LIVING HISTORY, AMERICANS AT WORK, ADVENTURES IN SCIENCE, THE COLUMBIA WORKSHOP, NORMAN CORWIN’S WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC
CBS is the network most closely associated with Norman Corwin. He did work that aired on all four network jointly, Mutual, NBC and ABC separately.
Corwin began work for CBS on April 25, 1938. His early assignments were directing Living History, from 7:30 to 7:45 pm on Wednesday nights; Americans at Work, from 10:30 to 11:00 pm on Thursday nights, and Adventures in Science, from 7:30 to 7:45 pm on Friday nights.
His first major opportunity was directing The Red Badge of Courage for the prestigious Columbia Workshop on July 9, 1938. He followed this up September 29th by directing The Lighthouse Keepers for the Workshop. Meanwhile Corwin directed the soap opera County Seat and an occasional episode of School of the Air.
By mid 1938 Corwin had tried to reinvent Rhymes and Cadences yet again, this time on CBS. He cut an audition record and sent it to William B. Lewis, who was impressed yet again with the young talent. So impressed, in fact, that this new series would feature Corwin’s name in the title. Gone was Rhymes and Cadences or Poetic License. The title would be: Norman Corwin’s Words Without Music. Corwin privately hated the title, but felt that it would be rude to object to the boss’s idea.
On Sunday, December 4, 1938, Norman Corwin’s Words Without Music debuted, beginning its 26-week run. The fourth program was to air on Christmas Day and Corwin was asked by the CBS publicity department for a title to advertise. Impulsively he replied, The Plot to Overthrow Christmas. After the publicity man left, Corwin realized that no such poem existed to adapt for radio. So, he would write it himself. The resulting program, told entirely in rhyme, won Corwin new fans, including Edward R. Murrow.
NORMAN CORWIN’S WORDS WITHOUT MUSIC, THE COLUMBIA WORKSHOP, SO THIS IS RADIO, THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS
Corwin adapted Carl Sandburg’s The People, Yes on Words Without Music on January 22, 1939. He had previously done a version on School of the Air and would revisit it yet again as part of 26 by Corwin in 1941. He would also return to his adaptation of Spoon River Anthology, this time with author Edgar Lee Masters in attendance. But his most significant show from Words Without Music was his second original piece: They Fly Through the Air, airing on February 19, 1939. The gripping show, narrated by House Jameson, was repeated on April 10, 1939 on the Columbia Workshop. Time magazine wrote a favorable piece and Warner Bros. wanted to do a movie version (which ultimately did not happen). Norman Corwin had arrived.
On April 24, 1939, two weeks later on the Columbia Workshop Corwin directed another piece he wrote called Seems Radio is Here to Stay.
Corwin next got the chance to direct an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benet’s epic poem, John Brown’s Body for the Columbia Workshop on July 20, 1939.
Meanwhile, CBS was so impressed with Seems Radio is Here to Stay that they decided to have him expand it into a six-part summer series titled So This Is Radio with the goal of education the public about the industry the episodes were:
Putting Programs on the Air (7/24/39)
Twenty Years, the Career of Broadcasting (7/31/39)
Radio Special Events Department (8/14/39)
Education via Radio (8/21/39)
Arrangements and Productions of Mutual Programs (9/7/39)
National Association of Broadcasters (9/29/39)
William B. Lewis wanted a program designed to create national pride and awareness and so The Pursuit of Happiness was created to celebrate America and her ideals. Corwin was assigned as the director of the variety series hosted by Burgess Meredith. The show debuted on Sunday, October 22, 1939, at 4:30 pm, immediately following the Philharmonic Symphony.
On November 5, 1939, the show concluded with Paul Robeson singing Ballad for Americans by Earl Robinson and John Latouche. The audience gave a standing ovation that continued in the 55th Street Playhouse long after the show was off the air. It was the signature moment from the series.
THE PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS, THE COLUMBIA WORKSHOP, FORECAST, GULF SCREEN GUILD THEATER, CAVALCADE OF AMERICA
Corwin continued directing The Pursuit of Happiness, adding his own original script, The Oracle of Philadelphi, to the series on April 21, 1940. When the program ended its run on May 5, 1940, Corwin had made friends with stars who would return in his later works such as Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton and Paul Robeson.
Corwin was asked to adapt at 10-page short story by composer Bernard Herrmann’s wife Lucille Fletcher Herrmann. It was titled My Client Curley and, under Corwin’s touch, became a funny, touching satire of show business as he wove the tale of Curley the dancing caterpillar. It aired on The Columbia Workshop on March 7, 1940. The show became the basis for the 1944 film starring Cary Grant, Once Upon A Time.
