Patriotism comes to radio: NPR dramatizes historic Americans

Names in history become life-size characters beginning this month on National Public Radio. Names like Harry Houdini, H.L. Mencken, Emma Lazarus, and Prudence Crandall.

They also become the stuff of meat-and-potatoes radio drama - under the firm hand of longtime producer Himan cq Brown.

''Americans All'' - a 26-part weekly series - was originally conceived for Voice of America (VOA), but is also being made available to National Public Radio stations (check local listings or call your public radio station). A deep-voiced Charlton Heston hosts each program.

''In these stories we will relive the courage and the compassion, the dreams and the sacrifice, that are the glory of our American past, the pride of our present, and the everlasting promise of our future,'' Heston proudly announces before each program.

High expectations! Yet, from a listen to the episodes available at this writing, they succeed - at least in part. And while ''Americans All'' is clearly intended to show the greatness of the American people, the not-so-great actions by some Americans is frankly handled as well.

The fifth episode on Prudence Crandall (portrayed by Kim Hunter) is not just about the courage of a woman opening a school for black girls in the Connecticut of 1833. It's about the ugliness of prejudice .

While this certainly breaks no new ground in domestic programming, it shows overseas listeners that we're a country whose ideals and sense of principle are strong enough to tell others about our weaknesses. (The charter for Voice of America specifies that this same objectivity exist in its information programming - which constitutes the bulk of its broadcasting.)

To be sure, this is still radio drama. And these programs aren't subtle as they go after theatrical impact. At the same time, they simplify history into 30 -minute segments.

The show on H.L. Mencken (the second program) is an example. Concentrating on his early years in journalism - in particular on his rapid promotion to city editor of the Baltimore Morning Herald while still in his mid-20s - the program gives listeners very little of the Mencken that was later so influential in American literature and drama criticism.

Nonetheless, the show does hint at what the newspaper business might have been like around the turn of the century. And Fred Gwynne, who plays Mencken's boss and predecessor as city editor - is superb. Gwynne, as they say, could read an accountant's ledger and make it entertaining.

Other early programs include an effective portrait of Emma Lazarus, whose words at the base of the Statue of Liberty have become so synonymous with the greatness of America: ''Give me your tired, you poor,/ Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,...'' Also, there are shows on the Marquis de Lafayette , Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, and pioneering woman journalist Margaret Fuller.

There are tentative plans at Voice of America to have Himan Brown produce another 26 programs, though a spokeswoman for NPR reports that the network has not yet decided whether it will air these as well.

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