Don Fouser, Executive Producer
Emmy Award winning TV producer and a long-time resident of Ipswich Donald B. “Don” Fouser died July 3rd after a gallant battle with melanoma. He was 83 years old.
Don’s career was varied and his interests universal and passionate. He built harpsichords and reported for three major New England newspapers but is most noted for a number of public affairs programs produced for WGBH that addressed significant emerging issues.
His programs had an edge. For example, his program on Vietnam, made in 1961 as part of a series on Foreign Aid, was the first to be critical of the growing American involvement. Another on the “New Conservatives” featured interviews with people such as Milton Friedman and others when they were still relatively unknown.
He made his most famous program, V-D Blues, for Channel 13, New York, in 1971. Don’s approach was revolutionary. The program aimed at reversing the pandemic of venereal diseases then raging. It didn’t follow the usual, dull, sex-education approach larded with interludes of heavy-handed preaching. It was mostly a comedy program with Dick Cavett serving as MC and with songs and skits around the diseases. One skit featured Zero Mostel, made up to look like a germ, enjoying the comfortable environment of the human body until hit with an antibiotic.
The program was groundbreaking in that Don had arranged with TV stations as well as federal and state health agencies to be standing by all over the country with open lines and operators prepared to provide information about all aspects of venereal diseases to callers, no questions asked. On top of that, Don had thousands of copies of the program printed in comic book format for distribution at places that young people and other vulnerable groups were apt to gather.
The response was overwhelming and demonstrated that the impact of TV programs upon behavior could be dramatically enhanced when viewers were able to quickly contact local agencies that provided follow-up services. The success of VD Blues begs the question as to why the same approach was not tried in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
In connection with the 200th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Don produced a number of programs titled “Ourstory” for use in schools. Again, Don innovated. Instead of yet another set of “audio-visual aids” that told students the story of America, the programs provided students with evidence that illuminated key episodes in our nation’s history and then asked them to create their versions of “Ourstory.”
Ever active, Don, in his later years turned his hand to building and refurbishing homes. His most notable accomplishment as a builder is what he did with his own property in Ipswich. When he purchased it in the 1960’s, it consisted of a run down Federalist period house on a piece of land that was more dumping ground than yard. Don set about restoring the house with authentic moldings and a curved veranda overlooking the garden. He then built a barn in keeping with the style of the house. A tasteful three-unit town-house complex and a sculpture garden connecting all the buildings rounded out his vision. Over the years he transformed a neglected wasteland into an island of beauty gracing the heart of town. Like everything else that Don did it exemplifies high standards and good taste.
Don often said that his work called for him to be a “nay sayer” to people who questioned his vision. When it came to living, however, he was a “yea sayer.” He had a passion for the things in life that extend and enhance our humanity and he pursued them with great gusto. He read constantly and greedily (often three or four books at a time) and amassed a library that speaks to his many and varied interests and enthusiasms. He loved music and listened to it as seriously as he read books. His extensive collection of records, tapes, and CD’s like his library, is far ranging and extends from ragtime and Cole Porter to his favorite, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Don was a master cook. He spared no effort to prepare dishes the right way even if it meant sending to Canada to obtain the specified variety of oyster. But the true reason he cooked was to share his accomplishments with friends at dinner parties over which he presided. Don would nudge the discussions that ranged over the arts, politics, and public affairs but always allowed for gales of laughter that he hoped, “…would knock the paint off the ceiling.”
Having grown up on the shore of Long Island Sound, Don loved the sea and sailing. He bought a large Skipjack, the Daisy B. It was a working Chesapeake Bay oyster boat. Don sailed her to Ipswich. The next season, when the 55-foot mast broke, he went to Vermont, selected a tree, and had it cut down. After getting it to Ipswich, he handcrafted it into a perfect replica of the original mast. For a number of summers the Daisy B plied the water off Ipswich.
Don served in the Navy in World War II and upon discharge enrolled at Brown University where he graduated with honors in English in 1951. He immediately returned to the navy to serve during the Korean War. After his second navy stint, he studied for a year at Boston University Law School.
He enjoyed another university experience while working for public television in New York. He was awarded a prestigious journalism fellowship at Columbia University that gave him access to seminars and lectures, with leading national and world scholars as well as to meetings with noted figures from the worlds of politics, business and the media.
He was a man who threw himself into life with gusto, forever seeking and accepting new challenges. He was working on a novel and his memoirs at the time of his death. He was a true Renaissance man.
Don is survived by his wife, Judith; his two sons Joshua and Jason, both of Ipswich, and his daughter, Rebekah, of Florida and by eight grandchildren. Don was the son of the late George J. and Margaret Whitaker Fouser of Branford, Connecticut and is also survived by his older brother George, of Branford, his sister-in-law, Rosie and six nephews and nieces. A private memorial service will be held at his home at a later date.
