Former radio reporter Joel Bellman, now the communications deputy for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, remembers in a piece for KPCC how radio legend Norman Corwin became his mentor. Bellman had been a radio fan since boyhood, and after he began collecting memorabilia he heard of Corwin's work through other aficionados looking for recordings of notable works.
My correspondent, I later learned, was a 61-year-old retiree from San Jose who had heard Corwin’s program – a bitterly ironic account of Italian fascist bombers laying siege to civilian neighborhoods during the Spanish Civil War - only once, during one of its two airings in 1939 three decades before, and had been so moved that he’d never forgotten it. And Norman – well, it turned out that Norman Corwin, as writer, director and producer, had been the most popular, critically acclaimed and widely renowned radio dramatist of his day. And I had never heard of him!
Although I subsequently found the script for “They Fly” in a 1939 anthology of Columbia Workshop radio plays, it was many years before I located a recording of that particular program. But in the interim, I found many of Norman’s other radio plays, ranging from light and playful confections to the angriest and grimmest polemics imaginable. Dozens of them, staggering in their breadth, variety, passion and wit.
There had never been anyone like him before. At the peak of his career, Norman commanded a national and even international audience in the dozens of millions. The top radio and movie stars of the day begged to work with him. His employer – the Columbia Broadcasting System, “the Tiffany network” widely admired as the sine qua non of power and prestige – afforded him undreamt of production budgets. In addition to his regular series of weekly dramas, he received special commissions: “We Hold These Truths,” celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights and airing only a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor; “On a Note of Triumph,” commemorating the end of WWII in Europe; and “14 August” marking the Japanese surrender and the formal end of WWII.
They were considered of such significance that they aired simultaneously across all national radio networks – an impossible accomplishment in today’s atomized broadcast market.
Later, at USC, their paths crossed and Bellman got to learn from the master. Corwin died this week at age 101. KPCC's "Off-Ramp" will re-run a 2010 interview between Corwin and Patt Morrison during today's show, which airs at noon.
Typo in original quote fixed.
Add Morrison: She interviews retired All Saints Episcopal Pasadena pastor George Regas about politics and religion (and the tax exemption for churches.)
Photo: Corwin at home in 1973 / James Duncan / KPCC