Monday, March 30, 2015

A00431 - Jenna McMahon, Creator of "Facts of Life" Sitcom

Jenna McMahon with Dick Clair in "The Funny Side" on NBC in 1971.CreditNBC, via Everett Collection
Jenna McMahon, who teamed up with Dick Clair, her partner in a comedy act, to create the long-running sitcom “The Facts of Life,” died on March 2 in Monterey, Calif. She was 89.
The cause was heart failure, her daughter, Kerry Holden-Dixon, said.
Ms. McMahon and Mr. Clair also created the character Eunice (played by Carol Burnett), and her fractious Middle American family, for a series of sketches on “The Carol Burnett Show.” Eunice’s mother, known as Mama and played by Vicki Lawrence, became the central character of “Mama’s Family,” a spinoff series that ran on NBC and in syndication from 1983 to 1990.
“The Facts of Life,” which ran from 1979 to 1988, centered on a group of boarding school girls under the guidance of a housemother played by Charlotte Rae. It was a spinoff of an episode of the popular sitcom “Diff’rent Strokes,” in which Ms. Rae played the housekeeper to a rich white man who adopts two African-American boys from Harlem. That episode, “The Girls School,” was written by Ms. McMahon and Mr. Clair.
Ms. McMahon was born Mary Virginia Skinner on May 24, 1925, in Kansas City, Mo., the daughter of George Skinner, an insurance salesman, and the former Mary McMahon, a homemaker. (She took her mother’s maiden name as her professional name because she liked the way it fit with Jenna, a diminutive of Virginia.)
She moved to New York to study acting under Stella Adler, then transplanted herself to California, where she met Mr. Clair while teaching acting classes. As a comedy duo, they played nightclubs, appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show” and became a leading comedy-writing team during the 1970s and ’80s. Mr. Clair died at 57 in 1988.
The two also wrote for “The Bob Newhart Show” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and were jointly nominated for seven Emmy Awards, winning three times for “The Carol Burnett Show.”
They also wrote a 1987 special that starred Ms. Burnett, Whoopi Goldberg, Carl Reiner and Robin Williams, who won an Emmy for his performance. As a television actress Ms. McMahon appeared in episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Bob Newhart Show,” “Welcome Back, Kotter,” “Love, American Style” and “Dennis the Menace,” among other shows.
She also wrote for the comedy series “Maude,” “Flo” and “Soap” and was a co-creator, with Mr. Clair and Stu Silver, of “It’s a Living,” a sitcom about waitresses working in a fancy Los Angeles restaurant. It appeared on ABC from 1980 to 1982 and was later seen in first-run syndication.
A scene from "The Facts of Life." From left, Nancy McKeon, Charlotte Rae and Lisa Whelchel.CreditEmbassy Pictures, via Everett Collection
Her marriage to James Holden, an actor, ended in divorce. Besides her daughter, she is survived by a brother, Bill Skinner.

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