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Tuesday 21 May 2024

At 97, New Radio Projects in the Works
Brett Johnson

Norman Corwin ruled radio back when the nation and Franklin Delano Roosevelt depended on it.

He wasn't so much the voice of radio as the guy who made it come alive powerfully in living rooms across the land with words, creativity and direction.

He gave people dramas, comedies, mysteries, history and love stories in the years when radio was the national voice, before TV elbowed it off center stage and decades before the Internet was even a flicker in someone's brain.

He was at the controls when the country needed a pick-me-up after Pearl Harbor and when it exulted in victory in World War II, a tonic for edgy times when the American way of life truly dangled in the balance.

Legend has it that when Roosevelt needed to use network radio to reach the country, the president phoned Corwin, although Corwin graciously says that wasn't true. Helming radio programs, he directed or worked with Hollywood's A-listers of the day — Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles, Bette Davis and others. Corwin won two Peabodys, an Emmy, a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination. Artists who followed him, such as Ray Bradbury and Robert Altman, speak or spoke of Corwin in guru terms, as a master of drama and writing.

Now, as he prepares to stage one of his old-styled radio programs Friday night at the Thousand Oaks Library, Corwin wonders what all the fuss is about. He shoots down any notion that the show, a benefit to raise money for expansion of the American Radio Archives housed there, also is meant as a tribute to him. He's not impressed with his own legend.

"I don't have time to be," Corwin said during a recent interview from his Los Angeles home. "I don't believe I'm as good as they're saying I am. I'm versatile, yes, and I've done a lot of good work — and hard work — but at 97, I look back over the landscape and see stuff that I wished I'd had the time to rewrite."

Ah, ever the perfectionist-workaholic. Speaking with a gravelly voice — "a croaking voice," he said — Corwin clearly has that kind of imbued appreciation for life that only the years can bring. He comes across as warm, wise, funny, self-deprecating and still with so much to offer.

Only this year did he give up teaching journalism at USC, and he's still writing.

Laughing for a cause

Another passion is the American Radio Archives project. Corwin already has donated many of his materials from radio's golden age to the Thousand Oaks archives.

The pending transfer of similar Pacific Pioneer Broadcasters memorabilia now housed in Hollywood to the Thousand Oaks facility would make it one of the largest radio archives in the nation. The expansion will require a two-story structure, approved by the City Council, to be added to the library grounds. Estimates of construction and operations have run to $30 million.

To that end, Corwin will stage his comedy "Strange Affliction" on Friday night at the library. The cast includes Carl Reiner, Samantha Eggar, Norman Lloyd, Nanette Fabray and, switching genres, film historian Leonard Maltin.

Corwin described it thusly: The affliction happens to a housewife who suddenly starts rhyming everything she hears in casual conversation, even when she's, say, ordering food in the grocery store. Her husband is both bored and annoyed by this; they try therapy. Ultimately, it's found that she suffers from a condition so contagious that even the psychiatrist treating her comes to suffer from it.

"It's a tissue-thin comedy and a wacky premise," Corwin said of the play, which could air on KCLU-FM at a later date. "I just want the audience to have a good time."

Reiner, a legendary actor-director-writer himself, said he's doing the play for one reason: Corwin asked him to. Reiner, who met Corwin at a screening at Norman Lear's house decades ago, spoke of him with the same reverence that others do. "If he asked me to come over and cut his toenails, I'd do it," Reiner said. "He's like my god."

Corwin called "Strange Affliction" one of his lesser-known works, but said it's "resolutely funny."

"The cast is great," he said, before teasing, "Reiner, yeah, he's a find."

Reiner, 85, chuckled at that and jokingly called Corwin "the kid." He also laughed when describing Corwin's "Affliction." "He's so sly," Reiner said. "He's written so many of these things."

Corwin has a promise for those serious about helping the project: "For a $1 million contribution, they will receive a carefully wrapped box of Fig Newtons," he said. "I'm holding out that as a reward."

A broadcasting icon blooms

"Strange Affliction" at least harkens back to radio's glory days, and the 1940s were undoubtedly Corwin's heyday.

But Corwin, born in Boston in 1910, began his media career at 17 in newspapers, working for Massachusetts publications in Greenfield and later Springfield, his Web site states. A story Corwin wrote about a garbage-can rolling match drew attention from radio station WBZA, and soon he was doing programs for it.

After stints at stations in Cincinnati and New York in the mid-1930s, Corwin took a job as a radio director at CBS in 1938. By fall, he proposed a program that was later called "Norman Corwin's Words Without Music"; it was the first time that a radio writer or director got show billing.

Corwin was rehearsing the pilot the night of Oct. 30, 1938, in a CBS studio. On the floor below, Welles and the Mercury Theatre were doing the infamous "The War of the Worlds" broadcast that sent the nation into panic, thinking that the invasion from Mars was real. Corwin worked on, oblivious at first to the unfolding chaos.

Two of his "Words Without Music" programs became noteworthy. "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas," his first original play for the network, won public approval and got a knock on his office door the next morning from fellow CBS employee Edward R. Murrow, who told him how much he enjoyed it (the two became close friends).

