Artist Donald Fowler spent the last few days of his life in Dallas reaching out to his friends.
Almost six weeks into an unprecedented pandemic, Fowler was sending supportive texts. He was arranging visits while socially distancing, making sure to stay at least six feet apart. He was organizing drive-by birthday parties.
On Sunday, May 3, Fowler, a beloved retailer and playwright, was in a jogging accident involving a DART streetcar that traverses the Houston Street Viaduct between downtown and Oak Cliff. It took days for his friends or family to learn of what had occurred. When the clues were pieced together, news of Fowler’s death came as a shock to multiple communities in Dallas: Theater, visual art, retail, and the media.
Seamlessly moving from one circle to the next, Donald Fowler is a wonderfully difficult person to summarize. He was part of the cultural fabric of Dallas in a way very few people are. Fowler’s upbeat persona and tireless pursuit of multiple disciplines in the arts made him a favorite, from the multiple stages he graced to the writers’ room. He had an equally known presence in the world of high-end goods, endearing himself to the eccentrics drawn to one or all of these things.
Offensively handsome, Fowler’s charm sometimes masked a sly and biting humor. According to those arts patrons who knew him best, he was exceedingly generous with his time and attention. Fowler’s friends and associates helped illuminate the radically gregarious person he was in the days following the tragedy, often fighting back tears or describing having spent much of the week grieving.
When asked for comment, their stories were as effusive as they were specific. And they flowed out freely, illuminating a man who was unforgettable upon first impression. “I don’t think I’ve known a quirkier character,” long-time friend and Dallas editor Rob Brinkley wrote in an email. “His desk chair at home was designed by Salvador Dalí, if that tells you anything. Donald marched to his own drum — yet he intimately understood people and life and love and loss. We would have the longest dinners at our favorite Mexican food place. Donald loved to talk, and he loved to know exactly — in excruciating detail — what you were up to, and working on, and thinking about.
He poked and prodded. He really wanted to know. I am sure he was taking it all in for a character he would write one day. In fact, we had just talked on the phone about a play he was working on. It was a long phone call, and I was in the car. I just drove and drove, aimlessly, while Donald told me about the characters, the story, the staging, the costumes. He had some visual tricks up his sleeves for the play — which was very Donald — and he wanted to know what I thought. What I really thought.
Donald could push you like that. He delighted in it. I saw it in his eyes every time we got going at dinner. They would twinkle. He loved challenging you to challenge yourself — right there over the quesadillas. Donald didn’t like comfort zones. I will miss those four-hour torture sessions like you can’t imagine.”
The grandson of Vaudevillian performers, Fowler studied acting under Jeff Goldblum and Robert Carnegie at Playhouse West in Los Angeles, a fact he was understandably not at all hesitant to bring up. A long-time figure in the Dallas theater scene, Fowler surprised even his close friends when he composed the Jack the Ripper-themed musical Creep on a Casio keyboard. He debuted it as a fully-realized production at Water Tower Theatre in 2015.
He had a lot of help along the way, especially from his friend Nick Even, a Dallas attorney. Even was hesitant to speak but did so at the behest of Lynn Mcbee, an entrepreneur, philanthropist, and mayoral candidate who was also instrumental in the production of Creep. “I never say no to Lynn,” Even jokes in an otherwise somber conversation.
“I’ll never forget when I discovered Donald as the writer and composer,” Even says. “I knew he was an actor and a performer. The minute he started playing me recordings of things he had written at the keyboard, I thought ‘I can’t believe I didn’t know this additional thing about you.’ I was in a privileged position because he had a Christmas-morning kind of joy in coming over and sharing with me the latest song or even a few bars of a song that he was perfecting. First for Creep, and then more recently for the show Oregon he was working on.”
Fowler’s unfinished work Oregon may bring some of the only good news for his fans and supporters. A serious departure from the time, place, and production of Creep, Oregon was to focus on a smaller American story, following the life of an artist and his family and choices made concerning the options available to terminally-ill patients under that state’s laws.
“Donald didn’t shy away from tough material,” says Even.
Oregon may live on in some form or tribute according to Even. “My hope—and others have shared with me similar hopes—[is] that at some point we will be able to share what has been created with the public,” he says. “I know a number of songs exist. We’ll have to see what other materials are there. Our hope is that at some point everyone will get to share in it.”
Even with an active life in theater, Fowler managed to become a headline-stealing visionary in the world of luxury retail with stints at Stanley Korshak and boutiques such as Translations and Nest. Not every artist takes their day job so seriously. He was the kind of person to wear a three-piece suit in any unforgiving or inappropriate situation—a Saturday, the end of August, or a Saturday at the end of August.
He traveled to trade shows in New York and Europe to search for more uncommon wares and curious items. Heather Wiese-Alexander, founder of Bell’Invito Stationery, met Fowler when he was working at Stanley Korshak. He later joined forces with her at Nest as a buyer and manager.
“We developed a friendship and he was the first person I hired that was industry talent and I knew he could take a new business where it needed to go and grow it,” Wiese-Alexander says. “He was the first person where I took a risk on him and he took a risk on me and we just hit it off immediately and it was amazing.”
Fowler kept things light, according to Wiese-Alexander.
“I tend to be the one in the relationship that I’m the boss,” she says. “So I’ve got employee situations to handle, and deadlines so I have to hold people accountable and I tended to be the one who got too serious and he would stand outside my window and make faces ’til I opened it up when the office door was closed. Or he would do a puppet show outside my window when he could tell I was on a stressful phone call.”
