Before TV, the Internet or mobile phones–not so long ago–radio was the way millions of people picked up news, information and entertainment day after day, night after night. It was the king of communications hill, and Norman Corwin was that medium’s towering figure.
What Steven Spielberg is to film and Steve Jobs was for computers and culture, Corwin accomplished in writing for radio. He embraced what radio was and expanded what it could be, a force for poetic, whimsical, commanding or poignant impressions about ourselves, our heritage and our future. Corwin produced and directed radio drama as well as anyone, but where he excelled in the medium from the mid-1930s to the early 1950s was writing. His output and quality of work was humungous, no matter the tone or subject matter of any one play. He could make your belly ache with laughter one week, move you to tears the next.
Corwin’s work was so versatile and impactful that he was the only writer/director/producer to headline series with his name attached, including 26 By Corwin in 1941 and Columbia Presents Corwin (Columbia being CBS) three years later. When he created We Hold These Truths, a special broadcast celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Bill Of Rights in 1941 (a week after the December 7 invasion of Pearl Harbor), all four national radio networks carried that broadcast simultaneously, live. Several Corwin plays were repeated a week after their premiere broadcast, again live, and/or released as records sold in stores.
When TV supplanted radio as top mass communicator in the 1950s, Corwin didn’t pack up his typewriter and leave for quieter pastures. He wrote films, most notablyLust For Life, winning an Oscar nomination for best adapted screenplay. He did some TV work, starting with several episodes of the documentary series FDR in 1965 on ABC. Hollywood Television Theater on PBS showcased Corwin directing one of his best-known comedies, The Plot To Overthrow Christmas, radio-style complete with actors using microphones and sound effects. About a year later (1972), Norman Corwin Presents premiered in syndication, Corwin serving as host, narrator and lead writer for this anthology offering. Despite good casts and scripts, mostly from Corwin, Presents was cancelled in 1973.
National Public Radio gave its listeners the present of hearing Corwin for themselves in the 1990s, through a series of original specials reviving his best work. That project led to giving Corwin one more chance to write for his favorite medium in 2001, via More By Corwin, six new plays just as good and powerful as anything he did before.
Much of Corwin’s best work spotlighted his love of country and tolerance for fellow human beings. You can only speculate, but maybe that’s why he was rewarded with the length of life he had on this planet, and have it with a bright mind and spirit. Corwin died last Tuesday at 101 years young of natural causes, with no deficiency in genius from the likes of Alzheimer’s disease.
To any of us fortunate to hear or watch Norman Corwin’s work, there’s no question it ranks with the best of any medium. He was one of my writing role models and always will be. Forward from here, let’s welcome any and all efforts to make his work for all mediums available for anyone, including those Norman Corwin Presents episodes. And let’s encourage any and all efforts to raise the next generation of TV innovators, writers/producers included, who like Corwin, will leave their medium and society in far greater shape.
Until the next time, stay well and stay tuned!