Behind virtually every television commercial, corporate training video, TV show, music video, movie, stage show, and lifestyle print ad is someone like Omaha-based Manya Nogg, whose job is to locate or identify talent and a lot of other things for producers and creative directors. Without her, the show or project does not go on, or only does so after a big headache because she serves to expedite things that take valuable time in a field where time is money. She’s been doing this talent broker thing for decades, and it’s just one manifestation of a lifelong enchantment with show biz, entertainment, and the arts that has seen fill all sorts or roles, as writer, director, producer, editor, casting director, makeup artist, production assistant, and on and on. She’s worked in film, TV, theater. She writes articles and reviews. She teaches. No spring chicken either, she’s still quite active juggling a multi-faceted career. That was true when I profiled her a half-dozen years ago or so, and it’s still true today.
The Wonderful World of Entertainment Talent Broker Manya Nogg
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Jewish Press
Who am I this time?
It’s a question brassy, breezy Manya Nogg might well ask given the chameleon-like life she leads and endless ways she reinvents herself. There’s Manya the wife and mother, the entrepreneur, the writer, the teacher, the motivational speaker, roles that overlapped her work as a makeup artist, television crew member, ad agency hack, city film commissioner and race horse owner.
In her current guise as founder-manager of the talent brokerage house Actors Etc. and of the dramatic presenting group Theater-to-Go, both of which she operates with her son, Randy, she wears many hats in trying to please clients and audiences alike. A day-in-the-life of Manya Nogg is sure to find her working the phone and perhaps rounding up human or animal talent, scouring salvage or thrift stores for one-of-a-kind props, searching far and wide for just-the-right locations, organizing-designing events and maybe even filling-in for an actor unable to go on.
She’s a whirling-dervish, hell-on-wheels, one-woman band with enough chutzpah, guile and wit to hold her own with anyone. Whether hanging with Teamsters on a set or meeting with button-down execs in a conference room, she can joke, quip and swear with the best of them and outlast them pulling all-nighters.
All of which brings us back to, Who is Manya Nogg anyway? “Anchor me down, honey? It’s like trying to catch the wind,” she tells a visitor to her Omaha home. “You can call me a broad, you can call me fat, but if you call me old, I will find out where you live.” A clue to what makes her tick is the joy her variegated work brings. “Being able to take an idea and bring it to fruition…to fulfill your own artistic vision…to have an idea and see where you can go with it, that creative part of taking something from nothing has always been very exciting to me. I love that.”
Actors Etc. is nearing its 30th anniversary as a media production supplier furnishing producers of commercials, TV movies, feature films and industrials with everything from actors and crafts people to props to caterers to location scouting services. Theater-to-Go presents live performances of original Who-Done-It mystery party games and TV-movie parodies at receptions, conventions, meetings and seminars.
Her search for new identities began during the post-World War II boom, when no sooner did she graduate from Central High School than the former Manya Friedel boarded the train to California as another starry-eyed Midwest girl pursuing silver screen dreams. “I graduated on Friday and left for Hollywood on Sunday,” is how she describes the start of her adventure. She was only 17. And the shy girl known then as “Doc” was following through on her long-held ambition “to be an actress.”
Aside from a one-time desire to be a nurse, Nogg’s what-do-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up visions were always golden-hued, like her wish to be a professional ice skater. “I don’t march to the same drummer as a lot of people,” she says.
Her movie aspirations were fired by the hours she spent watching movies, especially at the neighborhood Lothrup Theater, where her parents deposited her once a week while they played cards with the theater’s owners across the street. There, in the darkened cinema, basking in the glimmer of bigger-than-life images emblazoned before her, a young girl’s show business dreams took flight under the spell of stars like Bette Davis in Now, Voyager and character actresses like Agnes Moorehead in The Magnificent Ambersons and Judith Anderson in Rebecca.
But Nogg, who grew up an only child of practical parents that owned both a garage and the Omaha Broom Company, was not putting her eggs all in one basket. In school, she learned a more down-to-earth facet of show biz that became her backup for breaking into the movies. “Central High School had a marvelous theatrical makeup department and I just fell in love with it,” she says. “I started taking stage makeup and it became so much part of me I ended up becoming the student makeup mistress. I did this for three years. As a matter of fact, the teacher got married during the school year and was gone a week, and I taught the class.”
Still, she had little more than pluck when she made the trip west. Amazingly, her parents let her go without much of a fuss. “In retrospect, it kind of blows my mind they let me do what I did,” she says. “It took a lot of guts.” Easing their fears was the fact Nogg would be rooming with a friend who’d earlier ventured out there. Soon after arriving, reality set in. First, a Hollywood strike was on, meaning jobs were scarcer than usual in a ruthless town filled with wannabes. Next, she was unschooled and unprepared for the ins-and-outs of getting noticed. She had no agent, no head shots, no nothing except her naked ambition.