Don was the exec producer of “The Nader Report” and other seminal shows in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I believe he went on to be the exec producer of the early CBS Cable series which interviewed artists and celebs without an interviewer on camera; it received lots of critical attention while not enough audience.
I hooked up with Don Fouser as his director on one of the early docu shows called Dollar Diplomacy. It was a 6-part series on America’s Vietnam experience. This is when we had “advisors only” in the country. Don traveled with a 16 mil. Bolex film camera and shot all the material himself. There was no sound recordings. We later created all the sounds to cover the silent footage. The editor was Danny Williams who later went on to work with Andy Warhol. Danny took his life. A very sad story. His sister has written a book about this event.
Anyway, Don, Danny and myself would work on the series in the back film editing rooms (where the 125 Conference room existed) until the wee hours of the morning. There was a rule not allowing alcohol into the building because of an earlier instance that caused some trouble. However, since we were there so late no exec’s were around so we ate pizza and drank beers to keep us going.
What to do with the empties? Well, they had these ceilings where you could move a panel aside. And that is where the beer cans went. When the station moved the editing rooms so they could create the Cahners Conference room, the construction workers tore out the ceiling and down came crashing beer cans and all.
Don as producer declared in the docu series that the USA could not possibly win a war with the Vietnamese. This infuriated the people in Washington who had arrange for Don to travel to Vietnam. Don never stepped away from a fight.
Don’s fight with Michael Rice over the Nader show actually caused the creation of the WGBH union. Fouser would not change the show demanded by Rice. Nader refused also. The only solution was to take Don off the show. He fought a good battle but so irritated Rice that he was fired. Don wrote a letter to the staff of WGBH. They all gathered in Studio B and I read the letter. It was clear we had to protect ourselves and our programs. It was just two weeks after Don left that the union was created.
There was one night when Don had put in his money to get a sandwich from our then vending machines. The sandwich would not come out. So Don smashed the glass and took his sandwich. Unfortunately he broke his hand.
Don eventually went to work for WNET. And then on to CBS Cable, the arts-orientated experiment. He produced a show that was shot in the WGBH studio called “Calamity Jane’s Diary” starring Jane Alexander. I was the co director and was able to get CBS to pay WGBH studio costs. This was just before Jane became head of the NEA.
Don’s wife is a great painter. They have lived in Ipswich for most of their married life. Don was a delight to be around. Argumentative but with a great sense of humor. I will miss him greatly.
With 1972’s decline in bold-spirited shows, VD Blues qualified as the aberration of the year. From its opening moments—a funky rock band strolling the Sausalito waterfront while belting out the lyrics to “Don’t Give a Dose to the One You Love Most”—Don Fouser’s candid and forthright look at venereal disease turned the conventions of television upside down. He planned to target teenagers, who formed the center of a resurgent epidemic of venereal disease, and yet resisted the blandishments of public TV. Fouser’s strategy was to bring outrageous humor and irreverence to the discussion of a topic normally treated only in hushed tones. Its message was simple and direct: VD is detectable and curable. NET liked the idea and format and agreed to let Fouser produce it. More surprisingly, the 3M Corporation courageously agreed to underwrite the show’s production costs. But that was before they saw the script. (How they saw the script remains a mystery; corporate underwriters are ostensibly barred from becoming involved in program content.) While reading the script, the eyes of the 3M executives fell on a mildly funny sketch by Jules Feiffer in which a woman patient, infected by VD and forced by her doctor to reveal her sexual liaisons, names the doctor as her sole contact. A call came immediately from 3M’s offices in St. Paul to tell me that the sketch had to be deleted. The PR people were apparently concerned lest 3M’s name be associated with a program that implied that doctors committed indiscretions with their patients. (And doctors, I later learned, are big 3M customers.) Reluctant to allow an underwriter to have a voice in the producer’s plans, I politely declined. They just as politely declined to have 3M’s name on the show.
Once the show was completed, VD Blues was previewed for station programmers on a closed-circuit system a week prior to its scheduled airing. We were surprised to learn that 3M executives, accompanied by several doctors and a public-health official, were present for the preview in the St. Paul station. We were even more surprised when they called me to ask if the 3M name could be restored to the show. It could. Fearful, however, that “a great many reasonable viewers would feel that this program openly condones promiscuity,” 3M requested that the show open and close with an announcement that NET was “solely responsible for the content and method of presentation.”
