During an amazing career that spanned more than 70 years, Norman Corwin wrote, produced and directed for radio, television, film and the stage. His writing won Emmy and Golden Globe awards, and received an Academy Award nomination for his script for the 1956 film, Lust for Life, the biography of Vincent van Gogh starring Kirk Douglas.
Corwin was a creative giant of the Golden Age of Radio. Actor William Shatner, who narrated several of Corwin's later radio programs, called him a legend. “He is the poetic soul of discretion and a monument to artistry in America," Shatner said.
During the Golden Age of Radio, Corwin did it all—from variety shows to dramas, comedies to documentaries. He was a contemporary of Orson Welles, who also ruled in the audio medium. He kept writing and producing programs for most of his long life.
I met Corwin through Peggy Webber, who had also worked as an actor for Welles. She still runs the California Artists Radio Theatre in Los Angeles, where I directed a radio adaptation of The Orangeburg Massacre in the late 1980s. Also part of that company was the late Cliff Thorsness, sound effects director for Orson’s Mercury Theatre company.
At the time, he was using the sound effects gear he had used for Orson on live radio more than 50 years earlier. It was 1989, when Mr. Corwin did a segment of what is now a CD titled “A Biography of Abraham Lincoln.”
With Peggy’s help, I signed on as Mr. Corwin's personal assistant—which essentially meant I got sandwiches and ran errands for him. But I also got to sit next to him at the mixing board in the studio and attend all of the rehearsals. He was a charming, friendly man and I knew I was around greatness the first minute I met him.
The production we did starred some great legends from old time radio: Pat Buttram as Abraham Lincoln; Jeanette Nolan as Ann Rutlidge; Kathleen Freeman as Mrs. Rutlidge; and Parley Baer as Mr. Rutlidge. Dan O’Herlihy was the announcer and Sean McClory, Peggy Webber, William Woodson, Lou Krugman and Richard Erdman also were in the cast.
Working only a few days with Norman Corwin and a cast and crew like this was one of the highlights of my life. These were people who could do “instant characters” and write eloquent prose in minutes. Cliff’s sound effects were perfect and came quickly and effortlessly. Each was trained in the best radio tradition, something that is lost today except in tiny companies that seek to preserve it.
Times have changed in our cheap, quick and dirty multimedia world. Thank God for men like Norman Corwin who showed us a quality of work that will be remembered. RIP, Mr. Corwin.
Norman Corwin and Peggy Webber