Ruth Eckerd Hall's new CEO Zev Buffman comes to Clearwater with a long pedigree in theater

CLEARWATER — Zev Buffman, the new CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall, has a wealth of stories about all the stars he has worked with in his show business career of 60 years: Dan Dailey in Guys and Dolls. Charlton "Chuck" Heston in A Man for All Seasons. Dustin Hoffman in Jimmy Shine. Sandy Duncan in Peter Pan. Mary Martin and Carol Channing in Legends. • With more than 40 Broadway shows and 100 national tours on his producer's resume, Buffman knows a thing or two about hits and misses. • "I think the best lesson I learned is that you cannot fall in love with your product," Buffman said in an interview, recalling a couple of flops that he tried to keep running in the 1980s against a tide of terrible reviews, Requiem for a Heavyweight with John Lithgow and George Segal and Jerry's Girls with Chita Rivera. "I learned that if you get hit hard and the phones die on you at the box office, read the cards and don't go chasing bad dollars. Get out while you're still in one piece."

The pinnacle of Buffman's career as an impresario was when he produced Elizabeth Taylor in her theatrical debut in The Little Foxes, a play by Lillian Hellman. It happened at the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale — on Feb. 27, 1981, Taylor's 49th birthday — and the show went on to be a smash on Broadway.

"From the moment I persuaded Elizabeth to do a Broadway show, I became her shepherd, her keeper, her doctor, her shrink, her best friend," said Buffman, who also paired Taylor and her ex-husband, Richard Burton (they were married and divorced twice), in an infamous production of Noel Coward's Private Lives whose many troubles kept gossip columnists gleefully busy. "In the beginning, my relationship with her was wonderful. Later it got more difficult with the drugs and booze."

In 1983, Buffman was on a yacht on the Hudson River with Taylor on her day off from Private Lives, when she learned from a news report on the radio that Burton had flown off to Las Vegas to get married to his fourth wife, Sally Hay. "Elizabeth went crazy," Buffman said. "I thought she was going to jump off the boat."

As theater critic for the Miami Herald, Christine Dolen covered Buffman's exploits for many years. "You know the song Razzle Dazzle in Chicago? That's Zev," she said. "Although he's quite a dignified guy, he's very capable of using the old razzle dazzle and bringing flair to whatever he does. I always thought of Zev as embodying the spirit of P.T. Barnum, and I don't mean that he was a flimflam man or anything. He really knew how to create excitement around productions and sell them to the public."

Now Buffman is planning to bring that showmanship to Ruth Eckerd Hall, where he officially starts working in January. It represents something of a homecoming for the veteran producer, who had a major role in the creation of the touring Broadway theater market, operating from a base in Miami for more than 25 years. It's a run that began with his 1962 purchase of the Coconut Grove Playhouse, where his first hit was a sex comedy called Pajama Tops, starring June "The Body" Wilkinson, often featured in Playboy.

At one point, Buffman operated Broadway subscription series in seven Florida venues, including Broadway in the Sunshine at Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and a series at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, in Tampa. Many of the shows he produced that went to Broadway started in Florida, often featuring actors who, if no longer at the peak of their careers, were still able to exploit their celebrity. But following a difficult stretch — "After '86 I couldn't take the pain on Broadway anymore," he said. "Having to close a show is like burying a relative" — he got out of the business in 1988 when he sold his operation to Pace Theatrical Group, which eventually morphed into what is now Broadway Across America.

Since then Buffman has been involved in a range of projects, such as helping to found the Miami Heat and being the NBA team's first general partner. In 2003, he landed in an unlikely location, as chief executive of the RiverPark Center in Owensboro, Ky., a city of 57,000 southwest of Louisville.

Not only is the Bible Belt of Western Kentucky a long way from the glitz of Broadway, Miami and Hollywood, where Buffman got his start as an actor in the 1950s with small parts in movies such as The Ten Commandments, but it's a really long way from Israel. Buffman was born in Tel Aviv, where his father owned two movie theaters, and he served in the Israeli army during three wars. With dual U.S.-Israel citizenship, he is devoted to his homeland, visiting family and friends there yearly, raising money for Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University.

Owensboro, Buffman said, is "a very, very Christian community, with many born-agains," and the population, he joked, includes "maybe 12 Jews, those who will admit it." Still, he had a good tenure at RiverPark, creating popular trademark events such as the International Mystery Writers' Festival and Winter Wonderland, a holiday celebration that features an outdoor skating rink and carnival. This past August, the center completed a successful fundraising campaign to retire $4.6 million of debt in six months.

With the announcement that Buffman was returning to Florida, there were questions about his age. At 81, he is 15 years older than the man he is succeeding at Ruth Eckerd, Robert Freedman, who held the job for 13 years and announced his retirement in April.

"We will be second-guessed on this," said Richard Bouchard, chairman of the hall's board of directors. "But of all the candidates for the job, Zev had more energy — and he did more homework and knew more about the hall — than any of them."

