03:00] Are there lessons? Do you think of specific lessons that say the LGBT community could learn from, say, the black civil rights movement or vice versa, in terms of how do you move the ball down the field? Are there specific things, that one group is good at that the other group can get better at?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:03:30] I don't know, but I know that the LGBT community learned a lot from the civil rights movement. By the same token, I think that folks that had their eyes open, whether black, white, or different, could learn something about what the LGBT folks have done around AIDS and that.
You have a worldwide organization led by a gay man with over a $300 million budget that's in I don't know how many different countries, even Russia and China and wherever. It's possible. It's possible. He had to go into, and it's taken him some years. He's Michael Weinstein, brilliant organizer, developer of programs. The broader community could learn a lot from that. He could teach a lot to them. It's for those that are doing some of the splinter groups, try to organize all those together. If not, get some time and sit down with Michael and ask him how he did it-
Mason Funk: [crosstalk 02:05:10].
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:05:30] ... how he took his program all over the world. All over the world.
Mason Funk: [02:06:00] Perfect. It's interesting, it brings to mind Mother Theresa as well. Totally different example, could not be more different, but talk about building a worldwide organization. She's no longer here obviously.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:06:30] For me, her fundamental idea, and if all these leaders would adopt that, was that I will never be against anything, but I will be for the things that matter. If we don't come in with this back thing of, "I hate this," and, "They're doing that," and, "Nah ah ah," and, "No no," instead of, "Okay, what we have to do is love them and care for them and make sure that they're not hungry over here and this person gets a fair trial and that one is not swept up under the rug and able to go to school," without having to know that that a...chattel servant, because they'll never be able to pay back the government, who sold out to these business folks, and now they control the schools. Everything that could've made money for the government is now being privatized, from the Defense Department to Medicare to prisons to whatever.
Mason Funk: It makes one wonder, and I'm gonna turn it over to you for a second, Janine, but it makes one wonder if we've been ... I do think that probably peace and prosperity and growth and progress, maybe it's a slight little thing where it goes forward and backwards on the tracks.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:08:00] Everything does. All of growth is never in a straight line. It's never linear. It's always in a circular motion. You work its way up and out of it, like going around. It never is like this. In one of the meditation books I read a while back, they liken it to a wave when there's high tide, comes in, it washes back. The wave that comes in never goes all the way back to the back of the ocean to come back again. It stops, and then it comes in, joins another wave, and comes in a little higher and back. This is the way I think that growth goes, and that it's cyclic too, a spiral, I should say, spiraling.
Mason Funk: I hope you're right. I hope you're right. I really do. I think you're right. I hope you're right.
Jewel Thais-Williams: We just do what we do.
Mason Funk: [02:09:00] We do what we do.
Jewel Thais-Williams: If it's right with you, then it's right with ... Ralph Waldo Emerson made a quote, he said, "If you believe what is true in your own heart is true of all men, that is genius." If you believe it to be true, then it can be true for everybody.
Mason Funk: [02:09:30] Janine.
Janine: Ideally I would be able to hang out with you for a week and ask you a million questions.
Jewel Thais-Williams: No!
Janine: [02:10:00] I'm just so inspired being here with you. I'm sniffling because you're bringing me to tears, all of the good work you've done through the years. I think I have so many questions that have probably nothing to do with you, so I'll just ask the one. I guess I was just so curious about how your family ... You're so successful. You're doing all of this stuff. You're so strong, independent, and you just do it. What did your family, your father and mother, your siblings, how did they take it when they find out that you were funny or different?
Jewel Thais-Williams: The only one that pretty much hung around was my family-
Mason Funk: Start [crosstalk 02:10:13].
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:10:30] My family, when they found out that I was gay, they kind of ignored or act like it wasn't happening, most of them did. The only one that stood by me through thick and thin is my youngest sister. I basically raised her. I was seven years older than she is. I was the one that did her hair and made sure she got to school. By the time I was eight, nine, 10, she was two and three. She never was judgmental and that. She was determined not to let my girlfriends run her away or anybody else run her away. She was gonna come and hang out with me, whatever.
My parents and other sisters, I have my two sisters that are older than I, they still think it's a bunch of junk and whatever, and they would not pass any kind of approval to it, even though we will do things together. Still, I know where they're coming from. They know where I'm coming from. I still talk. They'll ask about Rue and how she's doing.
