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

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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.

But Corwin was eager to get back into radio. A fan of what became WQXR, an independent New York radio station that specialized in classical music, news and arts commentary, he proposed doing a poetry show.

His weekly "Poetic License" series, for which he presented a wide range of poetry read by himself, actors and sometimes the poets themselves — and punctuated by music and sound effects when appropriate — drew considerable fan mail.

The program also caught the attention of CBS, which hired Corwin in April 1938 as a director of dramatic programs, including the innovative and prestigious "Columbia Workshop."

Within six months, CBS agreed to let Corwin produce and write his own Sunday afternoon poetry series, "Norman Corwin's Words Without Music," in which he dramatized the poetry of Swift, Longfellow and other poets while retaining most of the original lines.

Dubbed "visualized poetry" by CBS, the program debuted on Dec. 4, 1938, to immediate acclaim.

Faced with a Christmas Day broadcast, Corwin wrote his first network original: a verse drama, in rhyming couplets, "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas."

In it, an assortment of villains, including Nero, Ivan the Terrible, Simon Legree and Lucretia Borgia, meet in hell to plot with the Devil (played by Will Geer) to do away with Santa Claus.

But another program that Corwin wrote two months later had even more impact and proved to be a turning point in his career.

Enraged by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's aviator son Vittorio's unfeeling description of blowing up a group of Ethiopian cavalrymen during a bombing run as looking "like a budding rose unfolding," Corwin wrote the anti-Fascist radio drama "They Fly Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease," about an uncaring bomber crew that destroys homes and strafes fleeing civilians.

Time magazine deemed it Corwin's "bid for a front-row seat among radio poets."

In time, Corwin would try "all forms of writing — whimsy, fantasy, historical drama, poetic narrative, propaganda, satire, science essay, burlesque, parody," wrote R. LeRoy Bannerman in his 1986 book "On a Note of Triumph: Norman Corwin and the Golden Years of Radio."

"Critics," Bannerman wrote, "saw in Corwin a fresh, new influence: an independent whose concept of broadcasting dared to be different. They saw in his work a literacy uncommon in the communicative arts."

After the United States went to war, Corwin directed 12 — and wrote six — segments of the 13-part, government-sponsored dramatic series "This Is War!," which was designed to inform and inspire the nation and which was broadcast on all four major networks.

Corwin followed that with "An American In England," a 1942 series for American listeners in which he dramatized his impressions of war-torn Britain and its people via short wave.

After the war, Corwin launched a four-month fact-finding journey in which he recorded the thoughts of people from all walks of life, including heads of state, generals, farmers, waiters, artists and scientists on the status of mankind.

The journey, subsidized by the first-ever Wendell Willkie Memorial Award, became a radio series called "One World Flight," which he wrote, produced, directed and narrated for CBS.

In 1947, as the House Committee on Un-American Activities probed communist influence in the film industry, Corwin joined other Hollywood notables in organizing resistance to what they viewed as a threat to free expression.

Using radio as its platform, the Committee for the First Amendment sponsored a 30-minute program that aired on the ABC network in October 1947.

"Hollywood Fights Back," which Corwin co-wrote and co-directed, featured an array of famous Hollywood names such as Humphrey Bogart, Judy Garland and Danny Kaye, who expressed their fears of where the congressional investigation might lead.

"Who comes after us?" actor Fredric March read from the script. "Is it your minister who will be told what he can say in his pulpit? Is it your children's school teacher who will be told what she can say in a classroom? Who are they after? They are after more than Hollywood. This reaches into every American city."

Corwin moved to Los Angeles permanently in 1948 — the year after he married Broadway actress Katherine Locke — and initially worked primarily as a radio dramatist and screenwriter.

He received an Academy Award nomination in 1957 for his adaptation of Irving Stone's biography of artist Vincent Van Gogh, "Lust for Life," starring Kirk Douglas.

He wrote occasionally for television and the theater — as well as writing books, poems, essays and a column for Westways magazine, "Corwin on Media."

For many years, he served as an adjunct professor in the USC School of Journalism and continued to teach until his 100th birthday.

In 2006, a short documentary on Corwin, "A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin," won an Academy Award.

Corwin, who outlived most of his colleagues and contemporaries, had longevity in his genes. His British immigrant father, Sam, a printer and inveterate reader whose love of the printed word inspired his son, died in 1987 — at 110.

Corwin, whose wife died in 1995, is survived by two children, Diane and Anthony.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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