Monday, October 17, 2011

The Poet Laureate Of Radio

Surprisingly, Norman Corwin is not dead. He is in fact 101 years old as of May 3rd 1911. At this point we have to accept that the poet laureate of radio may well me immortal like the Count of St. Germain. Since we cannot be certain we might as well discuss how radio ends up having a poet laureate at all.

Corwin began as a newspaperman at the Greenfield Recorder and in 1926, and moved on to the Springfield Republican newspaper in 1929. (Both of which sort of still exist.) Westinghouse contacted the Republican seeking to assemble a regular fifteen-minute 10:30 PM newscast. This was to air on WBZA-AM. Somehow this job went to the new kid. He was only 18 years old. Ballsy kid that he was, several months later he pitched them on a regular poetry program. The resulting series was called "Rhymes and Cadences."

In 1936 he moved to New York City and began working at 20th Century Fox.  But the a poet laureate cant just work in publicity. He called up WQXR and pitched them on a show just like the one he had at WBZA. His program "Poetic  License" ran Tuesday nights at 9:15.  Then he started subbing for A.M. Sullivan, host of The new Poetry Hour on WOR-AM.

In 1938, he jumped to CBS. VP William B. Lewis heard an episode of  "Poetic  License" and was impressed. How impressed?  Impressed enough that within a week Corwin was radio director for the Columbia Workshop.  Another version of the story has him making a guest appearance on the RCA program "The Magic Key Of RCA" courtesy of his brother Emil Corwin who worked in the publicity department at NBC. Both tales are believable for different reasons. Both versions end the same way. Corwin with his own series which he wrote and directed "Norman Corwin's Words Without Music."  Starting in 1941, he was writing, casting, and directing a new play every week. He had just turned 31!

That constitutes an accomplished career on it's own. But his work in WWII is what endeared him to many. He wrote and produced a number a very patriotic works before, after and during the war effort. personally I find these works trite, jingoistic and trite. It's all very Stephen Vincent BenĂ©t. But it was popular and it fit the mood of the nation at the time. In the 1940s America was in an isolationist mood, and had a very real and vocal fascist political minority.  Things could have gone the other way. Readers of history who ultimately see our role in WWII as having any valor must give some credit to the rallying writers who helped turn public opinion toward the allies. For that reason, I find Corwin's accolades totally valid.  More here.

Anyway, Corwin was a hot ticket after the war, he did screen plays, books, magazine articles, and a torrent of plays. He left radio for the most part but still wrote the occasional radio drama until the format petered out in the 1960s. In 1971 he was heading up "Norman Corwin Presents" on CBC. Then in 1995 Corwin returned radio. He wrote and directed a whole series for NPR titled "More by Corwin." 

He has received the One World Award, two Peabody Medals, an Emmy, a Golden Globe, and was inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame in 1993. At least two documentary films have been made on the topic of his life and career. He has authored 19 books, five stage plays, and innumerable film and TV works. Today he lives in Los Angeles and  is still writing.