They say you can't go home again, but don't tell that to Zev Buffman. The veteran show business promoter, who brought touring Broadway to Florida in the 1970s and '80s, has been named president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall.
"Every eight years or so I seem to have a terrible desire or a need to reinvent myself," said Buffman, who was based in South Florida for more than 25 years. "So here I am coming all reinvented to Ruth Eckerd Hall. It is coming home again, and I hope it works."
Buffman, 81, whose resume includes production credits for more than 40 Broadway shows and 100 national tours, will begin work at the Clearwater hall in January. He succeeds Robert Freedman, who held the post for 13 years and announced his retirement in April.
Since 2003, Buffman has been president and CEO of the RiverPark Center in Owensboro, Ky., a city of 57,000, southwest of Louisville. With a 1,500-seat auditorium, its 2011-12 season includes a Broadway series with one-night stands of My Fair Lady, The Color Purple and three other musicals, the Winter Wonderland ice-skating festival and a mystery writers' festival.
Buffman was once a powerhouse in Florida theater, though he spelled his last name B-u-f-m-a-n in those days. (The spelling change is "a great but long story," he said, involving a bet he lost with his wife of 49 years, Vilma.)
He started his career as a producer at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami. He promoted touring Broadway series at half a dozen Florida venues, including the Broadway in the Sunshine series at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and a series at Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now the Straz Center, in Tampa. In 1988, he sold his Florida operation to Pace Theatrical Group, which eventually morphed into what is now Broadway Across America.
"Zev just keeps rolling along," said Charles Cinnamon, a press agent in Miami who worked with Buffman for many years. "He's full of ideas, loaded with energy, makes a huge commitment to everything he does — and delivers the goods. Nobody understands the industry like him. He really is a driving force."
In 1981, Buffman made a splash when he persuaded Elizabeth Taylor to make her Broadway debut in The Little Foxes. Two years later he masterminded a Broadway reunion of Taylor and her ex-husband, Richard Burton, in Private Lives. Other Broadway productions included Dustin Hoffman in Jimmy Shine (1968), Muhammed Ali in the musical Buck White (1969) and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1982).
Outside of the performing arts, Buffman had a hand in founding the Miami Heat and was the NBA team's first general partner. "One of the crowning achievements of my lifetime," he said.
Buffman was one of 67 candidates for the Ruth Eckerd job. He identified a dozen priorities for the hall, which seats about 2,100. At the top was renovation of the Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater, which has been run by the hall. "Restoration of theaters is something I've done before," he said. "They take a special treatment. I really want to be part of the growth of the downtown and work with the city."
Other priorities include instituting vocational training in technical theater (lighting, sound, set and costume design and construction) at the Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute, which is part of the hall; and enhancing the Broadway series. He is well aware of competition from the highly successful Broadway series at the Straz and the ambitions of new management at the Mahaffey.
"How we deal with the other colleagues around the bay will hopefully be done like peace in the Middle East and we will reach it eventually," he said. "That's what I do. I am a very good mediator. I do things with smiles and giving people options that maybe they didn't think about and can work for the whole. We are in the same business and if we work together we can do better."
Buffman also warned about the economy. "We have to steel ourselves to what's coming in the next two, three years," he said. "The industry is going to change enormously. We're going to do what people have to do in very serious recessions."
The irony is not lost on Buffman that he is 15 years older than the man he is replacing, Freedman. "The 80s are the new 60s," he said, laughing, in a phone interview from Kentucky. "It's all a question of energy and passion. Retirement is totally out of the question. I take great care of myself. The number means nothing to me, and it never has. As long as God keeps me healthy, I'll be there just cranking away and leaving people behind me."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.