Meet legendary radio pioneer Norman CorwinBy CINDY SHER
Norman Corwins bathtub brims with words. His Los Angeles apartment is so chock-full of reading material books, magazines, and writings of all types that his tub was the only place left for him to store his papers. It makes sense that every inch of Corwins space overflows with words because Corwin, himself, epitomizes the art of the eloquent word.
Corwin claimed fame as a pioneer of radio during the Golden Age of Radio, a renaissance that swept through America in the 1940s. He was the premiere writer, producer, and director of radio theater, creating some of the most heralded radio shows of the time. And at 92 years old, he still writes and works with vigor today.
Corwin, who is Jewish, started his journalism career sans a high school, much less a college diploma when he was 19, as a rookie reporter for a Springfield, Mass., newspaper, and soon found himself producing radio shows featuring poetry, essays, and plays at a nearby radio station. He snagged his big break in 1938 in New York City when he joined the Columbia Broadcasting System CBS Radio.
When I came to CBS, I was very much aware that this was the place where Norman Corwin had worked," describes the late broadcast journalist, Charles Kuralt, in Corwin, a documentary created by Les Guthman. And I cant tell you how proud it made me to walk in the door, the door was 485 Madison Avenue in New York, which was the door he walked through for years.
Soon after beginning his job at CBS, Corwin was offered the opportunity to run the Columbia Workshop. Through this innovative radio theater experiment, Corwin wrote, directed, and produced 26 avant-garde plays in 26 weeks, and was given the proprietary title of 26 by Corwin, which meant the whole project lay in his capable hands.
I was flattered by the offer and I grabbed it. After I got over that, I realized what I had gotten myself into," Corwin remembers. I realized that I would have to live like a monk." He rented a house overlooking the Hudson River, just north of the city. While creating the plays, he stood for no distractions. He turned down invitations to parties, dinners, movies, and plays, but of course he continued to listen to radio.
Despite his disciplined schedule, he loved the work. I devoted every last waking moment to that job and the schedule was particularly difficult because, when I left the studio after a live production, I had no idea what the subject of the next program would be, he explains. I had to start immediately working on next weeks play conceiving it, writing it, casting it, directing it, producing it. It was a great strain, but I survived because I loved it so much.
He created a smorgasbord of plays, usually laden with Corwins social conscience, sometimes hysterical, often poignant, always a verbal adventure through uncharted territory. In They Fly Through the Air with the Greatest Of Ease, Corwin responds to events of the Spanish Civil War, while The Undecided Molecule relates the account of a molecule who refuses to work for one of the elements. In the story, the court charges the molecule with:
Unwilling to be named.
Rebelling when defined.
Declining to be blamed.
Objecting when assigned.
Protesting when selected.
Resisting an attack.
Refusing to be directed.
And talking back.
And My Client Curley tells the charming tale of an extraordinary caterpillar who makes a splash in Hollywood on the silver screen. My Client Curley opens with the following disclaimer: Ladies and gentlemen: In the following play, any similarities to caterpillars, living or dead, is purely coincidental."
"Radio is the communication between the listener and the author where the listener becomes the set designer," Corwin says, describing his love affair with radio.
There was no equivalent term in radio for the boob tube or couch potato. Its like reading a book. The reader collaborates with the author he or she gives something back. So do you with radio. Its a world of symbolism where a thunderstorm is created by a drum and a fire by crackling cellophane. The listener accepts that.
Larry Gelbart is an acclaimed Hollywood writer who wrote such screen successes as the M*A*S*H television series and the movie Tootsie. He grew up on Chicagos West Side on a steady diet of radio Don Winslows The Navy, Little Orphan Annie and Norman Corwin.
"Gelbart describes the radio experience: In those days, you couldnt record anything you heard," he says. "You had to be lucky enough to hear it the first time, and there were no transcriptions or tapes. You listened in another way because you didnt know that you would ever hear it again.
