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Irving Ludwig, Pioneering Disney Distribution Exec, Dies at 95

Irving Ludwig, former president of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, and one of the most respected and innovative executives in theatrical film distribution, passed away at his home in Santa Monica, California, from natural causes on Nov. 26. He was 95-years -old.

During his illustrious 40-year association with Disney and its distribution arm, Buena Vista, Ludwig was an integral force in shaping the structure, policies and operations for all aspects of releasing Disney movies into the marketplace. He successfully guided the release of such Disney blockbusters as THE SHAGGY DOG, MARY POPPINS, 101 DALMATIANS, THE PARENT TRAP, THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR, THE JUNGLE BOOK and THE LOVE BUG, among others. Under his leadership, reissues of classic Disney animated features especially FANTASIA also found new success. In fact, Ludwig once remarked: Dont underestimate the public. They are so smart.

Commenting on Ludwigs passing, Dick Cook, chairman of The Walt Disney Studios, said, Irving was a giant in our industry and an inspirational figure for all of us who had the honor of working with him. He had tremendous integrity, passion and commitment to the films he was distributing, and he encouraged his team to be creative and innovative in every way. Irving was a keen businessman, a great showman and a major force in shaping our industry. He was also a great friend and mentor, and he helped to train many of todays top executives. I am deeply indebted to him and will miss his wisdom and guidance very much.

Roy E. Disney, director emeritus and consultant for The Walt Disney Co., added, Irving has been an important part of the Disney studio family ever since I can remember. He first caught the attention of Walt and my dad with his incredible efforts in launching the original FANTASIA in 1940 during its groundbreaking Fantasound roadshow engagement. He went on help create the studios own distribution company, Buena Vista, and to shape all of its exhibition policies. Irving was key to the successful release of many Disney films, and his work on such films as FANTASIA and MARY POPPINS is still worth studying and learning from. He was a caring and dynamic man who was passionately devoted to the studio and quality family entertainment. His work here at Disney is legendary and he continues to inspire us today.

Born in Lutck, Russia, on Nov. 3, 1910, Ludwig immigrated to the U.S. with his family in 1920. He was raised in Brooklyn, and went on to study advertising and marketing at New York University. He entered the entertainment industry in 1929 as a part-time usher at New Yorks Rivoli Theatre, where he quickly advanced to house manager. He held that position until 1938, under both the Paramount-Publix and United Artists theater circuits.

In 1940, Ludwig opened and operated the Greenwich Village Art Theatre, an independent exhibitor that was the first new movie house built in the U.S. for the express purpose of screening foreign films. Later that same year, he joined Walt Disney Prods. to manage the roadshow engagements of the landmark animated feature, FANTASIA.

Ludwig recalled, It was hard to get theaters to play FANTASIA because most were controlled by chains. We wanted the film to be an event, and we even purchased old legitimate theaters to present it in. Several didnt even have projection booths. It was quite a challenge.

During the early days of World War II, Ludwig managed a theater in the Skouras Theatre Corp. before joining Rugoff and Becker in 1942. He worked as a film buyer and supervisor of theater operations until 1945, at which time he became a member of the sales administrative staff of Walt Disney Prods. When Buena Vista was formed in 1953, Ludwig was an integral force on the formulating committee that gave the company its structure and launched it into active operation. As the first vp and domestic sales manager, he significantly contributed to shaping the companys policies and success. He became president of Buena Vista in 1959 and held that post until his retirement in October, 1980

With the 1964 launch of Walt Disneys masterpiece, MARY POPPINS, Ludwig had one of his most satisfying box office triumphs. He recalled, We realized that we had a wonderful, magical film, and knew the audiences would love it. And they did, to the tune of $45 million worldwide.

During his long and progressive association with the film industry, Ludwig served as a member of the Variety Club, the Cinema Lodge, the Pioneers and the Motion Picture Bookers Club of New York. In 1993, he received the Disney Legends Award in a ceremony at the studio in Burbank. The National Fantasy Fan Club similarly honored him in 1998.

In a 1980 interview with BOXOFFICE MAGAZINE, Ludwig offered the following insights into his business philosophy: Although, generally speaking, distributors do not look upon exhibitors as friends, I believe my relationship with them has been one of a different nature. We always treated them fairly, gave them an honest count and were interested in their participation in our films.

Ludwig is survived by two daughters: Arlene Ludwig, a veteran motion picture publicist for Buena Vista Pictures Marketing, and Jackie Ludwig Bragg and her husband, Larry Bragg. His wife of 59 years, Helen, passed away in 1993.

A memorial and graveside service will be held on Wednesday (11/30) at noon at Mount Sinai Hollywood Hills Memorial Park, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles. In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to California Institute of the Arts at CalArts Office of Advancement, 24700 McBean Parkway, Valencia, California, 91355-2397.