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Corwin: A Journalist Rises From The Ashcans

April 27, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

It is a shocking thought that if the world's champion ashcan-roller, self-proclaimed, had not wandered into the Springfield (Mass.) Republican seeking fame, radio and the world might never have discovered Norman Corwin.

Corwin, who is being honored Wednesday night at a banquet given by the USC School of Journalism in celebration of his 75th birthday, was one of the founding fathers of the art of radio in the '30s, when he and it were very young.

As a writer-producer-director for CBS, he did such marvelous works as the verse drama, in rhyming couplets, called "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas," which first aired on Christmas, 1938, and like many of Corwin's scripts was published in book form for permanent reading pleasure.

When the ashcan-roller appeared at the newspaper, Corwin was what he called the color writer. "Whenever freaks showed up at the City Desk, they sent them to me." Carlo Trangisi, a pleasant young man who worked for the city's Sanitation Department, claimed that he could roll an ashcan over any given distance faster than anyone on earth, and without spilling the ashes.

Corwin did a feature, and then a second when a challenger, rolling a red-white-and-blue ashcan, showed up (and was defeated). Later, Corwin helped Trangisi write a letter seeking permission to demonstrate ashcan-rolling in Times Square. The request went public and drew so much amused attention from sports columnists in New York that Corwin was asked to interview Trangisi on the local radio station. Subsequently, when the station, WBZA, asked the paper to produce a pioneering nightly newscast (free, in exchange for the promotional value), the editors assigned Corwin.

Serendipity takes its time, however, and when the Boston-born Corwin moved to New York after 10 years of newspapering, it was as a publicity writer for 20th Century-Fox. But he was by then hooked on radio and, in his spare time, started a weekly poetry show on W2XR (later WQXR), producing dramatized readings. A CBS executive caught one show and had Corwin in for an interview the next day, so launching an extraordinary public career.

Through the end of World War II Corwin was as much as any man a kind of national poet laureate, whose verse dramas, vivid and thrilling, on great issues and events--"We Hold These Truths," "On a Note of Triumph"--extended the persuasive power and confirmed the importance of radio.

He came to California to stay in 1948, working initially mostly as a dramatist and screenwriter. He won an Oscar nomination for his script for "Lust for Life," in which Kirk Douglas was Vincent van Gogh, and he is on the Motion Picture Academy's Board of Governors.

By now he is a man for all media, writing for the theater, television and now and again even radio. (CBS asked him to do a commemorative ode on the occasion of the network's 50th anniversary a few years ago.) He wrote a media column for Westways magazine for eight years. He teaches writing at USC, and is a wide-traveling lecturer.

More than anything else these days, Corwin is an outspoken essayist, a heavyweight gadfly, examining the way we are. The most recent of his 17 books, "Trivializing America," has had smashing reviews and he'll be talking about it with Bill Moyers on the CBS "Sunday Morning" show May 5.

"Fantasies. . . , " Corwin said earlier this week, sitting in the Westwood apartment where he's lived for years. "I've had this fantasy that there ought to be an Adam's Day, to celebrate the human race. I'm only half-kidding, yet why shouldn't there be a day all the nations of the Earth could observe? I think all nations agree on there being a first man, up from the amoeba or algae or a sardine.

"It would be kind of fun to be able to say, 'Today is Adam's Day. We're celebrating life, and Adam represents the first foot forward.' It would be ideal for garden parties, of course. And the day before would be Adam's Eve."

What prompts the Adam's Day fantasy is Corwin's appalled concern at the nuclear threat to life on the planet and his wrath over the rising acceptability of violence--"the growth in civilized society of the concept of terror as a form of negotiation and PR, for getting your cause publicized and emphasized."

Corwin's status report on the United States in "Trivializing America" was dark and angry. He found us dangerously approaching a moral nadir: the nation "indifferent, complacent, greedy, bored, hungry for kicks, amenable to getting-along-by-going-along, comfortable with mediocrity, its aspirations venal and its governance sporadically avaricious, self-righteous, conniving, browbeating or paranoid. . . . "

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