Once upon a time, 60 million Americans tuned in to one broadcast — not television, radio. Sixty million out of a population of 140 million at that time. The time was December, 1941, and the program was "We Hold These Truths," marking the 150th birthday of our Bill of Rights.
Planned for a year, the program was most poignant coming eight days after Pearl Harbor. In the cast: Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston, Corp. James Stewart, and at the end, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The program was written and produced by Norman Corwin, CBS's top producer of dramas, comedies and whatever for several years in the late 1930s. Corwin died recently at 101 after years of living and teaching in California.
All through the war, Corwin's programs provided a lift to domestic morale, reminded us of what we were fighting for and urged common goals among the Allies.
Never miss a local story.
His fame was such that as the war ended in Europe, CBS commissioned him to celebrate VE Day with another hour special. Here is how it began:
"So they've given up. They're finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Wilhelmstrasse. Take a bow, GI. Take a bow, little guy. The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon."
Poet Carl Sandberg called the program "one of the great American poems."
More than just lauding the Allied victory, the program asked "sharp questions" about the war, its causes and what lay ahead. Which led Billboard magazine to say, "It is so fine a document of the causes and effects, the results and cravings of this war, that ... everyone should hear it once every six months for the next decade. Then, maybe we will not forget, and then, maybe, we'll have no more wars."
The war over, CBS asked Corwin, in his words, to write for "a broader public" which would mean, he said "to write soap operas." When his contract was up he left.
Corwin later wrote in many forms including whimsy and poetry. "The Plot to Overthrow Christmas" is in doggrel and recounts a confab of fiends in Hades plotting to kidnap Santa Claus.
"The Undecided Molecule" one of my favorites is also in rhyme. Its plot concerns a molecule who will not decide whether he wishes to be animal, vegetable or mineral. He's hauled into court, before Judge Groucho Marx, and after presentations by the three kingdoms decides to become part of the human race — Corwin again extolling the common man.
Ed Murrow, Charles Kuralt, Stan Freberg, Norman Lear, Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury have acknowledged Corwin's influence on their work. And Walter Cronkite said of Corwin in the 2006 documentary short, A Note of Triumph, which won an Oscar: "His brilliant poetry, dramas, documentaries and fantasies reached into American homes and across the oceans ... Norman Corwin was considered the poet laureate of radio's Golden Age."
He was the biggest single factor on my getting into broadcasting, helping me, I am convinced, win a college scholarship, when I cited him to the awards committee as a major influence on my life.
And I can still, along with famed director Robert Altman recite the prayer at the end of VE Day's "On a Note of Triumph":
Lord God of test-tube and blueprint
Who jointed molecules of dust and shook them till their name was Adam,
..Appear now among the parliaments of conquerors and give instruction to their schemes:
Measure out new liberties so none shall suffer for his father's color or the credo of his choice:
Post proofs that brotherhood is not so wild a dream as those who profit by postponing it pretend:
..And press into the final seal a sign that peace will come for longer than posterities can see ahead,
That man unto his fellowman shall be a friend forever.