Nest closed in 2016 but Fowler remained a constant in Wiese-Alexander’s life. “I would say we got even closer because closing the store was a hard decision and him moving to a different company was hard, but it gave us a dynamic to have more of a friendship. Because we didn’t have the bounds of a boss and an employee anymore to add to that. He was always willing to be there and he was. Through literally every big life occasion that I’ve had while I’ve known him, he was front and center. And not just being there as a support, but as an adviser.”
Wiese-Alexander spent last Friday evening with Fowler.
“I was just with him on Friday night,” she says. “We were just having drinks on his patio; it was our first post-COVID quarantine, let’s-social-distance-outside kind of thing, and it’s just so surreal and I know it’s a shock to everybody. I’m not alone in this at all. It’s so hard to process. He was such a huge part of so many lives. Definitely mine.”
Fowler led the museum store at the Nasher Sculpture Center, where he worked at the time of his death. I worked with Fowler there in 2017 and 2018, although in another department. He played deep-cut dance tracks in his version of a museum shop that he said referenced the Starck Club. We once spent a Tuesday attending Broadway night at Alexandre’s, the cocktail spot on Cedar Springs that’s supposed to be a dive but is too nice to be a dive. He gave me a singular walking tour of Oak Lawn that included his time living in a notorious corner-lot party house with a brightly-painted car out front. It’s the kind of story that lets you know the era of that neighborhood will likely never exist again.
Remy Ryan is a Dallas model who also worked with Fowler at the gift shop. Fowler made an impact on Ryan as her boss, as he did with most of the people who spent time around him as a co-worker and beyond.
“Donald Fowler, what a man,” Ryan wrote by email. “If you had the pleasure of meeting him, I can bet that he made you smile. He was handsome, charismatic, charming, but most of all, caring. He truly had a magnetic spirit. Meeting Donald changed my life. He took me under his wing professionally and personally; he showed me how to trust in my passions and take those leaps of faith. He was my family, my mentor, my confidence, and one of my closest friends. There aren’t words to describe how much I’ll always love him, and I know I’m not alone in that feeling.”
In a telling moment during a podcast appearance with the Dallas Morning News in 2015 to promote Creep, Fowler says something in passing that makes sense of the way he continually formed mutually beneficial working relationships.
“It helps to hold out for the smart people and not just settle on the people who are simply available,” Fowler said.
Perhaps no other person embodies that philosophy as much as the aforementioned Lynn McBee, the philanthropist and former mayoral candidate who remains one of Fowler’s biggest champions.
“He was excited about everything he was doing, every minute, and he wanted you to share in that excitement,” says McBee. “Of course, he had down times too, but for the most part, he was living life. I think that’s what’s probably what’s so hard about this, is that he was in full life. He wasn’t sick. He was writing another play.”
McBee, Even, and a group of approximately eight or so of Fowler’s friends endured the unthinkable task of searching for Fowler when he had not been heard from in some time.
“It’s like you’re reading a story and for some reason you know it’s not going to have a good ending,” McBee said. “And the closer you get to the ending it starts to come into [the] realization that: Wow, that’s how it’s really going to play out. When I pulled into the parking lot with my husband I said, ‘I don’t know that this is going to be good. This doesn’t seem good.’ We were all staying very positive and the longer it went and the more we unturned and the more we heard and then it’s like you’re reading the story and the story is coming, and the story is coming, and the finish is coming and you don’t want to—that last page can’t possibly be what you think it’s going to be. And then it is, and it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh.’ It’s been a very strange thing to go through to be there figuring it out. It’s not been an easy thing. That was not a good day.”
McBee counts Fowler as one of her closest friends.
“I think that’s what’s probably what’s so hard about this, is that he was in full life. He wasn’t sick. He was writing another play.”Lynn McBee
“Friends come and go,” she says. “As you get older, friends come and go in and out of your life, but Donald is someone that since I met him—I’m going to say it was 15 or 20 years ago—he’s never gotten out of my life. He’s not one who’s come in and out. He’s always been there. He’s always been present for me. I’ve always been present for him. He gave me a lot.”
McBee organized a series of fundraisers in the lead-up to Creep, which helped to generate somewhere in the range of $30,000—an entirely necessary amount of money for such an endeavor.
“This is an exciting time for Dallas,” Fowler said to this magazine in 2015. “We have all the facilities now and the talent is starting to bubble up as part of this volcanic start for the city. Artists want to come live here and create. But to actually afford to do what they love, artists need a living wage.”
It is perhaps in this understanding of the struggle of artists to find financial support for creative projects that could be a major part of Fowler’s legacy. Less than a week after the tragedy, his friends founded a fund in his honor.
“In the meantime, with Lynn’s assistance, we’ve created the Donald Fowler Theater Arts Memorial Fund at the Dallas Foundation,” says Nick Even. “They’ve been wonderful in helping us get that established so quickly. People who want to remember Donald that way can make contributions to that fund. I think the goal would be, hopefully, for that fund to be a legacy that can support other artists in the early stages of creation. Because I think what Donald and I often discussed was the need for support for independent working artists to have some financial support to cover those early costs of creation before they are attached to any institution but just need to cover things to keep the creative process flowing. My hope is that this fund will help other artists do that in Donald’s memory.”
Donations in Donald’s memory to the Donald Fowler Theater Arts Memorial Fund may be made online to The Dallas Foundation at this link or by mail to Donald Fowler Theater Arts Memorial Fund c/o The Dallas Foundation, 3963 Maple Avenue, Suite 390, Dallas, Texas 75219. A private service for Donald Fowler’s family will be held at Sparkman Hillcrest Funeral Home on May 14. Flowers and sentiments to the family are welcome there.