Embarking from the one-room apartment she shared in “a not so good part of downtown L.A.,” she made the rounds at the studios and the central casting office and “found out right away” she “couldn’t get in for an interview or audition” as an acting hopeful. Worse, she discovered women were shut out of makeup artist jobs and instead confined to hair stylist jobs, but in order to qualify she needed “a hair degree” from a cosmetology school, which she didn’t have.
Then, her beating-the-pavement paid off when she wandered into the offices of something called Stage Eight Productions, which turned out to be her gateway into the embryonic but soon-to-be burgeoning TV industry.
“Its head, Patrick Michael Cunning, was literally one of the pioneers of television in this country. He had one of the first production companies. He was one of the first directors. Edgar Bergen was a partner,” says Nogg, who didn’t know any of this when she arrived. “They were over on Sunset (Boulevard) and I walked in and Cunning was looking for a production assistant. The fact I knew makeup appealed to him and so I went to work for Stage Eight, and it was the Harvard of experiences. They wrote and produced everything themselves.”
Under Cunning’s guidance, Nogg did makeup, film editing, writing and assistant directing for some of TV’s earliest live dramatic programs, including its signature series of Tom Sawyer shorts, which were first done live and then redone on film. The films’ players worked as an ensemble troupe. “I was blessed that he let me write for them. What I would do is…be at every rehearsal and take down everything in short-hand, and go home and distill a script they would all be a little familiar with. They worked so well together they did not need tons of rehearsal. They could take my skeleton script and improvise. Then, eventually, I got to direct the Tom Sawyer Kids.” She counts Cunning among the “mentors” she’s been “lucky enough to have” who were “so professional and taught me so much about the business.” The only drawback was the less-than-living wage paid.
Cunning allowed her to get the acting bug out of her system and to find her true creative calling behind the scenes. “He knew I wanted to be an actress and he let me do some acting. I was doing a dramatic scene once that called for me to go from frightened to hysterical,” she recalls. “Well, I ended up being hysterical, not from anything in the scene, but because I realized I didn’t want to be the very thing I went out there to do. I was introverted and shy enough, and nobody knew this, that I wasn’t comfortable sharing me or putting myself out there. That’s when I went behind the camera, and I loved it. I love being behind the camera.”
Although Stage Eight proved a good “training ground,” Nogg became “frustrated in California” with the low pay and her inability to “make a dent in the film industry” and she sought a new start in Chicago, where she worked at Paramount Pictures-owned WBKB-TV, “one of the first genuine television stations in the country. By then, they were doing really hot stuff. They were on the air pretty much all day long. Kukla, Fran and Ollie started there. Marlin Perkins’ Zoo Time, the forerunner of Wild Kingdom, started there. I was technically a publicity assistant but my duties spilled over into working as a film editor, makeup artist, assistant director and writer. I did live interviews from Arlington Park.”
Life then threw her a curve when her father died. After a period of mourning in Omaha, she went back to Chicago, but soon returned here to be with her mother. With all that experience gained in Hollywood and Chicago, the indefatigable, unsinkable “Manya Brown” had no trouble starting over and selling herself again. In quick succession, she nabbed jobs at Universal Advertising and KBON Radio and snagged a husband in businessman Alvin Nogg, son of the late Nathan Nogg, whose Nogg Paper Company is still going strong today. She raised the couple’s two children, Randy and Sharon, and took part in managing some of her husband’s many other business interests, including the company that became Lancer Label and the family’s stable of racing and show horses. From the 1960s through the early ‘70s, she whet her creative appetite by doing makeup, props and costumes at the Omaha Community Playhouse and by working as a Docent at the Joslyn Art Museum, whose women’s association she was active in. The Noggs numerous civic activities extended to the downtown Kiwanis chapter, which her husband headed, and to the Knights of Ak-Sar-Ben, where the couple’s daughter, Sharon, was a princess.
All this time, Nogg kept her hand in the media world as a freelance makeup artist and jack-of-all-trades in support of local commercial/industrial shoots. Her wealth of experience and keen networking skills gave her contacts in theater, TV/film production and the service industries that few others could match. When a TV client called with what seemed a tall order — “He said, ‘I want a guy to be able to walk around with a sandwich board on, but I want it to be a vault that will open up and that kids can reach into and grab candy’” — Nogg replied, “I’ve got just the guy for you.” That guy was Tom Casker, the then-set designer for the Omaha Community Playhouse. She called and a conversation ensued with Casker’s wife, Diane Casker, who was also working in local film production.
