Toronto Daily Spotlight 2012: Hanns Wolters Intl. @ 50

Hanns Wolters, whose namesake agency is celebrating its 50th anniversary, never allowed adversity to get in the way of enterprise. He had been one of Marlene Dietrich’s agents in Berlin in the 1920s and 1930s before a certain semi-talented Austrian artist with a paint-brush mustache and severe anger-management issues forced him to change countries, then continents.

Eventually settling in New York by way of France, Czechoslovakia and Palestine in the early ’50s, the self-made Wolters — having lost everything at the hands of the Nazis — wasn’t too proud to learn the ropes at the Jules Ziegler Agency by day while serving as a restaurant host by night. He would take over the reins of his own tenpercentery in 1952, seizing his niche with foreign talent.

And when Wolters needed his company to change with the times, he hired Oliver Mahrdt in 1996 to help with the day-to-day business.

“Right from the beginning, Hanns got associated with overseas agencies,” Mahrdt says. “They would manage their clients, we would rep them. We were from different cultures and mentalities so we could handle them.”

Mahrdt would eventually take over the agency in the wake of Wolters’ death in 2000, but the company’s core values have remained the same.

“It’s always been a two-way bridge, whether helping foreigners to break into the States or Americans finding overseas co-production partners or just shooting in Europe,” Mahrdt says. “Hanns was an internationalist — OK, the Nazis forced him, he didn’t leave voluntarily — but he still was.”

Hailing from the old country himself, Mahrdt — who came to New York in 1992 to study directing — has kept the bridge open while building new ones between the United States and Europe and Asia.

“We’ve always had this function, always specialized,” he says. “Hanns started it and together we expanded it. Now we do everything. I introduced packaging, films and plays, sponsorship deals and consulting, all of which we never did before.”

Mahrdt persuaded Wolters “to submit on everything, not just foreign clients. We widened the base, got more volume. In the past the messenger would bring day jobs; today technology’s brought a two-, three-week process down to callbacks in an hour, (and) deals signed within 24 hours.”

Mahrdt’s recent swing through SXSW only reinforced his impression of how the business has changed.

“It’s all social media,” he says. “In the old days, you had to be on the spot, whether Hollywood, New York (or) Miami. We’re going to go further and deeper into social media; we have to. Any actor or actress with a smartphone anywhere in the world can videotape themselves and email the audition to a casting director. It’s a threat if you don’t participate.”

Mahrdt proudly cites some recent deals: setting up Broadview TV’s “Klitschko” with Universal for worldwide distribution; booking Bangladeshi actor Rao Rampilla into Adam Sandler’s “That’s My Boy”; getting Japanese actor Brian Nishii onto Broadway in “Chinglish” this year; and securing Tony Mitchell’s recurring role on the cartoon network live action series “Team Toon.”

But his upcoming projects are kept deliberately vague: “Film financing and we’ve got some international co-productions in the works,” he says, cagily. “We have always a stable of 20-30 major projects. You can’t do more without your investors getting worried you’re pushing Teflon: throw it in and see what sticks!”

TIMELINE

1920s
Hanns Wolters becomes an impresario in Berlin, representing actors, actresses such as Marlene Dietrich, right, and orchestras.

1934
Wolters and his wife, actress and operetta singer Mitzi Bera, flee Nazi Germany for Paris, then Karlovy Vary, Prague and, finally, Palestine, where the couple would be tasked with entertaining the Australian Imperial Forces and British Troops — he as a talent scout and creative director, she as a performer.

1953
The Wolters leave Palestine for New York City, where he finds work as a restaurant host along with other odd jobs to make ends meet.

1958
Wolters gets back in the business of entertainment as an agent at the Jules Ziegler Agency in New York, where he is put in charge of Ziegler’s newly founded international voiceover department.

1960s
Wolters launches his own boutique operation, which he names the Hanns Wolters Theatrical Agency, specializing in casting of American and foreign talent and offbeat types for motion pictures, television and commercials. A voiceover department is soon added, specializing in all foreign languages. The outfit eventually settles into 342 Madison Ave. and adds advertising agencies, film productions and the television industry to its clientele.

Early 1980s
The agency moves its headquarters to 10 W. 37th St.

1985
Mitzi dies of a heart attack at age 95.

1996
Oliver Mahrdt, left, becomes junior partner.

1999
The agency’s name is changed to Hanns Wolters Intl. after Mahrdt becomes majority partner.

2000
Hanns Wolters dies at age 93.

2001
Mahrdt buys out Hanns Wolters’ estate.

2002-04
Mahrdt adds divisions: packaging, consulting, sponsorships and screenplays.

2005
The agency adds a producer representation department.

2007
“Hanns Wolters: Emigre Impresario Berlin/Palestine/New York” exhibition held at the Center for Jewish History. Event attended by Mahrdt, Carol Kahn Strauss, Leo Baeck Institute director, and Renata Stein, Leo Baeck curator.

2012
Hanns Wolters Intl. celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Related Links:
Agency topper flies German flag in U.S.

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