Around this time Corwin ventured west for the first time and tried his hand at screenplay writing at RKO Pictures. It never held any real appeal for him. While in Hollywood he wrote and directed To Tim At Twenty for Charles Laughton and his wife Elsa Lanchester, with whom he was staying. It was a 15-minute play aired August 19, 1940 on the series Forecast, designed to audition potential new shows for CBS. The following week (August 26, 1940) he directed the radio adaptation of Bethel Merriday for Forecast.
Next, Corwin adapted the film The Shop Around the Corner for the Gulf Screen Guild Theater which aired on September 29, 1940 and then he wrote an original play, Ann Rutledge, for the Cavalcade of America program aired on October 23, 1940 (directed by Homer Fickett) and completed a light radio schedule with a repeat performance, this time on the Columbia Workshop, of The Plot to Overthrow Christmas.
THE COLUMBIA WORKSHOP: 26 BY CORWIN, GULF SCREEN GUILD THEATER, WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS
No single year encompasses the greatest of Norman Corwin’s vast palette of radio work as does 1941. Corwin returned from Hollywood and was given the Columbia Workshop by William B. Lewis for six consecutive months. Twenty-six weeks in a row in a special series dubbed 26 by Corwin.
Never before had the pressures to write, cast, produce and direct been so relentless. The grind of this exceptional series did wear Corwin down and illness dictated a repeat of one program directed by a replacement while Corwin recovered enough to complete the series. The show debuted on May 4, 1941 and concluded its marathon run on November 9, 1941.
26 By Corwin
Radio Primer (5/4/41)
Log of the R-77 (5/11/41)
The People, Yes (5/18/41)
Lip Service (5/25/41)
The Odyssey of Runyon Jones (6/8/41)
Soliloquy to Balance the Budget (6/15/41)
Old Salt (6/29/41)
Between Americans (7/6/41)
Ann Was an Ordinary Girl (7/13/41)
Double Concerto (7/20/41)
Descent of the Gods (8/3/41)
Mary and the Fairy (8/31/41)
The Anatomy of Sound (9/7/41)
Fragment for a Lost Cause (9/14/41)
The Human Angle (9/21/41)
Good Heavens (9/28/41)
Murder in Studio One (10/12/41)
Descent of the Gods [repeat show not directed by Corwin] (10/19/41)
Man with a Platform (11/2/41)
Psalm for a Dark Year (11/9/41)
Ironically, immediately after the series ended, so did Norman Corwin’s job at CBS.
Earlier in the year William B. Lewis left his post as VP of Programming for CBS to join the war effort already underway in Washington DC. It was in his capacity with the Office of Facts and Figures (later absorbed into the Office of War Information) that Lewis thought of the one man to handle the request from the President that a four-network show be produced to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution on December 15, 1941: now unemployed, Norman Corwin.
At first Corwin resisted, having burned himself out on 26 by Corwin and feeling the sting of defeat by not being retained by CBS, but Lewis persisted. Finally, Corwin accepted and headed to Washington DC, arriving on November 17, 1941, to begin research for the program in the Library of Congress—a mere 26-days before the broadcast. Then he came down with the flu; still he persisted. On December 4, 1941, with the script three-quarters complete, Corwin got on the Century train bound for Los Angeles, where the bulk of the show would originate. While en route, on December 7, 1941, Corwin learned of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The show, he was informed, was now even more vital to a nation newly at war. That same evening Orson Welles starred in Corwin’s play Between Americans on the Gulf Screen Guild Theater.
We Hold These Truths aired over most of the radio stations in the country as CBS, Mutual, NBC-Red and NBC-Blue all carried the one-hour star-studded show live at 7 pm on the east coast and 10 pm on the west coast. The show starred James Stewart, Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Lionel Barrymore and many others. From KNX Studio A the program switched to the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt to speak, and then to New York where Leopold Stokowski conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra playing The Star Spangled Banner. The Crossley rating service indicated that approximately 63 million listeners heard the historic four-network broadcast. The show won the George F. Peabody Medal and was inducted into the National Archives’ National Recording registry for preservation in 2005.
Norman Corwin basked in the glow of success and a swift return to CBS! In fact, he directed The Plot to Overthrow Christmas from Hollywood on December 24, 1941.
THIS IS WAR!, AN AMERICAN IN ENGLAND
With America now at war, the government decided to produce a four-network series designed to educate and motivate the country about the issues at hand. Naturally, Norman Corwin was tapped to direct the series with Harold “Hay” McClintock producing. He wrote five of the thirteen shows and directed all but one (Your Air Force), but the experience of working on an overt propaganda series sponsored by the government was not much to his liking.
This Is War!
