Sunday, December 10, 2017
Stage

Ruth Eckerd Hall CEO Zev Buffman looks to the future

CLEARWATER

Zev Buffman is right where he wants to be.

He's in his office at Ruth Eckerd Hall, sunlight streaming in on the posters from some shows he has produced in his storied career. There's Oklahoma with Laurence Guittard, The Little Foxes with Elizabeth Taylor. There's a large black-and-white photo of his wife of 52 years, Vilma, belly bare, dancing in a production of Gypsy.

And he's talking to a journalist, which is another thing he wants to do. Some publicity is good for the theater, of course, but moreover he likes to be on record. He views the newspaper as a sort of checklist.

"It's not a bad way to double-check yourself," he says. "So you're not just a bigmouth."

He's holding a list of things he said in past interviews when he got hired as CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall in 2012, peering at it through his blue-tinted glasses. Buffman has a reputation as a dreamer with grandiose visions, and at the time he let them fly.

"I talked about so many projects in my infancy in Clearwater as if I knew all the answers."

Now he is 83, and though he enjoys watching sunsets on the water and doing calisthenics in the pool, Buffman has no designs on quitting. In fact, he claims to have not taken a day off in more than two years.

In March, the board of directors of Ruth Eckerd Hall extended Buffman's contract to 2016, ending any speculation that he might be replaced. The decision was unanimous, the board chairman said, citing things including the lead Buffman took on the rapid renovation of the Capitol Theatre in downtown Clearwater.

Buffman has produced more than 40 Broadway shows and 100 national tours. He has 29 Tony Award nominations. He has restored seven old theaters. So though it may have seemed like a wild card for an octogenarian to become a new CEO, Buffman always got motivation from a core belief:

Theaters can't just exist to host plays and rock concerts.

"It doesn't cut it anymore," he says. "You have to be a player in economic development."

One of those developments, the Capitol Theatre, is playing out in front of our eyes. It could eventually prove to be Buffman's biggest accomplishment during this CEO stint.

The Capitol Theatre opened in 1921 for vaudeville acts and silent movies, but over the years became dilapidated. In 2008, the city of Clearwater purchased the Capitol and gave it to Ruth Eckerd Hall to run.

Buffman helmed a $20 million fundraising campaign that included the Capitol renovation and improvements to Ruth Eckerd Hall on McMullen-Booth Road. He spoke of enriching education outreach and also building a new outdoor amphitheater to balance the Church of Scientology's stronghold downtown.

So what worked?

The Capitol reopened in December, expanded to 737 seats from 485 with a total facelift, extra bathrooms and a glam wraparound balcony, among other plush amenities. A penny tax and a state grant paid for most of the $10.7 million in renovations.

The Ruth Eckerd Hall finance department is finalizing the Capitol's first quarterly report. Preliminarily, Buffman says, attendance at more than 60 shows was around 35,000. Half the performances have been sold out, and more than two dozen more are planned through September.

Improvements at Ruth Eckerd Hall are also under way, including lobby expansions and a new $2.5 million air-conditioning system. Buffman is especially proud of the education efforts, the kids and young adults in the Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute shadowing Broadway tours and learning everything from set design to stage makeup.

None of it has been without struggle. There were unexpected construction costs and at times tense financial renegotiations with the city. And Buffman lamented having to cut Ruth Eckerd's permanent staff from 76 to 55, including some employees who had been there many years.

He felt some pushback from people who thought his ideas were too big, too unwieldy, he says, but thinks most people gave him a chance.

"You've got to prove yourself, prove your passion, demonstrate your energy, which backs up your passion," he says. "Especially when your number is 83. . . . The word spread that there's a guy in town who's got some crazy ideas, some far-reaching ideas, but let's see what happens."

He still has more projects to check off, including his quest for a better outdoor facility in Clearwater. He wants to see Coachman Park renovated into the kind of place Jimmy Buffett or Metallica might play. In his view, that means new permanent bathrooms and renovated snack stands with access to water and ice.

He approaches each opportunity like a gift bag, a bundle, a package. You don't just go to a show. You go to a show with dinner. Two years ago, he says, Ruth Eckerd was serving 35 in-house dinners per show. Now, it's as many as 400. You don't just book Jay Leno at the Capitol Theatre. You have a classic car show lining the street.

"Nothing is a one-shot deal," he says. "Whatever you do has got legs to move from point one to point two to point three. It has mileage."

Since Buffman is in the habit of making promises in print, he had one.

In California, he put on a motorcycle festival with bluegrass music that he says is still running after 20 years. It had the four B's — bluegrass, barbecue, bourbon and bikes. He wants that to happen here.

"We're going to do this by 2015," he says. "No later than '16."

So, there you have it.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @StephHayes on Twitter.

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