Radio Icon Norman Corwin's Splendid Century Corwin, who turned 100 Monday, was considered the poet laureate of radio's Golden Age. His radio dramas, fantasies and documentaries reached into American homes ‐‐ as far as the radio could carry his words.
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Radio Icon Norman Corwin's Splendid Century

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Radio Icon Norman Corwin's Splendid Century

Radio Icon Norman Corwin's Splendid Century

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Im Michele Norris.


And Im Robert Siegel.

Today, most people don't recognize the name Norman Corwin. But in the 1940s, Corwin was nearly as well-known as Franklin Delano Roosevelt and he was much admired. His radio dramas and documentaries reached into American homes as far as the radio could carry his words. And today is Norman Corwin's 100th birthday.

Producer Mary Beth Kirschner has collaborated with Norman Corwin, and over the last two decades she's been documenting his story. She has this tribute.

Unidentified Man #1: Columbia presents Corwin.

MARY BETH KIRSCHNER (Producer): Back in the days when Americans gathered around their radio sets every night, a young newspaperman from Boston showed up at CBS and pushed the boundaries of what radio could do.

Mr. RAY BRADBURY (Author): The best way to describe Norman Corwin is he was the greatest director, the greatest writer and the greatest producer in the history of radio.

KIRSCHNER: Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury.

Mr. BRADBURY: There was nobody like him. Nobody could touch what he did.

Unidentified Man #2: The four major networks again join to present the 12th in their series of broadcasts called "Wartime America: To the Young by Norman Corwin."

KIRSCHNER: The late movie director Robert Altman.

Mr. ROBERT ALTMAN (Film Director): Anything I know about drama today comes from - more from Norman Corwin than anybody.

Unidentified Man #3: We go off to the war, guys like Tom and me.

Mr. ALTMAN: If I had to list my mentors, I would say Norman Corwin, David Lean, Fellini, Bergman.

Unidentified Man #3: So long, Mom. Ill write you. Oh, aren't you going to say anything, Mom?

KIRSCHNER: The late journalist Charles Kurault.

Mr. CHARLES KURAULT (Journalist): I had read books before I discovered Norman Corwin, but he was the first writer who ever excited. He was the writer who opened up the world to me.

KIRSCHNER: In 1938, when Norman Corwin first arrived at CBS, the network was still a small company. NBC had most of the stars and almost all of the popular programs Burns and Allen, Bob Hope, Jack Benny.

(Soundbite of "The Jack Benny Program")

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JACK BENNY (Comedic Actor): Roche, I got to be honest with myself. And I want you to look at birth certificate and tell me the date on it.

Mr. EDDIE ROCHESTER ANDERSON (Comic Actor): Your birth certificate?

Mr. BENNY: Yes. You know where it is?

Mr. ANDERSON: You got it out the other day when you applied for your old age pension.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KIRSCHNER: CBS couldn't afford to compete head to head against NBC. The Depression still gripped America, and CBS was having a hard time selling ads. So, William Paley, the president of the network, decided to experiment. He created a strong news division with journalists like Edward R. Murrow, Robert Trout and Eric Sevareid. For dramatic broadcasts, Paley brought in John Houseman, Orson Welles and Norman Corwin.

Unidentified Man #4: Columbia presents Corwin.

Mr. NORMAN CORWIN (Host, "Norman Corwin Presents"): They never said when you give us - you're doing 26 programs, we'd like the titles of them, please.

KIRSCHNER: Norman Corwin from an interview in 1995.

Mr. CORWIN: They didnt say, let us see the first 20 pages, let us see what youve written - never. The first they heard of it was when it was on the air.

Unidentified Man #5: "The Undecided Molecule."

KIRSCHNER: And Norman Corwin ran with that freedom, writing programs like this rhymed fantasy for Groucho Marx, "The Undecided Molecule."

Mr. GROUCHO MARX (Host, "The Undecided Molecule"): Frank, read the charge.

FRANK: May it please the court and all to wit.

Mr. MARX: It pleases the court. Get on with it. Whose voice is whom?

FRANK: The cosmos and all the spheres, systems, clusters, galaxies, orbits, planets, satellites, together with all...