VD Blues aired on October 9, 1972. Only two stations refused it: one in Jackson, Mississippi, and one in Little Rock, Arkansas. Most not only ran it but mounted local follow-up shows with experts responding to viewers’ inquiries. The New York station’s follow-up show, hosted by Geraldo Rivera, had to be extended from one to three-and-a-half hours to accommodate more than 15,000 telephone calls. Other cities experienced similar results. The VD Blues story had an O. Henry-style finish: 3M was presented later in the year with the American Medical Association’s 1972 Journalism Award for its courage in underwriting such a high-risk show. The story of the award, wrote Variety ‘s Bill Greeley, was “one of those marvelous ironies which only a gimp of a medium [like] public television could supply.”
Is it possible to access episodes of “Our Story” I am especially interested in the one entitled Eliza.
I and some others, Marc Tucker, Linda Hepler, maybe more? lived with Fouser and family (and a multitude of Golden Retrievers!) on the third floor of their home in Ipswich back in the early 1960’s. A wonderful guy to know and, of course, argue with! We had some pretty intense commutes!
One correction to Fred’s note, though. This was the second iteration of the union. The first go around was led by the Say Brother staff and a few others, me included. The Say Brother folk were already moving in this direction when the shop crew got to the tipping point. We had hired a p/t theatrical union carpenter from Boston to help with one of those big NET productions and when I discovered what he made, I went to Dave Davis and suggested we get a raise. I got the usual ‘public good’ ‘sacrifices’ yadda, yadda. I was in the shop mulling this over when trailer rig backed up to the loading dock – the driver asked if we could help unload. Sure. When he opened up there was a heap of enormous carpet rolls. I asked him for the bill of lading – very expensive, blue, wool, etc. What’s this for? The executive office suite. So much for ‘sacrifice!’ We off loaded and I went straight to Ray Richardson and said I heard you were looking into the union thing, if you are, we’re in. An organizing committee formed and we divvied up the ‘who will represent us’ task. The Teamsters and the usual TV trade unions, all had job classification stuff that we weren’t interested in – who wants to run a teleprompter for thirty years? I was assigned, with either Ray or Tony Lark I can’t remember which, to the law firm that represented the Globe editorial staff and the BSO musicians. They were just what we were looking for and we signed up with them and did the whole NLRB thing.
But we made one mistake, a crucial one. We included producers and directors in the bargaining unit and lost the vote because of this. When Don got sacked, this communicated, pretty strongly!, that management wasn’t as supportive of freedom of expression as had been assumed by some who voted against the union in the first place, that’s when the union took hold.
Not that having a Koch on the board has had a salubrious effect on such matters in the present! Anyway, I knew I would probably get the sack once the NLRB protections were lifted so I left and went into teaching. And Say Brother faded away. Good book on this period just came out, for those interested, Black Power TV by Devorah Heitner. A section on Say Brother (and three other Black TV efforts of the time) pictures of Ray and others, and quotes from Jewelle Gomez, who is still alive and feisty out in San Francisco, Stan Lathan and others.
I certainly enjoyed knowing Don and I think we were all the better because of his professional talent and his humanity.
My favorite memory will always be:
WGBH at this time was trying hard to break into national production. NET, which had been formed to choose national productions, had started to produce most of the big series themselves and there was not enough money to go around. We did get them to buy “Science Reporter”, and each year got money for a documentary or two.
For that reason, on a regular basis, the program staff and producers would meet to discuss the problems of the nation and the world and to propose documentaries that would examine these serious issues.
At one such meeting we were going at it full bore. The table was littered with spent passion and virtue when Hartford walked in to introduce the program manager of the Globe’s new UHF station, Channel 56. Polite handshakes went all around the table and one of us asked him what he was going to put on his new station. He laid out a litany of old and tired re-runs, tawdry talk shows and cheap old movies.
Don Fouser, a tough, moralistic, and fearless producer, whose mouth had gotten him in trouble more than once, piped up in horror, “That’s God-damned air pollution!”
A crimson-faced Hartford, newly elected to the Globe station’s Board of Directors, rushed the Channel 56 program manager out of the room. We did not see either for the rest of the day.
I’ve added a beautifully-written obituary about Don from the Ipswich Chronicle.
If you want to send a card to Judith (Don’s wife) and Joshua (Don’s son) the address is:
19 N Main St
Ipswich, MA 01938-2239
“VD Blues” did win an Emmy. Not trivial even if unmentioned by Henry Becton or Jim Day.
So sad to hear that. He was one of the first producers I worked with shooting film on the road in the middle sixties at WGBH.
The other person that recently died was Steve Izzi who had been a sound person at WGBH and later worked on Chapel Street for Du Art Mixing place, and then for many years at Chedd Angier.
I think fondly of Fouser….