With up to 70 applicants, the board's search committee narrowed the choice down to Buffman and one other candidate, a 54-year-old Californian whom Bouchard declined to name.

"The other finalist was a very management-oriented guy," Bouchard said. "We wanted somebody with more of a vision, somebody who can take the hall to the next level. That's why Zev's here."

Buffman's employment contract is for three years, with options for two more years. His salary was not disclosed, though he and Bouchard said it was comparable to what Freedman made. Total compensation for the retiring CEO was reported as $193,671 on the hall's 2009 tax return, the latest available.

"At dinner one night Zev told me that if he was here three, four, five years, it's going to be better than 10 years we'd get from anyone else," Bouchard said. "And I believe that. If we can get five years from somebody like Zev, it's well worth it to the hall."

Buffman isn't defensive about his age, pointing out that Tony Bennett is still going strong, and he's 85. (Bennett has a concert at Ruth Eckerd on March 23.) "If you're stuck with it, if the stories begin, and they all have, 'Zev Buffman, 81 . . .,' then you realize that people must be saying, 'What are they doing at Ruth Eckerd Hall?' '' he said. "Okay, it's bad news. Well, how you turn bad news into good news is my specialty. I'm going to make an issue out of it and fight back for guys like me."

Active as a skier (he and his wife of 49 years, Vilma, have had a home in Aspen, Colo., since 1971) and as a tennis player, having undergone a hip replacement five years ago, he credits "good Ukrainian stock" — his parents emigrated from Ukraine to Palestine in 1921 — and a conscientious regimen for his longevity in business. "I've taken very good care of myself. I haven't eaten red meat for 30 years. My wife is a brilliant chef. We both believe in lots of fruits and vegetables. The proof is right here. Exercise and a good diet: Cut the meat, cut the fat, cut the sugars. It works."

At RiverPark, Buffman's age was never an issue. "He certainly doesn't look it or act it," said David Renshaw, chairman of the board of the Kentucky performing arts center. "He's full of energy and full of life. A lot of people in the community never would've guessed he was 81. I think it's just because he loves what he does so much."

Buffman won the Ruth Eckerd job by promising to beef up its Broadway series and have the hall produce shows, but not necessarily the musicals that have dominated the touring market for decades. "It's time to get back to plays and comedies and mysteries," he said. "Right now there's a big bunch of musicals and nothing else. But the industry cannot keep producing as many musicals in this recession."

In some ways, Buffman sees the market returning to what it was during his heyday in Miami. "I'm going to do what I can to persuade stars to come down and play the Florida circuit," he said, mentioning the performing arts centers in West Palm Beach and Naples as possible partners. "Putting together plays with a star who is willing to do six or eight weeks at selected theaters. That's where our future is going."

Any specific ideas? "Al Pacino will do the right play for six to eight weeks," he said.

Buffman also plans to institute training in technical theater at the Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute, the hall's educational component. And he has a powerful ally in Production Resource Group, the world's largest provider of lighting, sound and video gear to the entertainment industry, with credits ranging from The Lion King and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark to the Super Bowl halftime show to the Detroit Auto Show.

"We'll do anything for Zev," said Tim Brennan, a vice president with PRG, which brought training programs to RiverPark. "Wherever Zev Buffman goes, they're going to get additional support from us, be it access to our internship program, access to equipment we can loan and donate to the facility, tutorials from our staff."

In early December, when Buffman and his wife had just arrived at their new home in the East Lake Woodlands country club community in Oldsmar, the news broke that Ruth Eckerd Hall was embroiled in a flap involving the Church of Scientology. Besieged by complaints from patrons and supporters, the hall had to disassociate itself from a fundraiser by the church for renovation of the Capitol Theater in downtown Clearwater. The hall, in partnership with the city, is spearheading the project and presents programs at the theater.

"They didn't have to throw such a big homecoming event for me," said Buffman, laughing, of the controversy. He has identified restoration of the Capitol and its use as an alternative venue as one of the hall's priorities, but he didn't expect it to be complicated by Scientology, which has what amounts to a stranglehold on downtown Clearwater. He has never had any dealings with the church.

In some ways, it was suggested to Buffman, negotiating the intractable relationship between Scientology and much of Clearwater could be likened to efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East. "It's not dissimilar," he said. "But the one option that is not open is to cut and run because it's too difficult. It's always difficult. There are always challenges in economic development. We'll just do the best we can and move through them."

Maybe someone who had to mediate the warfare between Taylor and Burton during Private Lives can bridge the conflict between Clearwater and Scientology.

"I have the patience, and I have the experience, and I'm a fairly good diplomat," Buffman said. "And I'm a stubborn Israeli, and I don't like to lose."

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

Ruth Eckerd Hall's new CEO Zev Buffman comes to Clearwater with a long pedigree in theater 12/10/11 [Last modified: Saturday, December 10, 2011 3:30am]

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