Off-Ramp | Off-Ramp host John Rabe and contributors share thoughts on arts, culture, and life in L.A.

Norman Corwin, an appreciation by Joel Bellman

Joel Bellman, former radio journalist and Golden Mike winner and currently County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky's press deputy, sends this remembrance of his friend and mentor, Norman Corwin, who died Tuesday at 101. (We also honor Corwin on this week's Off-Ramp)-- John Rabe


(Corwin at home, 1973. Credit: James Duncan.)

He Flew Through the Air with the Greatest of Ease

With the passing of radio dramatist Norman Corwin, the world of American broadcasting lost one of its most esteemed and iconic pioneers. And I lost one of my personal heroes, a man who played as large a role in charting my professional life in journalism and politics as any other single individual.

I was raised on radio, infatuated with it, starting with my very first transistor – little more than a toy, really, a gift from my parents when I was still in elementary school. It wasn’t much: AM only, of course, with its tinny speaker, comically imprecise tuning dial, and an earphone as uncomfortable as it was inaudible. A poor thing, but mine, and it was ecstasy to be huddling in the dark under the covers, listening to the blaring Top 40 hits, chattering disc jockeys, and yammering commercials plucked from the ether.

My father, however, was raised in the Depression, and in those days, radio was a magic carpet that swept him away to mysterious and uncharted lands that by the 1960s were as lost to me as Avalon, Arcadia, or El Dorado. For him, radio’s Golden Age was no myth. As a lonely boy growing up in west Texas, radio dramas like “The Shadow” and “Lights Out,” along with children’s serials like “Captain Midnight,” “Little Orphan Annie,” and “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy” were a transport of delight that carried him far away from his unhappy reality.

It was depressing and frustrating to realize that I’d never get the chance to experience the cavalcade of comedy, mystery, science fiction, and thrillers he described. I never imagined that radio could do, be, tell all that; and to sharpen the injustice, I’d already been robbed of the experience before I’d even been born. Performed live in the studio, beamed out from broadcast towers and borne on the steel breeze, their radio audience might have heard these unimaginably fantastic shows maybe once before they vanished forever.

My obsession with trying to recapture this lost world of radio became all-consuming, and I read everything I could find on the subject. Eventually, I discovered to my delight that many of these ancient radio dramas had miraculously survived – thousands of them, in fact – stashed away in private collections and university archives on massive 16” metal or glass transcription discs, and even wire recordings and crude paper magnetic tape airchecks. And that a tiny but dedicated underground network of “old-time radio” collectors were trading and sharing them. And further, that it was a network in which a teenage old-radio fanatic like me would be welcomed.

Trolling for fellow enthusiasts to trade with, I’d placed a small classified ad in the back of an audio magazine. One day, I received a postcard. “Dear Joel,” it read, “Do you have Norman Corwin’s ‘They Fly Through the Air With the Greatest of Ease’? If so, I’ll buy.”

I began to research further, which in those days meant not Googling the Web or skimming Wikipedia on my smart phone, but pedaling my three-speed Schwinn down to the local county branch library and poring through the Readers Guide to Periodical Literature and reels of newspaper microfilm.

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.

Norman’s star blazed brightly, but briefly. Like a supernova, he exploded on the scene in 1938 and soon dominated the field. But his broadcast fame was relatively fleeting: Within less than a decade, as television blossomed and radio withered, the days of the radio dramatist were numbered. The field limped along for another decade or so, recycling scripts and formulas, slashing production budgets and swapping out generic cues from the music library for the magnificent live studio orchestras  conducted by the likes of Bernard Herrmann.

Some directors, writers and performers successfully transitioned, others quietly faded away. Norman became a playwright and screenwriter, nominated for an Oscar for his “Lust for Life” screenplay, but never again achieved the success that waxed, then waned, during his incredible decade of dominance from 1938-1948.

A decade after first discovering his work, I was firmly committed to pursuing my own career in radio journalism, largely inspired by the creative potential revealed by Norman’s work. Halfway through my Master’s program at the USC Journalism School, my advisor Joe Saltzman offhandedly mentioned that a new professor would be joining the faculty, and that considering my interest in radio (I think I was literally the only broadcasting major pursuing a career in radio rather than television), this was somebody I should meet. In fact, he said, “You should be his teaching assistant.”

It was Norman Corwin. I had died and gone to heaven.

I had the great pleasure and supernaturally good fortune to work with Norman for two semesters. I graduated, got my first paying radio news job and started producing documentaries. I kept in touch with Norman, who figured prominently in a pair of radio tributes I produced about Orson Welles, with whom Norman had frequently worked. Norman described riding around Central Park with Orson in a horse-drawn hansom cab while they hashed out ideas for one of his radio plays.

Two years ago, after my father died, I was sorting through his library and came across a copy of Norman’s 1983 volume “Trivializing America,” a cri de coeur about the sad state of American society inspired by a series of lectures Norman had delivered. Norman had kindly inscribed it to my father, a retired English professor, but I’d never read the inscription before. Norman had done the most gracious thing imaginable – complimented my father by paying tribute to me as his worthy successor.

I last saw Norman in the spring of 2010, celebrating his 100th birthday at a special screening of “Lust for Life.” He was wheelchair bound, physically frail but still sharp, witty and charming. He wowed the audience, who thronged afterward to offer greetings to the great man and shake his hand.

He belongs to the ages now. We were privileged to share our time with him, and we will not see his like again.

-- Joel Bellman