Shortly after, Corwin wrote "They Fly Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease," a reaction to the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (which also inspired the famous Picasso painting).

Corwin briefly left CBS in 1940 for an ill-fated attempt to write for the movies in Hollywood. When he returned to CBS, he started a new radio program titled "26 by Corwin." The weekly half-hour show presented a new play each time out. Corwin's scripts ran the gamut: comedy, satire, drama, history, tragedy, poetry and others.

Among the listeners was a young Carl Reiner, then in his late teens. He called it "one of the greatest radio programs ever done" and said it was among the shows that influenced many artists who later went into show business.

"Radio was a very big part of our lives growing up, listening to all the comedy and variety shows," Reiner said. "It was a honing experience."

The war on Corwin's radio mic

In late 1941, Corwin did "We Hold These Truths," a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Roosevelt felt it was important enough that all four radio networks broadcast it.

It gained added urgency when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7. As Corwin recalls, "I finished it as the pot was boiling and it looked like we were going to war."

"We Hold These Truths" aired Dec. 15. It helped galvanize America, reminding us of the values for which we would be fighting.

Jimmy Stewart narrated it. Welles and Edward G. Robinson were part of the all-star cast. "It was intoxicating for a young director," Corwin said. "And I was lucky. These actors were extremely gifted."

It was heard by more than 60 million Americans, about half the country's population at the time and said to be the largest audience for any radio drama ever. "I am awed by that figure," Corwin said.

Several years later, with the war in Europe winding down, the government approached CBS and requested a special program to air on the day it ended. Corwin agreed to do it.

But the war in the European theater dragged on longer than expected, and Corwin said he was "on a train near Kansas City" when he heard that it finally was over. Concerned that interest had waned, he called the office; CBS executive William S. Paley later relayed a message to him that Roosevelt "thought it more important than ever" that the program air.

So Corwin got off the train — "I wrote the script going across the country," he said — and went live with a one-hour broadcast titled "On a Note of Triumph." It aired on V-E Day, May 8, 1945, when Germany surrendered.

It was more than a celebration, Corwin noted. Americans were still dying elsewhere (the war with Japan went on a few more months), and the show asked sharp questions about war's cost and the responsibility of victory.

Thousands of letters, calls and telegrams poured in. Corwin attributes the show's success to the freedom that CBS gave him and to Bernard Herrmann's moving score.

Many regard it as Corwin's masterpiece — "The whole world stayed up and listened to On a Note of Triumph,'" Reiner said. Corwin agrees. "I think my career peaked on that program," he said, "not by design, but by accident."

The next year, Corwin became the first winner of the One World Award, established as a memorial to statesman Wendell Willkie and a 1942 diplomatic trip he took (later awardees included Albert Einstein). Corwin went to 37 countries in four months.

He interviewed political leaders such as Jawaharlal Nehru in India and "people of high and low station." The result was 13 half-hour broadcasts steeped in the reconstruction and rebuilding after the war. The thesis, he said, was simple: "We'd all like to have one world." Easier said than done; Corwin saw war's long destructive reach.

"There were hardships," he recalled. "Both Warsaw and Manila were in ruins."

Sounding off

Things changed for Corwin in just a few short years. TV came and ultimately knocked radio off its perch. Corwin left CBS Radio in 1948 and moved over to UN Radio in 1949.

He also got swept up in the political witchhunts of the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His Web site states that he was "slandered like so many others." It calls the accusations "utterly baseless."

Corwin left radio in 1955 but continued writing. He copped an Oscar nod for his screenplay of the 1956 Vincent Van Gogh biopic "Lust for Life." In subsequent years, he wrote Broadway plays, books and poetry, took a stab at TV with the 1970s show "Norman Corwin Presents" and later became a USC professor.

But radio is his lifeblood. Corwin returned to it in the 1990s, doing among other endeavors a series of programs for National Public Radio. He was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1993. He's still called the "poet laureate of radio."

Corwin said that he's "very, very grateful" for his radio days and that people still think of him and his programs.

"Here I am 97 with a croaking voice," he said, "and I'm still remembered. I get e-mails from young people who write me in wonderment that radio ever turned out this kind of content."

Other than NPR, which he termed "the high ground of radio," Corwin is not fond of the medium today. "I don't like it," he said. "It's given over to right wing oracles.' No one liberal is working in radio."

A 2005 film called "A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin," based on his famous 1945 broadcast, won an Oscar for best short documentary.

Corwin remembers those days. He waxed beautifully about how radio requires the utmost collaboration between audience and artist. He called sound our oldest art form; language, he noted, began with grunts and cries.

Oh, Corwin remembers.

"Radio was such an extraordinary medium," he said, his enthusiasm rising. "It was an avenue by which you could reach the country, reach the smallest hamlet in America, reach people in cars and on trains. It was the ultimate in carrying expression and giving information. It was the means by which the kid in Kokomo could hear an opera. He could listen to it and have something to shoot for."

Yes, he still has the words. Just maybe with "Strange Affliction," we'll catch a little magic in our ears, hear that wonderful sound he talks about and perhaps even pick up a whisper from the days when radio was king, when it was the national voice and when Norman Corwin was at the controls.

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