Friday, December 26, 2008
Here is the text of the story I wrote that was published on Dec. 19 about Norman Corwin:
Author looks back on 70th anniversary
of Christmas radio holiday broadcast
By LOU ANTONELLI
Every year, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, we are bombarded by broadcasts of holiday classics.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas”, “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer”, “Frosty the Snowman”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” – it’s a long list.
But the grand-pappy of all Christmas shows, that beats all those above in longevity, harkens back to the Golden Age of Radio, and on Thursday celebrates its 70th anniversary.
“The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” was broadcast on Sunday, Dec. 25, 1938 by CBS radio as part of a series called Columbia Workshop. The radio play is still often performed, and various recordings find their ways onto the airwaves each year.
It’s a unique story that starts in Hell, ends at the North Pole, and is written entirely in rhyme.
It marked the debut of a man considered the most distinguished playwright of the Golden Age of Radio, Norman Corwin, whose radio productions during the Second World War are considered some of the greatest broadcasts of the 20th Century.
Amazingly enough, Corwin is with us today to note the 70th anniversary of the landmark broadcast. We interviewed the 98-year old Corwin by phone on Monday, Dec. 15, 2008, from his home in Los Angeles.
Corwin said The Mount Pleasant Tribune was the only paper so far to note the 70th anniversary of the show – or to know he was still around.
Despite his age, he seems to feel his longevity is unexceptional – he has an older brother he talks to every day, and their father lived to be 112.
Despite the years, he remembers the genesis of the famous radio play. “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” was a great milestone for him.
“It was the first play I ever wrote for anybody,” he said. “The reception was very good. It really helped my career.”
A Boston native, Corwin worked as a newspaper reporter for Massachusetts newspapers and then began reading the news over a radio station. He moved to New York City in 1936 and created radio programming for an independent radio station.
That work brought him to the attention of the CBS Radio Network, which – in a drive to create more meaningful radio entertainment – was in the process of hiring some distinguished radio artists.
Corwin was in the same class of newcomers as Orson Welles and John Houseman. Welles’ version of the “War of the Worlds” on Halloween 1938 was notorious; Corwin’s program on Christmas Day almost two months later was not nearly as controversial – but is more fondly remembered.
The Columbia Radio Workshop was broadcast on Sunday nights, and the coincidence with Christmas hadn’t hit Corwin until – a few months beforehand – the man who handled the show’s publicity asked Corwin for his line-up.
“He said to me, “You do know that Sunday falls on Christmas. You know you have to do a Christmas show.’ I hadn’t given it any thought up to that point. He asked me if I had a problem. I told him, ‘no, that’s fine.’”
Fact was, Corwin hadn’t even an idea for the program at that point, but the publicity man had to tout the Christmas Show in advance, so he pressed Corwin for the title.
“So I just said it’s called ‘The Plot to Overthrow Christmas’. He looked at me and said ‘Really?’ I said, ‘yes’. So he said ‘fine’ and that was that.”
This led to the program having a title before it had a plot. Corwin said that proved to be a blessing in disguise, because that title gave him the beginning of the story, which he recites from memory:
“Did you hear about the plot to overthrow Christmas?
“Well, gather ye now from Maine to the isthmus
“of Panama, and listen to the story
“of the utter inglory
“of some gory goings-on in Hell.
“Now it happened in Hades,
“It happened down there that fiends held a meeting.
“The fiends held a meeting for the purpose of defeating –
Evil Mephisto (performed in the original broadcast by Will Geer, who played Grandpa Walton on the ‘70s television series) convenes the villains of history because:
“In carrying forward the work of Hell,
“We’ve left a very big job unfinished.
“After all these years there is undiminished
“Good will on Earth every late December
“Because of Christmas.”
After considering suggestions by the likes of Caligula and Simon Legree, among others, the convention of demons approved the suggestion of Lucrezia Borgia to assassinate Santa Claus. The Emperor Nero wins the luck of the draw and heads for the North Pole to do the dirty deed.
Once there, Santa’s kindliness and reasonability stalls the evil tyrant, and then Santa shows him the happiness of the holiday with the gift of a Stradivarius violin.
The play ends with the sounds of Nero playing “The First Noel” after he decides to stay at the North Pole and help in the toy workshop.
The unusual format – a radio play in verse – has attracted a lot of comment over the years. Corwin said it just occurred to him – “I had never written anything in rhyme” – but as it happened, “it came very easy to me.”
He was grateful for the public response to the broadcast, and a little taken aback. “I was as surprised as anybody.”
Despite the theme of evil underground machinations and subversion – which may seem prophetic in light of the horrible war which broke out less than a year later – Corwin said he had no such intent.
“I intended it to be a jolly piece, that’s all,” he said.
The public liked it and “the reception was really good,” he said. “It helped my career.”
But the long run, one of the best things that came out of the broadcast for him happened the next day when a CBS News correspondent knocked on his door.
“He said he listened to it, and liked it,” said Corwin. “He wanted to meet the man who wrote it.”
That was Edward R. Murrow. “We became good friends. We were friends for the rest of his life.”
Corwin’s greatest subsequent radio achievements came during the war where Murrow became so well known as a foreign correspondent. He was the master of the special radio presentation.
His production on the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, “We Hold These Truths”, was considered so important at the start of World War II it was the first program ever broadcast by all four radio networks simultaneously, and drew the largest audience in history.
During the conflict, he directed the series “This is War!” His program broadcast on the night of the German surrender in 1945, “On a Note of Triumph”, is often called by critics the greatest single radio broadcast of history.
Times change, and role of radio in American society changed, too. By 1955 he left working day-to-day in radio, and since then has kept busy as a screenwriter, author, and stage playwright.
Today he is a writer-in-residence at the University of Southern California, “where they teach good football,” he quips, and still teaches classes and lends his advice and experience to aspiring writers.
“The Plot to Overthrow Christmas” was performed perhaps four or more times before he left CBS, he notes. Hardly a year goes by when it isn’t performed live on the air again. It has also been adapted for a regular stage presentation.
Corwin says he is grateful for the chance to be able to look back on its first live performance after 70 years. “It remains one of my proudest achievements.”
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