When he was a teenager at San Francisco's Lowell High School, Irving M. "Bud" Levin didn't go out for the football team, or any sports, for that matter.
He was too busy working at his father's Coliseum theater at Ninth and Clement, enthralled with the concept of cinema as art form -- a novel idea for anyone to hold in 1930, much less a 14-year-old.
Harold Zellerbach, president of the San Francisco Art Commission, and Festival founder Irving Levin at the third San Francisco International in 1959.
As an adult, managing seven movie houses under San Francisco Theatres Inc. (the Balboa, Harding, Coronet, Alexandria, Metro, Vogue and Coliseum), he had other creative notions as well.
He staged costume contests for kids at the theaters on Halloween, offered gimmicks like popcorn in noise-free cellophane bags and installed a TV room with armchairs in the back of the Coronet to lure dads who might otherwise stay home to watch televised fights.
If inspiration struck, there wasn't anything he wouldn't try, it seemed. He even took his wife and sons, ages 8 and 10, on a three-month driving tour of central Africa -- just because he could.
But his most novel achievement -- aside from his trademark handlebar mustache -- is also the longest lasting.
Levin was the man who created the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1957, which succeeded despite its shoestring budget and tiny staff, thanks to his tremendous energy and willpower.
"To my father," said Fred Levin, one of Bud's sons, "everything was a possibility.''
The festival that Levin envisioned would expand the audience for movies, encourage the production of higher-quality films and put San Francisco on the map as an international destination for cinematic arts and culture, just like Cannes, Venice and Berlin.
He was something of a visionary. By the festival's fourth anniversary, it was considered the largest film festival in U.S. history, with media correspondents attending from India, South America, Japan and England, and with critics from national publications such as Newsweek, the Washington Post and Variety, The Chronicle reported in 1960.
Actress Mary Pickford was invited to be the festival's special hostess; author John Steinbeck flew in to preview the production of one of his short stories; French film critic Jean Renoir was a jurist; and Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" was entered in the competition.
Had Levin not been the consummate businessman, parlaying all his connections to come up with supplemental donations and favors from well-heeled arts patrons and Mayor George Christopher, it might never have happened.
Not bad for Levin, the son of a Russian immigrant who had started one of the West Coast's early theater chains with a nickelodeon on Market Street.
The city's art commission had kicked around the idea of a film festival for several years, but nothing got off the ground until then-Italian Consul General Pierluigi Alvera came up with the idea for an Italian Film Festival.
"All the theater people turned him away,'' Irma Levin, Bud Levin's widow, recalled. "At the time, there were only two theaters showing foreign films. He was told, 'There's only one guy who will listen to you, and that's Bud Levin.' ''
The event was a hit in 1956. Fresh with enthusiasm and momentum, Levin decided that San Francisco was ripe for an international film festival on the order of Cannes and traveled there to observe. He tried to enlist Hollywood's participation but was initially spurned.
Luckily, Christopher was an ally, and so was Harold Zellerbach, president of the city's Arts Commission, lending their names to the efforts, if not city funding. Levin hustled for in-kind donations from businesses around town and invited socialites to make contributions. To get the movies, he asked film producers from nations with consulates in town to submit entries. He ended up with 15 films from 12 countries for his first San Francisco Film Festival at the Metro Theater. When India's "Pather Panchali" won the top award, it was a sign to the outside world that it was a real competition, and not rigged to ensure American victories.
Irma Levin, now 90, recalled during an interview at her high-rise apartment on Nob Hill that her husband worked on the festival every day in addition to his regular job of managing the local theater chain. She was part of the film festival effort and loved it. She was hostess for teas, luncheons and dinners associated with the festival in its early years. The inaugural year's after-party was held on Lake Street in Seacliff, with celebrities and honored guests shuttled back and forth in limousines provided by Oldsmobile.
"I was included in everything he did,'' she said. "There wasn't a minute we didn't talk about it."
The team effort may have been one of the reasons their marriage lasted 58 years, until his death from of a heart attack in 1995. He was 79.
Because the festival started during the Cold War years, there was intrigue, too.
"He had problems getting the films into the country past customs, and stars had to get visas to enter,'' Irma Levin recalled. "I don't know how many times the FBI called his office, saying, 'Who are these people?' -- especially with the Russians and the Iron Curtain countries.''
Bud Levin was the sort of man who made his job his life. After working all day, he'd head home for dinner with the wife and kids, then go back to work, driving to his theaters to make sure that everything was running properly.
He was 40 when the festival premiered and ran it for eight years before handing over the reins. By 1965, the event had grown too large for one person to handle.
And what if Bud Levin were alive today to see how it has grown and expanded under subsequent directors such as Claude Jarman and Albert Johnson, Peter Scarlet and, most recently, Graham Leggat, who has included films made with new technology, such as cellular phones?
"Graham embodies some of the same qualities my dad had, including the drive,'' Fred Levin said. "I think he'd be very pleased."