PASSINGS: Mark O’Donnell, John Phelan, Jimmy Jones, Paul W. McCracken


Mark O’Donnell


co-writer of ‘Hairspray’


Mark O’Donnell, 58, the Tony Award-winning writer behind such quirky and clever Broadway shows as “Hairspray and “Cry-Baby,” died Monday in New York. His agent, Jack Tantleff, said the writer collapsed in the lobby of his apartment complex on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

O’Donnell won the 2003 Tony for best book of a musical for co-writing “Hairspray” with Thomas Meehan, and the pair earned Tony nominations in 2008 for doing the same for “Cry-Baby.” Both were adaptations of movies written and directed by John Waters.

The story of “Hairspray” centers on an overweight white teenager who lives to dance on “The Corny Collins Show,” Baltimore’s version of “American Bandstand.” She also wants to integrate its all-white environs, and, along the way, be accepted for her full-figured self.

“I’m the youngest of 10 children, along with my twin brother Stephen. That seemed to predispose me to outlandish comedy,” O’Donnell said in a Contemporary Authors profile.

Born July 19, 1954, into an Irish Catholic family in Cleveland, O’Donnell attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and with his twin enrolled at Harvard University. He studied creative writing and wrote for the Harvard Lampoon and the school’s Hasty Pudding productions. His brother Steve later became a TV writer for late-night host David Letterman and others.

Mark O’Donnell’s other plays include “That’s It, Folks!” “Fables for Friends” and “The Nice and the Nasty.” He also adapted Georges Feydeau’s “Private Fittings” for the La Jolla Playhouse.

He wrote two novels, “Getting Over Homer” and “Let Nothing You Dismay,” as well as comic stories and essays.

“Theater is exciting because it is collaborative, but it is also exhausting for the same reason,” O’Donnell said in a 2002 interview with the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “I also write novels and cartoons and plays. It’s like crop rotation for the mind.”

John Phelan

NYSE chief calmed fears

after 1987 ‘Black Monday’

John Phelan, 81, who led the New York Stock Exchange into the modern era of competition and huge trading volumes, and provided calm at the center of the storm when stock prices crashed in October 1987, died Saturday in New York. His death was announced by the NYSE, which did not give the cause.

From 1975 through 1990, as vice chairman, president and then chairman, Phelan steered the NYSE through a period of growth, modernization and change.

During his tenure, the exchange spent hundreds of millions of dollars on technology to make trading swifter and less prone to error.

On what became known as Black Monday, Oct. 19, 1987, the Dow Jones industrial average lost 508 points, or 22.6%.

Even before trading opened that Monday morning, Phelan was prepared for a difficult day, based on the market’s weak performance the previous Thursday and Friday and a flood of sell orders received over the weekend.

After trading ended for the day, Phelan spoke at a news conference. His choice of words and confident tone drew widespread praise.

“I don’t think the word ‘panic’ is correct,” he told one reporter. Asked his opinion on the cause of the sell-off, he said “five years of a bull market without a correction,” plus higher interest rates and expectations of higher inflation, had “hit a very nervous market.”

The next afternoon, the market turned around, helped by companies announcing stock-buyback initiatives, and the Dow ended the day up 102 points.

John Joseph Phelan Jr. was born May 7, 1931, in New York City. After two years of college, he joined theU.S. Marine Corps and served from 1951 to 1954, including a year in combat in Korea. He went to work with his father, a member of the NYSE and senior partner of Phelan & Co., and became head of the firm when his father died in 1966.

After six years of night school, he received a bachelor’s degree in business administration from Adelphi University in 1970.

Jimmy Jones

R&B singer co-wrote

hit song ‘Handy Man’

Jimmy Jones, 82, an R&B singer who co-wrote the 1960 top-10 hit “Handy Man,” which Del Shannon and James Taylor later covered, died Thursday in Aberdeen, N.C., his family announced. The cause was not given.

Born in Birmingham, Ala., in 1937, Jones began tap-dancing as a youth. He moved with his family to New York and joined doo-wop vocal groups in the mid-1950s, performing as a tenor. He started with the Berliners, who later changed their name to the Sparks of Rhythm. He moved on to the Savoys, who became the Pretenders, and then the Jones Boys before he decided to go solo.

In 1959, Jones signed with MGM’s Cub label. There, he met Otis Blackwell, who wrote the early rock ‘n’ rolls hits “Great Balls of Fire,” “Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up” and “Return to Sender,” among others.

Blackwell helped Jones rework an earlier song he had written, and the new version of “Handy Man,” featuring Jones’ falsetto and Blackwell’s whistling, was released in 1959. It peaked in early 1960 at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 3 on the R&B charts. Shannon made the charts with his cover in 1964, as did Taylor in 1977.

Jones followed up with “Good Timin’,” which gave him his second Top 10 hit in a matter of months. But he was never able to duplicate the success of his first two singles, and his ensuing charted records proved more modest.

Paul W. McCracken

Nixon advisor argued

against price controls

Paul W. McCracken, 96, who was an economic advisor to several presidents and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Nixon during a turbulent economic era, died Friday in Ann Arbor, Mich., announced the University of Michigan, where McCracken taught for most of his academic career. The cause of death was not released.

According to the university, Nixon once wrote that during his first term he depended on McCracken “for his incisive intellect and his hardheaded pragmatism.”

McCracken’s approach to national economic policy displayed pragmatism and moderation, according to the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum.

He served as Nixon’s chief economic advisor from 1968 to 1971, when he resigned. By then, he disagreed with Nixon over price and wage controls, a tool some argued could help fight inflation. The president eventually enacted them, but the controls proved unsustainable and were abandoned by 1974.

“I thought price controls were a bad idea for a very simple reason. You couldn’t look back into history and point to a success story,” McCracken once said. “At the time, the president and Congress were involved in a battle in the political domain. Political battles are often more important to them than hard, solid data.”

He also served as an advisor in various capacities to presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnsonand Gerald Ford.

The son of a farmer, Paul Winston McCracken was born Dec. 29, 1915, in Richland, Iowa. He earned a bachelor’s degree in 1937 from what is now William Penn University in Iowa, and master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard University.

Early in his career, he was an economist for the Department of Commerce and at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis before becoming a business professor at the University of Michigan in 1948. He retired from the school in 1986.

Times staff and wire reports