At its annual pre-Oscar luncheon last week, the ICG Publicists Guild presented a special award to Arlene Ludwig, who is about to celebrate her 50th anniversary with the Walt Disney Company. Julie Andrews and Jodie Foster insisted on sharing the honor of introducing her, which immediately tells you something important about Arlene: she has made and kept friends over these many years, and they are as loyal to her as she is to them.
The fact that Arlene was able to use her walker to get to center stage at the Beverly Hilton Hotel and deliver a thank-you speech was especially moving to her family, friends and colleagues, as she has been recovering (slowly but surely) from a freak accident last year that left her partially paralyzed.
Julie Andrews recalled how a bright young publicist met her and her family when she arrived at the airport in Los Angeles to make Mary Poppins in 1963. When she returned to the Disney studio for The Princess Diaries in 2001, Arlene was there to greet her on her first day of filming. Jodie Foster told how Arlene befriended her and saw her through her “terrible teens” when she was working regularly on the Disney lot. They have remained friends and confidantes ever since, although she’s never once let Jodie win a game of tennis.
Arlene has made a lasting impression on many people in Hollywood as a tireless publicist for the Walt Disney Company, and I can attest to her company loyalty. On more than one occasion she has made me feel downright guilty for not liking one of their releases!
She comes by that loyalty naturally. Her father, Irving Ludwig, first went to work for Walt and Roy Disney in 1940 helping to promote the roadshow release of Fantasia. When the Disney brothers decided to launch their own distribution company in the early 1950s, they chose Irving to run Buena Vista, which he did until his retirement decades later. He was a class act, as they say, and I feel fortunate to have known him.
But I’ve known his daughter even longer. In fact, I was 16 years old when I first spoke to Arlene on the phone. I was living in Teaneck, New Jersey and when I heard the news of Walt Disney’s death, I knew I wanted to devote an issue of my magazine, Film Fan Monthly, to his career. I made a cold call to Walt Disney Productions in Manhattan and asked to speak to someone in publicity. Fate smiled on me as the operator connected me with Arlene. When I told her my plan she replied, “How can I help you? What do you need?” She’s never stopped asking. (That was a spoiler for me; I thought every publicist would be open and forthcoming, which wasn’t always the case, especially as a kid.)
When I made my first trip to Los Angeles, she arranged for me to tour the Walt Disney studio in Burbank, and later opened the door for me to write my book The Disney Films. Neither of us could have guessed that we’d both move to California someday, or that we’d work with each other on a regular basis once I started reviewing movies for a living.
So you see, Arlene Ludwig has been a presence in my life for an awfully long time. My wife and daughter are as fond of her as I am, and we were all stunned to hear of her freak accident last year. An active woman and avid tennis fan, it was miserable for her to be confined to a bed and unable to move around or even hold a pen in her hand, but she has made great progress, an inch at a time, and is determined to return to work in time to mark her golden anniversary with the company she loves. I even look forward to her calls and e-mails asking how I liked the latest Disney pictures.
I’m so glad Arlene received such heartfelt, and public, recognition last week. If you’d like to read more about Arlene and her experiences at Disney over the years (she was a bridesmaid at Annette Funicello’s wedding!), I encourage you to read a lively interview she gave to Scott Wolf for his wonderful website Mouse Club House. Click HERE.