“By the time we got done talking, we had formed a new company. Between she and Tom and myself, we had done everything.”
Nogg and Diane Casker formed Illusions Unlimited, the predecessor of Actors Etc. “She was a wonderful gal, and we did magic together,” Nogg says of her late partner. She recalls that as women officing from home they encountered flak from the then-male-dominated ad agency ranks until they unloaded with some what-does-where-we-office-have-to-with-our work? straight talk.
The intent with Illusions was to offer location services for out-of-town and local production companies. To announce themselves with more pizzazz than the usual card or brochure, the partners stole an idea from TV’s Mission Impossible by recording a dramatic pitch on an audio playback machine, complete with a mock self-destructing tape, and delivering it to prospective clients. Nogg explains, “Our recording went, ‘Dear agency director…this is your mission, and should you choose to accept it,” and it said who we were and how we could be contacted. Then, at the end, and I don’t know how he did it, Tom inserted a powder package and when the tape ended, smoke poofed out. We could only afford one tape recorder, so we dropped it off one company at a time. We called a day or two later to ask if we could come visit. And, of course, we had hooked them with that.” Nogg says she and Casker only had to pull the stunt a few times before bagging a big client.
Landing the services contract for a National Alcohol Prevention Association film led to an expansion of Illusions that Nogg did not anticipate. “They wanted talent as well and most clients wanted that same service, and so it became an equal part of what we did,” she says. Flash forward 30 years and the bulk of what Actors Etc. does now is talent coordination for film-video projects, which means doing everything from supplying producers with actors, extras, crew and crafts people to actually casting the shoot to sub-contracting production houses to film it.
“Our slogan is script to screen,” she says. “If you call me today and say, ‘Manya, I want you to coordinate a commercial or industrial film for me,’ we have a roster of actors to act it, writers to write it, location people to find locations, crafts people to do costumes, makeup or hair, production assistants, assistant directors…We even subcontract with companies that do the actual filming. Everyone that works with us is an independent contractor. We’re a talent coordinating company or broker that picks the best people for you at the best price for your job.”
No two calls are the same. “When the phone rings,” she says, “we don’t know what they’re going to ask. We always have a short time frame, too. It’s like they always need it five minutes ago. When people ask me what I do, I joke that I’m a procurer. I’ll get you anything you need…if it’s legal. We don’t get bored, that’s for sure.”
Her credo is, “You’ll do the impossible, or try, if you want ‘em to come back.” Take the time New York ad agency Hungry Man prepped a Doritos commercial here. “They called needing to see as many of the heaviest-set people as we could find and put on tape by the end of the day,” she says. Nogg and company wrangled an ample sampling for the firm to review via video-conferencing. Then there was the time Disney needed a setting for an early Native American scene in an Ebcott Center film. Nogg picked a remote spot at De Soto Bend National Wildlife Refuge, “leaving us to figure how would we get an earth lodge and horse out to the middle of this island. We had to find boats to ferry them out. It was a challenge.”
Or when a client sought a dog and cat that could wear eyeglasses, prompting Nogg to ask, “You’re talking real ones, right?’ After explaining the animals’ limitations, she convinced the producer “to use puppets.” Another animal request she felt pushed the limits was the call for a chihuahua to do a series of poses in a La Mesa spot. “I never thought we were going to pull this off, but we made it work with only a mildly trained dog. In the spot, you see the dog sitting near a window watching its master come home. Then, you see it at the restaurant wrapped up in a blanket like a baby. And then sitting at the table. It’s darling.”
Finally, there was “the guy who wanted to blow up an airplane” for a commercial, “and we were actually working on it, too, when he backed out.”
Delivering on those “if it’s ungettable, we’ll get it” push-the-envelope jobs is what Nogg lives for. “I’m excited we have clients that want to go the extra mile and come up with something different. You don’t mind because you know they respect what you’re trying to do. It’s a fun challenge to try to see it through to fruition. It invigorates you…when it’s not giving you an ulcer.”
As if needing something else to do, she served as Omaha’s first film commissioner in the ‘80s. Then, in the ‘90s, she saw the possibilities for adapting a script she’d pitched the producers of The Equalizer to the mystery party game circuit, and thus Theater-to-Go was born. She’s since added How-To teaching at Metropolitan Community College, motivational speaking and on-line book reviewing to her activities. Then there’s her stint as a private investigator, but that’s another story.
Living out loud has become her persona, but she wasn’t always thid way. “I was very quiet until I was 40. Then I heard that beer commercial –‘You only go around once in life, so go for the gusto’ — and, so, I became Auntie Mame, and I’ve never come back. But, you know what? That’s how I’ve managed to do what I’ve done.”
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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