Gelbart dubs Corwin The Bard of Broadcasting and says he owes much of his career to his mentor. "Norman set the standard for me," Gelbart explains.
Excellence, as does mediocrity, has a way of sticking in your creative DNA.
In addition to the Columbia Workshop, Corwin also produced important radio programs to commemorate World War II. Eight days after the Pearl Harbor bombing, all four big networks aired his program celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights called We Hold These Truths, which announced the United States entry into the war. And to mark the Allied victory in Europe, he created the classic On a Note of Triumph, which was later adapted into a book and for television. Over half of the adult population some 60 million Americans tuned in to the programs.
Corwin exercised the utmost creative freedom during his decade with CBS Radio. He never required a sponsor and the powers-that-be at the network never censored his programs. In fact, the CBS executives first heard each show on the airwaves with the rest of the listening public.
But in 1948, CBS abandoned the Columbia Workshop in pursuit of the more profitable, fresher broadcast medium called television. Despite Golden Radios death, Corwin kept writing and has never stopped.
Orson Welles, Walter Cronkite, Jimmy Stewart, Bette Davis, Ray Bradbury, Ed Asner, Charles Kuralt, Kirk Douglas, Carl Reiner, Jack Lemmon, and William Shatner are a few of the household names that have worked closely with Corwin through the years.
Corwin spotted the glamorous actress Katherine Locke in a Broadway production of Hamlet in 1937. The next year, she appeared in one of the productions of 26 by Corwin. A short time later, they were married. Locke and Corwin had two children, Tony and Diane, now grown. Locke passed away several years ago.
Today, Corwin continues to write and create new radio productions. Through his illustrious career, Corwin has penned 19 books, five produced stage plays, plus many works for television and film. His script for the 1956 movie Lust for Life garnered an Oscar nomination, and the television adaptation of his celebrated radio play titled The Plot to Overthrow Christmas received an Emmy Award. Corwin has also won two Peabody Medals, a Golden Globe, and an induction into the Radio Hall of Fame.
To Corwin, a great writer is a great reader. He has found much of his writing inspiration in the works of Keats and Shakespeare, as well as in the Jewish Bible.
"You have to wake up early to exceed the wisdom of Ecclesiasties and Proverbs," he says.
Although Corwin is not a religious Jew, he has sought great comfort in the high ethical standards and the universality of Judaism. Corwin was raised in a traditional Jewish home in Boston, but didnt discover a profound connection to the Jewish religion until his adult life, having dropped out of Hebrew school before his bar mitzvah.
But in honor of Israels Independence Day last year, he took to paper and composed a poem called "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem." The poem has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and JUF News. In the poem, Corwin writes:
If on the prayer rugs and at the arks and altars on Jerusalem the name of Peace is chanted every day
And in the streets, the commonest coins of courtesy say Salaam on one side, Shalom on the other,
Then let the fame of Peace accumulate until it stands in honor everywhere,
Observed, preserved, attended, minded,
Public as G-d himself.
He never experienced antisemitism during his days in broadcasting, according to Corwin, but was blacklisted for his liberal politics. "I had a good audience," he explains. "But I got some crank mail for my politics and indeed I suffered for that. I was a liberal then and I am now. We were communists in the eyes of reactionaries and, although I had left CBS, I had no illusions that if I had remained I would have been shown the door. But that is not because Im Jewish."
When Corwins not writing or reading, journalism students at the University of Southern California have the chance to soak up some of his writing wisdom. There, Corwin teaches two classes one on reporting the arts and the other on column writing.
Young people have asked Corwin what he thinks is the greatest change in his 92 years of life. He wrestles with the question before rattling off the following list: Washing your hands before you operate, penicillin, mans understanding of self and the universe. "You know," he says, bubbling with charm. "The 2000 Year Old Man has been asked what he thinks is the greatest invention. His answer saran wrap."
For more information on Corwin and his radio productions old and new visit www.normancorwin.com.
Corwin is a cousin and mentor of JUF News associate editor Cindy Sher.