CLEARWATER — For a man who doesn't celebrate birthdays, Zev Buffman just got a satisfying present.
Buffman, the president and chief executive officer of Ruth Eckerd Hall, turns 86 today. In a unanimous vote, Ruth Eckerd's board has extended Buffman's contract through Jan. 1, 2019, venue leaders told the Tampa Bay Times on Monday. Among other things, the vote acknowledges back-to-back record ticket sales the past two years, including nearly $17 million in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30.
To hear Buffman tell it, he's just getting started.
"I am afraid of nothing," Buffman said. "But if there is anything I'm afraid of, it's not to get up and go to the office in the morning."
As a Broadway producer, Buffman helped launch the careers of dozens of A-list actors, including Elizabeth Taylor, Dustin Hoffman and Angela Lansbury. He was nominated for 29 Tony awards, and won a New York Drama Critics' award for best producer of a musical.
Posters from a 30-year career line the walls of his office. But Monday, Buffman was more interested in a pile of schematic drawings near an easel. Several times, he jumped to his feet to pluck out another one.
In one artistic rendering, 5,000 people in Coachman Park watch a concert beneath a fabric-covered pavilion that does not yet exist. High-definition screens reflect the performance for thousands more on the lawn, or for boaters in a marina past the stage. Ruth Eckerd would partner in the $8 million project with the city of Clearwater, which is now reviewing Buffman's proposal.
Another drawing shows up to 250 visitors in cabaret seating in an expanded lobby at Ruth Eckerd Hall, sipping drinks or eating prior to mainstage shows. On a small stage to the side, young musicians from the hall's Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts would provide free entertainment.
The Hoffman arts programs, among them a music and songwriting package and another that send arts teachers into public schools at no cost, have expanded under Buffman's watch.
At a recent fundraiser themed after the musical Kinky Boots (the tour comes to Ruth Eckerd from April 11-16), drag queens served hors d'oeuvres to donors who kicked in $150,000 for Teachers Without Borders, the schools program, enough to hire four more teachers.
"Clearwater is a conservative area," Buffman said. "I don't think it could have happened when I first came here in 2012."
Accepting the job at Ruth Eckerd five years ago was not an automatic choice for Buffman. He also had a job offer for president of the United Arts Fund in Seattle, where his wife Vilma is from and two grandchildren lived.
"It would mean that I would basically sit in my chair," he said. "People would be raising money and I would be the one who judged who gets $200,000, who gets $50,000, who gets $10,000."
He turned the Seattle job down and isn't looking back.
Asked how long he plans to keep working at Ruth Eckerd, Buffman answered without hesitation.
"Until the day I die."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.