Thursday, April 29, 2010

An Encomium to Corwin, Bard of the Airwaves

In the 1940s, the name “Corwin” could stand on its own – a bit like “Obama” or “Springsteen” today. Americans from every walk of life knew the toussle-haired Poet Laureate of Radio, whose elegiac dramas – turned out at an almost inhuman clip – acted as a kind of benediction on the country’s fears, dreams and convictions during The Great War.

Today, May 3rd, Norman Corwin turns 100. It is another remarkable feat in a life full of them; and yet, Corwin’s longevity is not a complete surprise. His dear father, Sam, lived to be 110, passing away when Norman was in his 70s. And the younger Corwin has not been hiding out; until recently, he taught at the University of Southern California’s School of Journalism, and he has done public appearances to promote his new book (yes, he has a new book!) – an edition of his journal from a remarkable round-the-world journey he made soon after the end of World War II.

How to make clear the impact of Corwin’s radio plays to today’s readers, whose attention is fragmented among laptop, cellphone, TV set, and a half dozen other devices? When Corwin held sway, radio was the only electronic medium in the house (unless you maybe count the telegraph). Moving pictures could only be found in movie houses, and books were still … well, books!

The voices and music coming through those giant tube radios held a mystic power that I am not sure is equaled by anything in our day and age; folks were still amazed that those incredibly vibrant sounds could travel through the air and land in their living rooms. And the people they heard were celebrities of awesome magnitude; an estimated 40 million listeners a week tuned in to hear Arthur Godfrey, a ukulele-strumming showman who had a kind of cultural clout that is hard to envision these days.

The 1930s and ‘40s were also a time when the idea of poetry as a popular art still made sense – even had a kind of “cool” factor – to mainstream Americans. Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg were living cultural heroes (you do know who they are, right?). Corwin’s plays were often written in verse (which makes his output even more mind boggling), and his aesthetic is much more of the artist than the journalist, or at least it was in those days.

Corwin was not even 30 when CBS gave him a show with his name in the title: Norman Corwin’s Words without Music, which saw the debut of one of my favorites, “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas.” In it, Satan, Nero and Caligula conspire to make Christmas more crass and less warm-and-fuzzy by ordering a “hit” on Santa himself.

For 26 by Corwin, he wrote a new play every week for half a year. But perhaps his most important work came in 1945, separate from any series – On a Note of Triumph, in which he paid emotional tribute to American courage and integrity on the eve of World War II’s end. Created at the request of President Roosevelt himself, the program had some 70 million listeners and was rebroadcast on several major networks after first airing on CBS.

“Lord God of test-tube and blueprint

Who joined molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,

Who taught worms and stars how they could live together,

Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes,

Measure out new liberties so that none shall suffer for his father’s color or the credo of his choice.”

Corwin has also had an incredibly prolific career in his post-CBS decades. He has written over 10 books, won an Emmy and a Golden Globe, inspired an Academy Award-winning documentary – and those are just the highlights.

I met Norman in the 1980s, while studying journalism at U.S.C.; he acted as advisor on an independent radio documentary I was producing about the then-little-heard-of Kronos Quartet. Norman was not a full-on fan of my new-fangled “contrapuntal” approach to documentaries (an idea I stole from Glenn Gould), or of Kronos’s all-modern repertoire. Norman reminded me that he had worked with the great film composer Bernard Herrmann, and that he had high standards – but he still took me on.

I still recall our phone conversation after I had turned in my finished product; I was sitting at a desk at the LA Times (where I had an internship), and Norman gave me a very long, friendly lecture about why my project was quite good and how it could have been even better.

What better thing could happen to any journalism student that to have a coaching session from Corwin?

So, Norman, this is a “thank you” from your grateful public, which you have always thrilled “with the greatest of ease” – and from one now-middle-aged student whose life you enriched and ennobled with your attention.

Happy Birthday, and here’s to the next 100 years!

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