By Jonathan Arkin
As friends, colleagues and former students gathered at USC Annenberg on April 22 to honor the 100th birthday of Norman Corwin, the USC Annenberg writer in residence entertained the guests with unscripted anecdotes, friendly jabs at deans and colleagues, and a message of thanks.
The event brought former deans and directors of Annenberg together in addition to alumni of his classes during his 37 years of teaching – including one, Lucy Lee (M.A. Broadcast Journalism '88), who said Corwin challenged her to “use language in daring ways,” one of the qualities that endeared him to students and faculty alike.
“Whenever I get upset about how old I’m getting, Norman Corwin looks me in the eye and says, ‘Oh, to be 70 again,’” said journalism professor Joe Saltzman, who brought Corwin to teach at USC Annenberg in 1979. “That makes me feel so much better. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective.”
But Saltzman also recognized the debt he and others at USC said they owed the man who once directed the greatest stars in Hollywood on the radio, only to share that expertise with the University.
“One of the great privileges of my life is being Norman’s friend,” Saltzman said. “After our first broadcasting accreditation review we were told that the new program was accredited, but the panel had one suggestion: do more with radio. Bringing Norman Corwin to USC immediately took care of that criticism.”
Geoffrey Cowan , university professor and director of the USC Annenberg Center on Communication Leadership & Policy, called Corwin the School’s “own, very young treasure,” and recalled his early awareness of Corwin’s work.
“I’ve admired Norman for as long as I can remember,” Cowan said before reading an astonishing “fan letter” he received immediately upon his appointment to lead Annenberg in 1996 – a letter originally addressed to Corwin and written by the then-head of the Voice of America, who happened to be Cowan’s father. “If we’re around you in the next hundred years we’ll benefit from some of that osmosis…thank you, Norman, for letting us be part of your life.”
Dean Ernest J. Wilson III, who succeeded Cowan as USC Annenberg Dean in 2007, spoke following a short recording of Corwin’s “radio masterpiece,” On a Note of Triumph – first broadcast on May 8, 1945 as World War II neared its close.
“I can’t think of any title that is more fitting for today’s celebration – this is such a momentous occasion,” said Wilson, who remarked that he had never before celebrated someone's 100th birthday. “He is such a friend of the Annenberg School…we are so fortunate to have Norman associated with us.”
Wilson read from Corwin’s own work on writing, in which the approach to seeking an “emphasis on what is right” is most beneficial in teaching the craft, regardless of the medium.
“It’s hard to imagine the changes in media that Norman has experienced in his career,” Wilson said. “He has witnessed every great communication medium of our time. Norman recognized that great writing, no matter what the medium, stood out.”
Corwin took the microphone and promptly congratulated Wilson, who succeeded Cowan as Annenberg’s dean in 2007 – on his looks.
“Listening to the dean of the school, I was impressed all over again with the thought that Ernest Wilson is the outstanding candidate for the honor of ‘tall, dark, handsome man,’” said Corwin as the audience laughed. “He deserves the sweeping claim that is his – handsome. Tall and dark.”
“I wish my wife was here,” said Wilson, “to hear the ‘tall, dark and handsome’ part.”
Corwin earlier celebrated his 95th birthday at Annenberg, and attendees of the tribute watched as images of that and other friendly gatherings were shown on a screen while the platitudes piled up.
“I’ve listened to everything that’s been said, and I must say that I couldn’t have written it better myself,” Corwin said.
Continuing to elicit laughter from the gathering, Corwin commended Cowan on his critically acclaimed play running in New York, Top Secret – a theatrical look at how the ‘Pentagon Papers’ involved the Supreme Court in a freedom of the press debate – to Cowan’s naming of the ‘West Lobby,’ saying “that alone distinguishes him.”
In all of his remarks, Corwin took the time to address the accomplishments of his Annenberg colleagues, calling Cowan’s play “brilliant, raw and potent,” but with winking references to qualities of others that were, at times, on the comedic side.
“I have nothing but high regard for Joe Saltzman,” Corwin said, “He is one of the fastest typists on the planet.”
Corwin’s years at USC as an instructor, he said, came as a happy “challenge to entertain and educate” young writers.
“It was like ‘The Man Who Came to Dinner’ for 37 years,” Corwin said. “The experience of imparting whatever expertise I have that would be useful to young writers was enthralling and I am grateful to get letters even now from them after they’ve graduated from this school, and they’ve always encouraged me to stick with the last measure of devotion. They have rewarded me in a thousand ways.”
Saltzman described Corwin’s use of words as so unique and individual, that when Walter Cronkite read An Ode to CBS during the broadcast of CBS’ 50th anniversary program, it was obvious who penned the piece.
“After the first sentence, I turned to my wife Barbara and said: ‘Norman Corwin wrote that. No question about it,’” Saltzman said.
Corwin, whose brother Emil is about to turn 107, said his faculties are not what they used to be but they are still put to good use.
“I have one eye and one ear now and that serves me quite well,” he said. “And I dedicate that one eye and one ear that serve me quite well to the 37 years I served at this university.”