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Norman Corwin dies at 101; radio's 'poet laureate'

Corwin, whose original radio plays for CBS moved a generation of listeners during radio's golden age, was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1993.

October 19, 2011|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Norman Corwin narrates his "One World Flight" documentary in 1946. He was the best radio writer-producer-director in the whole history of radio, Ray Bradbury, a longtime friend of Corwin's, told the Los Angeles Times. There was no one like him. He dominated the field.
Norman Corwin narrates his "One World Flight" documentary… (Los Angeles Times )

Norman Corwin, the legendary writer, director and producer of original radio plays for CBS during the golden age of radio in the 1930s and '40s when he was revered as the "poet of the airwaves," has died. He was 101.

Corwin, a journalist, playwright, author and Oscar-nominated screenwriter who was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame in 1993, died Tuesday at his home in Los Angeles, said his caregiver, Chris Borjas. The cause was not given.

With his often poetic words, Corwin moved and entertained a generation of listeners tuned to the CBS Radio Network during the late 1930s and '40s, with landmark broadcasts ranging from celebrations of the Bill of Rights and the Allied victory in Europe to a light-hearted rhyming play about a demonic plot to overthrow Christmas.

Corwin's programs, which CBS aired without sponsors, are considered classics of the era when radio was the primary news and entertainment venue for Americans.

"He was the best radio writer-producer-director in the whole history of radio," Ray Bradbury, a longtime friend of Corwin's, told The Times in 2002. "There was no one like him. He dominated the field."

Corwin's "eloquent writing style raised the practice of the trade of writing for radio to the level of literature," Michael C. Keith, a communications professor at Boston College and author of "The Broadcast Century," said in a 2002 interview with The Times.

"Although his style was literary in nature — sophisticated and eloquent — it nonetheless always spoke directly to the common man."

Dubbed "radio's poet laureate," Corwin was highly esteemed by the celebrated actors who appeared in his radio programs.

"There's not an actor who will not drop what he is doing to be in one of Norman Corwin's radio shows," Charles Laughton once said. "We all look up to him as a writer of the greatest importance."

Producer Norman Lear, in comments written to honor Corwin on his 75th birthday party at the Beverly Hilton in 1985, said Corwin "illuminated the moral landscape with his broadcasts, drawing upon his skills as a reporter, writer, poet, scriptwriter, director and producer. CBS, to its lasting credit, gave Corwin the latitude to experiment and follow his impulses."

Corwin's most celebrated programs were two specials that aired at the beginning and near the end of World War II.

"We Hold These Truths," a government-sponsored drama he was asked to write in 1941 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, examined the origin of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution and how they affected Americans down through history.

The drama featured a star-studded cast led by James Stewart as a "citizen" who serves as the sounding board for the various opinions and historical perspectives presented during the hour. Among the other cast members were Orson Welles, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Brennan, Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston, Marjorie Main and Rudy Vallee.

Broadcast live from the CBS studio in Hollywood and featuring music composed and conducted by CBS' Bernard Herrmann, the program ended with a live, eight-minute speech by President Franklin Roosevelt at the White House, then switched to New York, where the NBC Symphony Orchestra played the national anthem under the direction of Leopold Stokowski.

The program was scheduled to air simultaneously on all four national networks on Dec. 15, 1941. And when it did air, only eight days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 60 million Americans tuned in.

Three and a half years later — on May 8, 1945 — Corwin marked the Allied victory in Europe with another top-rated program he had been asked to write: "On a Note of Triumph." It is considered by many to be one of radio's greatest works..

"So they've given up," narrator Martin Gabel said at the beginning of the live, hour-long broadcast. "They're finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Wilhelmstrasse.

"Take a bow, G.I. Take a bow, little guy. The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon."

An artful blend of Corwin's rhythmic narrative prose, vignettes of arrogant Nazis and weary GIs, sound effects and music composed and conducted by Herrmann, "On a Note of Triumph" is considered to be Corwin's finest hour.

Poet Carl Sandburg called it "one of the all-time great American poems."

Born in Boston on May 3, 1910, Corwin launched his writing career on the Greenfield (Mass.) Recorder at 17.

He was writing for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican and reading the nightly news on Springfield radio station WBZA in the early '30s when he proposed an alternative to the radio tradition of offering poetry readings accompanied by organ music.

Corwin's program, "Rhymes and Cadences," in which he recited a variety of poems with piano music between readings, became a popular show on the station.

In late 1935, he took a job in the publicity department of 20th Century-Fox in New York.

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