America at War (2/14/42) Written by Norman Corwin
The White House and the War (2/21/42) Written by William N. Robson
Your Navy (2/28/42) Written by Maxwell Anderson
Your Army (3/7/42) Written by Stephen Vincent Benet
United Nations (3/14/42) Written by George Faulkner
You’re on Your Own (3/21/42) Written by Philip Wyllie
It’s in the Works (3/28/42) Written by Norman Corwin
Your Air Force (4/4/42) Written by Ranald MacDougall
The Enemy (4/11/42) Written by Norman Corwin
Concerning Axis Propaganda (4/18/42) Written by Norman Corwin
Smith Against the Axis (4/21/42) Written by Randal MacDougall
To the Young (4/28/42) Written by Norman Corwin
Yours Received and Contents Noted (5/9/42) Written by Norman Corwin
A project much more to his liking was presented to Corwin in June of 1942. In cooperation with the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), Corwin would travel to England and report on the people and the war effort so as to educate Americans and counter the anti-British propaganda hurled by the American First Committee. Edward R. Murrow would produce the series, to be broadcast live via shortwave at 4 am so that it would air in New York at 10 pm the previous evening. Joseph Julian starred as the average Joe discovering England at war.
An American in England
London by Clipper (8/3/42)
London to Dover (8/10/42)
Ration Island (8/17/42)
Women of Britain (8/24/42)
The Yanks are Here (8/31/42)
An Anglo-American Angle (9/7/42) [lost in transmission and not received in New York]
Home is Where You Hang You Helmet (12/8/42)
An Anglo-American Angle [repeat of show lost in transmission] (12/15/42)
Clipper Home (12/22/42)
Corwin ended the year once again with The Plot to Overthrow Christmas on the Columbia Workshop on December 24, 1942.
CRESTA BLANCA CARNIVAL, AN AMERICAN IN RUSSIA, AMERICA SALUTES THE PRESIDENT’S BIRTHDAY, TRANSATLANTIC CALL, PASSPORT FOR ADAMS
Corwin dedicated another year of his creative life to the war effort. Beginning with a short play titled A Program to be Opened in 100 Years for the Crest Blanca Carnival series on the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS) directed by Arthur Daly on January 13, 1943.
Corwin’s CBS commitment for the year began with producing a three-week series titled An American in Russia, which aired January 16, 23, and 30, 1943. The series was directed by Guy della Cioppa and narrated by CBS newsman Larry Lesueur based on his personal experiences.
Corwin immediately followed that with another original short play, A Moment of the Nation’s Time, based on FDR’s Four Freedoms, for the special America Salutes the President’s Birthday on January 30, 1943, heard over CBS.
CBS teamed up with the BBC once more for a series called Transatlantic Call, which would alternate between CBS-produced shows, helmed and narrated by Corwin, and BBC-produced shows produced in England by D. Geoffrey Bridson and narrated by Robert Trout. It should be noted that Corwin fell ill and was unable to narrate the last show.
New England (2/14/43)
Washington, D.C. (2/27/43)
The Midwest: Breadbasket and Arsenal (3/14/43)
Another series for CBS, sponsored by the Office of War Information (OWI), concerned a small town newspaper reporter who is sent abroad by a large newspaper syndicate to cover the world at war from a small town America perspective. Passport for Adams starred Robert Young as Doug Adams from Centerville. Corwin wrote and directed four of the shows, including the first and last in the series. Dane Clark co-starred.
Passport for Adams
Tel Aviv (9/21/43)
CONCERNING THE RED ARMY, COLUMBIA PRESENTS CORWIN, THE TEXACO STAR THEATER, ELECTION EVE SPECIAL, THIS IS MY BEST
Martin Gabel narrated a special broadcast titled Concerning the Red Army written by Norman Rosten which Corwin produced and directed for CBS on February 22, 1944, before returning to his creative forte: having full run of the Columbia Workshop for 22 weeks in a series called Columbia Presents Corwin. He even managed to squeeze in a guest starring appearance with Fred Allen on his series The Texaco Star Theater on May 14, 1944, performing in a skit spoofing his own stylized form of radio drama.
Columbia Presents Corwin
Movie Primer (3/7/44)
The Long Name None Could Spell (3/14/44)
The Lonesome Train (3/21/44)
Savage Encounter (3/28/44)
The Odyssey of Runyon Jones (4/4/44)
You Can Dream, Inc. (4/11/44)
Dorie Got a Medal (4/25/44)
The Cliché Expert (5/2/44)
New York: A Tapestry for Radio (5/16/44)
Tel Aviv (5/23/44)
Untitled [repeat due to listener requests] (5/30/44)
An American Trilogy: Sandburg (6/6/44)
An American Trilogy: Thomas Wolfe (6/13/44)
An American Trilogy: Walt Whitman (6/20/44)
Home for the Fourth (7/4/44)
The Moat Farm Murder (7/18/44)
El Capitan and the Corporal (7/25/44)
A Pitch to Reluctant Buyers (8/1/44)
A Very Fine Type of Girl (8/8/44)
There Will Be Time Later (8/15/44)
As President Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for an unprecedented fourth term, the Republican opposition pressed hard to unseat him with their candidate Thomas Dewey. The Democratic Party bought time over all four networks to air a one-hour star-studded program to get out the vote for FDR. It was no surprise that Norman Corwin ran the Los Angeles portion of the show, which aired on election eve, November 6, 1944. The Election Eve Special won Corwin a personal note of thanks from the President. Complaints to FCC ensured that this kind of program would not be repeated again.
