Last week Norman Corwin passed away. Corwin was a pioneer in the Golden Age of Radio. A prolific multi-hyphenate in that field, he wrote, directed, and produced his own material. He was nicknamed “The Poet Leaureate of Radio” because even his prose plays had the heightened resonance of poetry, but they were anchored to earth by his humanism. Corwin was one of the last living legends of an art form that vanished from commercial radio in the United States, but there are those who keep old time radio alive by sharing or selling copies of shows, rebroadcasting them on small stations, recreating for contemporary audiences, and even writing new productions.
My husband and I spent time with such folks this weekend. We attended the 2011 Friends of Old Time Radio Convention, but not before I prepped. While I enjoy many old time radio programs, my overall knowledge of radio history has been superficial. I always plan to learn more, so I made myself read up on the subject. I started with Leonard Maltin’s The Great American Broadcast.
Maltin’s book took twelve years for him to write. Like Kevin Brownlow and his Hollywood silent film documentary, Maltin started his project when more old time radio stars and behind the scenes creatives were living. His book gives an overview of this golden age’s history peppered with quotes from those who were there. He delves into the jobs of all who made the programs and particular aspects of the shows like their sound effects and commercials.
In his book, he shares a quote from Corwin that illustrates what made old time radio so great. Radio is:
“at once both public and private. Radio is much more direct; it’s one to one, whereas [with] television you’re talking not to an ear, you’re talking to an eye–a mechanical eye. Also, the eye is a very literal organ and the ear is a part of the senses. The ear is the organ through which we receive, after all, the music of Beethoven, Brahms, and all the great composers, who don’t speak a word to us. It’s all said in symbolism, in symbolic harmonies and symbolic melody; even symbolic cacophony does something which enlists our collaboration, to the extent that we are required to collaborate as we are when we read a book. Then we are giving something. We are not just taking. Television, too often, puts the reader in the position of a passive receptor, of a spectator. This is less likely to happen in radio.
“There’s no set designer like your own self; you furnish the mise-en-scène, the wardrobe, the physical proportions of the actor, and the setting. Then radio is doing something that television very rarely achieves.”
Corwin’s death contributed to casting the pall over the convention as did Peg Lynch‘s absence due to poor health, but the real culprit was the knowledge that this was the last FOTR convention. With so many old time illuminaries passed away, there are not many that remain. They tend to be some of the former child actors and others who came in at the tail end of the Golden Age, and many of the event committee members have aged.
Still there was fun to be had. The live recreations entertained; the panels educated; and we made a couple of vendors happy with our purchases. The camaraderie of fellow enthusiasts was evident, and they were welcoming to first-timers like us. At least one old time radio featured guest was seated at each table. On our last night we had several at our table, and they were quite lively and chatty.
We were glad to attend finally, but it’s sad to think of past guests we missed and will never get the chance to meet. We were offered advice on what to attend next year. There are regional old time radio events like REPS in Seattle. Some recommended the Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention and said it is likely to subsume the guests and groups performing at FOTR, while others could not imagine next year without the convention. They were hoping to bring it back somehow. Perhaps they will. After all, they are an imaginative crowd.