In 1953, when Walt and Roy Disney decided to create their own film distribution company, they called on seasoned exhibitor and distributor Irving Ludwig to help make it happen. Over the next 27 years, Irving helped grow the newly formed Buena Vista Distribution Co. to 20 regional offices in cities including Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago. The division he helped create arranged exhibition of Disney movies at theaters throughout the United States and Canada. He later recalled, “Booking theaters was always a good experience because the name ‘Disney’ assured exhibitors they would be showing movies that the whole family could enjoy.”
Born in Russia on November 3, 1910, Irving immigrated to the United States with his family in 1920. Raised in Brooklyn, he later studied advertising and marketing at New York University. In 1929, he entered the entertainment industry as a part-time usher at New York’s famed Rivoli Theatre. After making a suggestion to the owner that he replace a section of the theatre, which had become obsolete with the advent of talking pictures, with an additional 62 seats, he soon found himself promoted to house manager.
Then, in 1939, Irving was hired to manage the 8th Street Playhouse. In 1940, he opened and operated the Greenwich Village Art Theatre, the first movie house built in New York to exclusively screen foreign films. Later that same year, Irving joined The Walt Disney Studios to manage the roadshow engagements of Fantasia, in cities including New York, San Francisco, and Philadelphia.
Remembered Irving, “Back then, when you had a roadshow engagement, you had something unusual—reserved seats, two performances a day, a higher admission at $2—you made an impression upon the public.”
In 1945, Irving became a full-time member of the Company’s sales administration staff, helping direct motion picture promotional campaigns. Then, in 1959, after serving six years as vice president and domestic sales manager for Buena Vista Distribution Co., Irving was named its president. He went on to shape a successful program that mixed new films with reissues of Disney classic fare.
Among the high points of his career, Irving pointed to Mary Poppins, which he initially opened in only a handful of theaters until word of mouth paved its way to more movie screens. He explained, “We weren’t in a position to promote it massively and we felt that a slow beginning could lead to bigger things.” Indeed, at that time, Mary Poppins became Disney’s greatest box office success and went on to win five Oscars®.
Irving retired in 1980. He passed away on November 26, 2005, at the age of 95, in Santa Monica, California.