KIRSCHNER: Again, Ray Bradbury.

Mr. BRADBURY: The radio network people were smart enough to know that he had more than one track on his, you might say, LP record. He had a sense of humor, he had a sense of drama, he had a sense of horror, at times. And if you were wise enough to encourage that, then he would relax himself every other week and do something totally different.

Unidentified Man #1: Tonight, Norman Corwin brings you "New York: A Tapestry for Radio."

KIRSCHNER: Norman Corwin was called the bard of radio's golden age. Corwin says, even as a young boy, he loved language.

Mr. CORWIN: Even when I didn't understand it, I felt it was rich and melodic and beautiful for its sound, if nothing else. And so, long before I understood what Keats was writing about or Shakespeare was writing about, I became tipsy on imbibing their lines.

(Soundbite of radio show, "26 by Corwin")

Unidentified Man #5: Did you hear about the plot to overthrow Christmas? Well, gather ye now from Maine to the Isthmus of Panama, and listen to the story of the utter in-glory of some gory goings on in hell.

KIRSCHNER: Norman Corwin took on a series for CBS, "26 by Corwin." Every week, he wrote, cast, rehearsed and directed a completely original play starring the top actors of the day: Orson Welles, Charles Laughton, Lionel Barrymore. And every program was broadcast live.

(Soundbite of radio show "26 by Corwin")

Unidentified Man #6: (Singing) A dead man is the one thing I abhor...

KIRSCHNER: Producer Norman Lear.

Mr. NORMAN LEAR (Producer): How he did it every week, I could no more explain to you than to tell you how he was made chemically and the quality of that output.

KIRSCHNER: In 1941, Norman Corwin was commissioned to create a program for the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. The four major networks carried it simultaneously. Jimmy Stewart played the central character.

(Soundbite of radio show, "We Hold These Truths")

Mr. JIMMY STEWART (Actor): Have you ever been to Washington, your capitol? Been there lately? Well, let me tell you, it's a place of buildings and of boom and bustle...

KIRSCHNER: "We Hold These Truths" was to be a celebratory piece for the occasion. But eight days before the broadcast, the scope of the project changed dramatically. With only a week to finish the script, Corwin was engrossed in writing on a train across the country. He took a break to tune in to a repeat broadcast of one of his shows.

Mr. CORWIN: One could rent a radio set on those trains. And the porter showed up and I said, I'd like to rent a radio set. And he said, are you kidding? And I thought it was a strange answer. I said, certainly not, why? He said, well, haven't you heard? Heard what? The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor.

KIRSCHNER: Corwin spent many all-nighters rewriting the program. Americans were now preparing for war and "We Hold These Truths" rallied the country.

(Soundbite of radio show, "We Hold These Truths")

Mr. STEWART: A promise is a promise. Has America's been kept? Has it come through peace and war and peace and war untarnished and unbroken?

KIRSCHNER: The program ended with an address by President Roosevelt and a rendition of the national anthem conducted by Leopold Stokowski. Sixty million people tuned in the largest audience to ever hear a single radio program.

Soon after, CBS invited Norman Corwin to go to England. His task was to report back home in America how things were going with the people of Britain. Corwin developed a series called "An American in England," the first of which was "Cromer," based on Corwin's visit to a small town that lay in the path of war.

(Soundbite of radio show, "An American in England: Cromer")

Mr. CORWIN: A town is like a person. It has a character, a complexion, a name...

KIRSCHNER: Corwin visited Cromer at the suggestion of Ed Murrow, with whom he shared an office in England, and chronicled his visit in scenes like this one.

(Soundbite of radio show, "An American in England: Cromer")

Mr. CORWIN: I went down to the post office. It was opposite the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, and you could hear the organist practicing across the way. The postmaster explained that the stained-glass windows of the church had been blown out when the bomb struck, and so there was nothing to stop the sound from crossing the street and filling the post office.

KIRSCHNER: The individual always played a central role in his wartime writings. Corwin was especially attuned to the experience of the soldier, the G.I.

(Soundbite of radio show)

Unidentified Man #7: With reference to Hank Peters, he is dead...

KIRSCHNER: Again, Norman Corwin.

