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A Wake-Up Call to Let Freedom Ring : Radio: On the 200th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, Norman Corwin and a cast of 50 stars reflect on history--then look to the future.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every Fourth of July, Americans celebrate their independence with fireworks and festivities. If Norman Corwin had his way, Dec. 15 would be a holiday of equal prominence.

That’s the day the Bill of Rights, consisting of the first 10 amendments to the Constitution, was ratified. This year marks the 200th anniversary of that ratification, and Corwin is commemorating it with an all-star radio show Sunday on more than 100 American Public Radio Network outlets around the country.

“There’s only one day of the year when we bang the drum loudly, and that’s July 4,” the silver-haired Corwin says. “That’s to celebrate our independence. And independence is wonderful.

“But independence and freedom are two different things,” he adds. “Hitler’s Germany was independent. Horribly independent. But free? Iraq is independent, you know. China is independent, but what about Tian An Men Square?”

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His hourlong tribute is called “We Hold These Truths,” although Corwin prefers “Bill of Rights: 200.” It will air Sunday at noon on KUSC-FM (95.1) and at 7 p.m. on KCRW-FM (89.9). On KPCC-FM (89.3), it will air at 6 p.m., and will be preceded at 5 p.m. by an interview with Corwin and the broadcast of his World War II-era show “Between Americans.”

The broadcast comes on the 50th anniversary of another show, also titled “We Hold These Truths,” that the then-31-year-old Corwin wrote to celebrate the Bill of Rights in 1941, and which was broadcast on four networks to a listening audience of more than 60 million people a week after Pearl Harbor was attacked. About 20% of the material in the new show was in the old one.

In Corwin’s script, an unnamed narrator identified only as “Citizen” (and played by “L.A. Law’s” Richard Dysart) takes the listener on a kind of magic carpet ride through U.S. history, accompanied by a variety of guides. It has 80 speaking parts and uses 50 performers, including TV producer Steven Bochco (who reads the Ninth Amendment), Esther Rolle (who plays a freed slave) and Studs Terkel (as an imprisoned journalist who runs afoul of 1798’s oppressive Alien and Sedition Acts).

Also in the cast, which assembled last weekend at Burbank’s Evergreen Recording Studios, are James Earl Jones, Brenda Vaccaro, Ray Bradbury, Ben Vereen, Hector Elizondo, Fess Parker, Norman Lear, Ed Asner, Pat Carroll, Bill Bixby, Lloyd Bridges, Jill Eikenberry, Tom Bosley, James Hong, Rod McKuen, George American Horse, Stuart Whitman and Melanie Chartoff.

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“It was like a busy day over Newark Airport,” said director David Ossman. “We had famous actor after famous actor stacking up waiting to land.”

Corwin, 81, achieved fame as one of the nation’s premiere radio playwrights during the 1940s. A noted writer, producer and director for films, television and opera, his credits include the Oscar-nominated script of “Lust for Life”; the classic radio drama “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas,” and such historical stage plays as “The Rivalry,” about the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Despite the civic importance of the show’s topic and the stature of those working on it, Ossman says that funding proved extremely difficult. Michael Packer, a friend of Ossman and producer Judith Walcutt, worked with them to secure financial support.

“He had a terrible time,” Ossman says. “There was a kind of universal rejection from all the places he went to. He must have contacted somewhere between 100 and 150 corporations of various kinds.”

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Primary funding eventually came from the Pew Charitable Trusts, with money also supplied by WETA-FM (which co-produced the show with Whidbey Island, Wash.-based Otherworld Media), the Ahmanson Foundation, American Public Radio and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Corwin hopes the program will persuade Americans of the need to remain vigilant in defending their rights.

“The Bill of Rights is a living document. It’s not archival,” he says. “To the extent that it’s a living document, we’re in good shape. Once it becomes a museum piece, a relic, once it’s retired or put on the inactive list, we are in trouble.”


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