Once I came out of the closet, it was out. I came out to my mom and dad when I was 50. Rue insisted that I talk to them, because I said, "They know I haven't brought a guy home for Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, ever. That should be the first clue right there." I've had a couple girlfriends, not all the time, but I've had a couple girlfriends here and there that I'd bring home.
My dad would still ask me, "When you gonna get married, Jewel?" because he loved me so much, but he didn't love me enough to shake what he calls his religious beliefs. I never asked him to do that either. Everybody's entitled to their own stuff.
When Rue and I were gonna have our commitment ceremony, I went to my parents then, and I said, "I know you have to know, but I need to tell you, because I need to speak this out loud to take the power out of the stigma of my being who I am with you, so I don't want you to question, wonder is she or not, and that I am, and Rue and I are going to get married, and I would like for you both to come."
My mom, being who she is, I knew that whatever my dad said, she would take the opposite. My dad spoke his word, and he said his religion wouldn't allow him to come, so of course she's gonna come. The day or two before the ceremony, she calls and said that she's not going to attend. She didn't want to be bothered with that junk she said. I said, "Okay. Sorry you feel that way, but bless you anyway."
The day of the wedding, one of my sisters and her arrived from San Diego. My sister just couldn't stand not knowing I guess, so she and my mom drove up from San Diego, and they were there. My mom had the best old time at the reception and meeting people and seeing, because it was big and it was glamorous. It was flawless. I guess she had wanted that for her other daughters too, and she didn't get it. She was cool.
One of my sisters, I know that she would never, it would always be "that mess" as far as she's concerned. My oldest sister, she's not quite with the whole gay and lesbian thing either.
My oldest brother, he's in the middle. He more or less has my dad's kind of personality. He loves me, and he'll be there. In fact, he was in my wedding. He gave me away. When I opened the club in Houston, he came down and helped me with the grand opening. When I needed money to do things, he was one of the sources that I went to to borrow money from from time to time. I'm his little sister. I was the baby girl for five years until my sister came along, so I got all his special big brother treatment.
Mason Funk: That's great. We actually unfortunately ... I always have four final questions, and then we really do have to wrap up to stay on schedule. These are intended to just be short thoughts. The first one is, if someone comes to you and says, "Jewel, I'm thinking about coming out," whatever that means to that person, what's the single pearl of wisdom you offer that person?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:16:00] Go ahead. Stop thinking.
Mason Funk: Perfect. That's a good pearl. At this time, what is your hope for the future?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:16:30] That calls for more than a pearl, but I'm gonna try to wrap it up in just peace, harmony, love, joy, happiness, economic freedom, all those things that anybody wants, that want it for everyone, I'm for it.
Mason Funk: Why is it important to you to tell your story?
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:17:00] Because I think people can learn from it. As you know, we did a documentary. I traveled with it various places around the world. The message is very simply do something. Everybody can do something. This is the message that I'd like to, the legacy I would like. Help somebody.
Mason Funk: [02:17:30] Lastly, this project OUTWORDS being a nationwide archive of interviews with people like yourself, what do you see as the value of a project like OUTWORDS? If you could mention OUTWORDS in your answer.
Jewel Thais-Williams: [02:18:00] I think it's a tremendous value in a project like OUTWORDS to focus on the history. I think that of all the various populations, that maybe the elders are most abused. What I have found with my elder colleagues, a great many of them, is that they want to leave a legacy, they want to tell their stories. They want for people to learn from them. The way to do it is for projects like OUTWORDS to be available, a venue, a place where folks can learn.
The African proverb goes like this. When the adults are lost, the youth are lost. When the elders feel their importance in this passing on to the next generations the importance of what was done during their generations, then it's a no-brainer.
Mason Funk: [02:19:00] Fantastic. We have to do what we call room tone. You've probably done this before. Just 30 seconds of nobody talking. You want to call it out?
Janine: Yeah. Room tone. That'll probably do it.
Mason Funk: [00:00:30] Sorry, really appreciate your patience. I hope it doesn't get old having to answer some of the same questions that you probably already answered before. The purpose of OUTWORDS, which is what this project is called, is to capture interviews, long-form interviews with people all over the country. So far we've been in 15 different states, with people mostly in their 70s and 80s, who have just seen a lot of our history, and seen it from different perspectives.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Janine Sides
Date: December 06, 2017
Location: The Village Health Foundation, Los Angeles, CA