Orson Welles closed out the year with his production of Corwin’s The Plot to Overthrow Christmas on This Is My Best, sponsored by Cresta Blanca on December 19, 1944.
WORD FROM THE PEOPLE, ON A NOTE OF TRIUMPH, COLUMBIA PRESENTS CORWIN, 14 AUGUST, GOD AND URANIUM, STARS IN THE AFTERNOON, SEEMS RADIO IS HERE TO STAY
It was Norman Corwin who asked CBS for permission to a documentary covering the conference of the United Nations on April 25, 1945. The complex program involved remotes from foreign countries and across the United States. He called it Word from the People. The budget for the show was $40,000. The program was a tour-de-force and included Paul Robeson from Chicago, Bette Davis from Hollywood, Carl Sandburg from his home, pollster Elmer Roper, and Sir Alexander Fleming, co-discoverer of penicillin. Marine Sergeant Harry Jackson, 20 years old, narrated the program, having just returned from the Pacific combat zone. The show aired 7-8pm on the west coast.
CBS knew the war in Europe was coming to an end and wanted Corwin to deliver a one-hour show in prime time to commemorate the historic event. He began this weighty assignment in late 1944, working on it almost constantly until he got the call on May 7, 1945 to prepare to do the show that evening. Corwin was in Hollywood, so the broadcast would originate from KNX Studio A (the same location as We Hold These Truths). Martin Gabel, the narrator and spine of the piece did not see a page of the script until the first rehearsal that day. Around 3 pm Corwin was notified that Washington denied the AP report of Germany’s surrender and the show was cancelled. Corwin continued the rehearsal and even recorded a dress rehearsal before informing his cast of the postponement. On a Note of Triumph would go out live the next evening at 7 pm on the west coast, 10 pm on the east coast. It was a tremendous success.
From Variety: “Without equivocation, chalk this up as one of the high-water marks in radio listening, a fitting, joyous climax to a memorable day in history.” (May 16, 1945)
From Billboard: “Once in a decade something comes down the pike that is so good it deserves to belong not just to it creator of its sponsor but to the people. Last week, radio had just such a something . . . Triumph . . . the single greatest—and we use greatest in its full meaning—radio program we ever heard.” (May 19, 1945)
A repeat broadcast of On A Note of Triumph was scheduled for Sunday, May 13, 1945 from KNX again. This show was recorded for release by the Columbia Record Company in 78-rpm format. It sold out its 13,000 copies. Simon and Schuster published the book version and it sold out in a week. A second printing of 25,000 copies had to be ordered for bookstores. The book spent two weeks on the national best-seller list.
And still Corwin continued to work on his next series, a return to Columbia Presents Corwin.
Columbia Presents Corwin
Unity Fair (7/3/45)
The Undecided Molecule (7/17/45)
New York: A Tapestry for Radio (7/24/45)
A Walk with Nick (7/31/45)
Savage Encounter (8/7/45)
During the end of the run of Columbia Presents Corwin, the Japanese had surrendered after the dropping of two atomic bombs. The swiftness of the war’s end caught everyone by surprise. CBS asked for another commemorative piece and Corwin dutifully delivered the fifteen-minute single voice piece 14 August. The “single voice” was provided by Orson Welles.
It was then expanded to a half-hour and retitled God and Uranium for broadcast on Sunday, August 19, 1945, on President Truman’s National Day of Prayer. For this version Welles was paired with Olivia de Havilland (Corwin was unaware that the two were not on speaking terms in real life).
Corwin never liked 14 August or God and Uranium. He revisited the show in 1995 with Fifty Years After 14 August and preferred this version. In Chuck Schaden’s book Speaking of Radio he called the original “a slight piece but a thoughtful piece.”
Corwin was next assigned to conceive a special to showcase the CBS fall schedule. He would direct the New York end and William N. Robson would direct the Hollywood portion. From 3:00 – 4:40 pm on Sunday September 16, 1945, CBS aired Stars in the Afternoon. Corwin’s end of the show was done at Carnegie Hall.
On November 5, 1945, for his final radio show of 1945, CBS celebrated the 25th anniversary of commercial broadcast radio with a repeat of Corwin’s Seems Radio Is Here to Stay featuring the original 1939 cast.
1945 was quite a year. It was also the beginning of the end.