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The Past and Future of Three of LA's Historic But Threatened Gay Nightclubs

Los Angeles is home to many sites that have played an important role in the city and country's LBGT civil rights history—from Huntington Park to Echo Park and Silver Lake, the LA area has bars, clubs, houses, and staircases that are reminders of the early days of the gay rights movement and a heightened visibility for LGBT Angelenos. But three such sites have been put in jeopardy recently, threatened by development or a change in ownership. Here we look at West Hollywood's The Factory, Hollywood's Circus Disco, and Jewel's Catch One in Arlington Heights, what makes them so significant, and how they could be (or could have been) lost forever.

↑ West Hollywood's legendary Studio One disco opened in 1974 as not just a safe place for gay people to congregate, but one that "specifically catered" to them, says the LA Conservancy. The venue also held one of the first major AIDS fundraisers and functioned as an important location in the gay rights movement. Known now as The Factory (supposedly for the hoity-toity, invitation-only club it briefly served as before its Studio One days), the building's due to make way for a "walkable retail/hotel district" that would include a 250-room hotel, shops, and restaurants around a pedestrian paseo.

An attempt to have The Factory designated a West Hollywood landmark in 1995 failed, but this past June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation got involved, adding The Factory to its annual list of endangered historic sites across the country. Preservationists are hoping that the national attention to the site will be the push needed to get it saved.

Circus Disco at Santa Monica Boulevard and Las Palmas was born in 1975, in part because it's founders Gene La Pietra and Ermilio Lemos "were tired of being turned away from white, gay establishments," La Pietra told LA Weekly. The club grew to have a "primarily Latino patronage"; in 1983, famed labor organizer Cesar Chavez came to Circus Disco to share boycott techniques and fundraising ideas with about 100 members of the Project Just Business, a gay and lesbian group, says the LA Conservancy, which has been involved with attempts to have the disco saved and preserved, instead of razed as a part of a large mixed-use community.

Developers AvalonBay are hoping to put 695 residential units and 21,000 square feet of retail on the six-acre parcel along Santa Monica; Circus Disco (and another club, Arena Disco) would be destroyed to make way for the self-proclaimed "megadevelopment" that is aiming to get the gentrification ball rolling on this stretch of the boulevard.

Earlier this month, LA's Cultural Heritage Commission was supposed to hear a staff report on the disco that suggested it designate the building as a Historic-Cultural Monument. However, the hearing was postponed "when [AvalonBay] reached out to Hollywood Heritage (who submitted the nomination), the Conservancy, and others to try to negotiate a solution for the building." For his part, former owner/founder La Pietra—who sold the club, Arena Disco, and another warehouse to Avalon Bay in July—has little nostalgia for the place. "That's all it is, a warehouse. That's it. Take the sign off and the lights off and you have a warehouse built in 1973," he told LA Weekly. For now, the club is still set to close in January.

↑ It's not all up-in-the-air for LA's historic LGBT clubs. Jewel's Catch One in Arlington Heights was, until recently, still kicking, and its future now appears to be bright. Opened in either 1972 or 1973 (sources differ), the club was the first big disco to welcome the black gay community, which often got hassled at other (mostly white) gay venues of the era. Over time, it hosted film shoots and became "a haven for entertainers, artists, progressives, gays and people who appreciated diversity including Sammy Davis Jr., Warren Beatty, Melba Moore, Phyllis Hyman, Freda Payne, Chaka Khan, Sylvester, Weather Girls, Rick James, and Esther Phillips, to name a few," says the LA Sentinel.

But in September 2014, then-proprietor Jewel Thais-Williams put the club (along with the building next door and a parking lot) up for sale, telling Frontiers LA, "after 41 years, there's no reason to stay if the kids are not interested. And I'm not interested in chasing them to find out what they want to do, either." It wasn't clear what would happen to the unofficial landmark, but in November it was reported that Jewel's Catch One was safe: it was purchased by Mitch Edelson, whose family owns Los Globos and El Cid in Silver Lake. Edelson told LA Weekly that the club would reopen in 2016.
· Mapping Los Angeles's Groundbreaking Role in LGBT History [Curbed LA]
· West Hollywood's Famous Factory is One of the Most Endangered Places in the US [Curbed LA]
· "Megadevelopment" Seeks to Singlehandedly Gentrify Hollywood's Donut Time District [Curbed LA]
· New Look For Hollywood's Huge Lexington Mixed-User [Curbed LA]
· First Major Gay Black Disco in the US For Sale After 4 Decades [Curbed LA]
· Los Globos' Mitch Edelson Buys Legendary Mid-City Club Jewel's Catch One [LA Weekly]