Mr. CORWIN: I was a kid in World War I, and I lived in a tenement house. And there was a woman a family that lived on the floor below my family's which had a young son in the war. He was on a submarine chaser, which was torpedoed and all hands lost. I remember to this day, going up the stairs and hearing the sobs of his mother through the door. How can you forget that? All these years later, it haunts me.

(Soundbite of a radio show)

Unidentified Man #7: A couple of the boys sorted out his belongings and put them in a canvas bag and sent them home. There wasnt much to send.

Unidentified Man #8: Wristwatch...

Unidentified Man #9: Check.

Unidentified Man #8: Shaving kit.

Unidentified Man #9: Check.

Unidentified Man #8: Wallet.

Unidentified Man #9: Check.

Unidentified Man #8: Fourteen American dollars.

Unidentified Man #9: Fourteen bucks.

Unidentified Man #8: Sixty-two lira.

Unidentified Man #9: What will his family do with lira?

Unidentified Man #8: Never mind, put it down there.

KIRSCHNER: Norman Corwin's masterpiece from the war years is the program he wrote for broadcast on the day of victory in Europe, "On a Note of Triumph." Carl Sandburg called it ne of the all-time great American poems.

Novelist Philip Roth.

Mr. PHILIP ROTH (Novelist): And I was listening to it with my family and I was riveted. We all were riveted. But certainly I had never been so riveted by anything in my life before.

(Soundbite of radio show, "On a Note of Triumph")

Unidentified Man #10: So theyve given up, they're finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Wilhelm Strasse. Take a bow, G.I. Take a bow, little guy.

Mr. STUDS TERKEL (Radio Broadcaster): I can never forget the moment hearing it.

KIRSCHNER: The late author and radio broadcaster, Studs Terkel.

Mr. TERKEL: It was early evening in Chicago. And I know we were having dinner, my wife and I, at a friend's house and it went on. And the company, they all sat there transfixed.

Mr. CORWIN: Is victory a sweet dish or isn't it? And how do you think those lights look in Europe after five years of blackout going onto six? Rather pretty good, pretty good, sister. The kids of Poland will soon know what an orange tastes like and the smell of honest-to-God bread freshly made and sawdust free will create a stir in the streets of Athens. There's a hot time in the old town of (unintelligible) tonight.

KIRSCHNER: These soaring words were Corwin's trademark, with cadences reminiscent of Walt Whitman. What might sound exaggerated or grandiose to contemporary ears was heard very differently in 1945.

Philip Roth.

Mr. ROTH: When the war ended in 1945, I was a kid at the Jersey shore. All the kids made a long conga line and danced down the middle of the boardwalk and there was wonderful high spirits. And all along the boardwalk, people were sitting down and crying - grief for those who had died and grief for those who had spent the last four or five years fighting in this war. So, Norman's drama comes out of that moment.

Mr. CORWIN: Lord, God of trajectory and blast...

KIRSCHNER: The broadcast had a lasting impact on the late Robert Altman.

Mr. ROBERT ALTMAN: I mean, I can recite 40 percent of "On a Note of Triumph" from memory. And that prayer at the end is something you know like little children know The Lord's Prayer.

Mr. CORWIN: Lord, God of test tube and blueprints, who jointed molecules of dust and shook them 'til their name was Adam, who taught worms and stars how they could live together...

KIRSCHNER: Again, producer Norman Lear.

Mr. LEAR: Emerson said we lie in the lap of an immense intelligence and we are simply receptors to its beams. His receptors just put him so much in touch with the American people or the American dream and his own feelings about all of that.

Mr. CORWIN: And press into the final seal, a sign that peace will come for longer than posterities can see ahead, that man under his fellow man shall be a friend forever.

(Soundbite of music)

KIRSCHNER: "On a Note of Triumph" was the last of its kind. Radio, as Norman Corwin practiced it, exists no more. Sixty-five years later, we remember this deeply patriotic time when radio was the national voice and Norman Corwin had the nation hanging on to his every word.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: Norman Corwin went on to write screenplays and stage plays and more than a dozen books. Today, he is celebrating his 100th birthday at his home in Los Angeles. Our story was written and narrated by Mary Beth Kirschner.

NORRIS: This is NPR News.

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