After seven years as the CEO and president of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Zev Buffman has announced his retirement.
The veteran theater impresario, who turns 88 next week, made the announcement on Thursday, but said he and his wife had reached the decision late last week.
"I've always said I would never retire," Buffman said by phone Thursday from Morton Plant Hospital, where his wife was recovering from hip surgery. "I've learned one thing in my 88 years, is that you go and you come and you go and you come depending on events. We're parting ways on a wonderful note."
Susan Crockett, Ruth Eckerd Hall's chief operating officer, will take over as interim president while the board of directors undergoes a search for the venue's next leader. Former mayor Frank Hibbard, the board's incoming chairman, said the search will be national in scope.
"We know that Ruth Eckerd Hall is a desirable position, and so we don't think it's going to be hard to fill it," Hibbard said. "We just want to find the right person for the next chapter, and I hope that's going to be somebody that will be at the hall for a decade or so. Continuity is important."
Throughout Buffman's tenure, it seemed like that wouldn't be an issue. An energetic and enthusiastic advocate for the arts, Buffman often spoke about his distaste for the idea of retirement. He was nearly 86 when Ruth Eckerd re-upped his most recent contract, which was set to expire Jan. 1. Asked then how long he planned to stay on, he replied: "Until the day I die."
"I wasn't expecting him to retire, but I can't say that I'm surprised," said Sherry Powell, interim president of the Florida Orchestra. "Zev is a big thinker with a positive attitude, and he's got the qualifications through his entire career to have a pretty good sense of what the right next step should be."
Buffman joined Ruth Eckerd Hall in 2011 after a storied career in entertainment. He produced the theatrical debut of Elizabeth Taylor and the first Broadway run of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and he helped co-found the Miami Heat. He has worked closely with Frank Sinatra, Paul McCartney, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Julie Andrews and countless others in a career that reaped nearly 30 Tony nominations.
At Ruth Eckerd Hall, Buffman helped launch the Grammy Museum's Music Revolution Project, an annual summer program for teenage music students at the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts, and oversaw an ongoing $34 million renovation of the decades-old venue, scheduled to wrap next year. He also oversaw the reestablishment of the Capitol Theatre, which reopened in late 2013 after some $10 million in renovations and now books dozens of concerts each year.
"He's made some tremendous contributions to the Hall, from where we're at today with the Capitol Theatre, Murray Theater and the expansion that's going on right now," Hibbard said. "We need somebody who's going to continue to be a liaison between a little bit different facilities and the city and the county. It's somebody that wears a lot of hats."
Powell said the collaborative spirit Buffman brought to Ruth Eckerd was a big reason why the Orchestra and venue are co-presenting live film scores for Star Wars and Home Alone in December.
"I think that's due in part to Zev and his willingness to invest in those kind of relationships and partnerships," she said.
In recent weeks Buffman had butted heads with some Clearwater officials over a proposed plan to build a covered midsize amphitheater in Coachman Park, where Ruth Eckerd Hall has been instrumental in staging concerts like the Clearwater Jazz Holiday. When the city moved toward plans for a smaller facility than the 5,000- to 10,000-seat covered amphitheater Buffman and Ruth Eckerd Hall had envisioned, he told the Tampa Bay Times it was a "death warrant on what could be."
"It's an illusion, it's unstable," Buffman said in August. "It is not feasible for us to risk putting shows at Coachman Park anymore."
But after speaking at length with city officials and local neighborhood groups, Buffman on Thursday said he's now optimistic an amphitheater is "back on the table" and "more likely on again," and he would consult on the project going forward.
"I'd love to be back and finish it, but we'll see," he said. "The board will lead us all. I'm very independent, I'm very creative, and I live by that. Always, the first door open is right here in Clearwater."
Hibbard said the Coachman Park debate was "unequivocally" not a factor in Buffman's announcement.
"The relationship with the city is as strong as ever with Ruth Eckerd Hall," Hibbard said. "Certainly, I think that Zev would have done it differently if he could go back in a time machine, but we've had very constructive conversations with every council member since then, and we've talked to neighborhood leaders and explained the benefits of a pavilion that will accommodate somewhere between 3,200 and 4,000 people under cover."
While he will continue to serve as an outside advisor on various projects for the next year, Buffman intends to keep busy with other long-gestating personal goals as he splits time between Clearwater, New York and his wife's home state of Washington.
He is writing a memoir (working title: From the Holy Land to Hollywood via Broadway). He plans to teach college courses on the entertainment industry, as he has in the past. And he's producing a play in New York — Mike Hammer: The Little Death, which was to premiere in January at Ruth Eckerd Hall, but will now go up in New York. Buffman said streaming rights to the production have drawn interest from Netflix and Amazon.
"I'm running out of time, no matter how strong I am, and I'd better get to it," he said. "It's not retiring from life like people at 88 do, totally sanely and expectedly. Not me. I'm ready for more."
Times Staff Writer Tracey McManus contributed to this report. Contact Jay Cridlin at email@example.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.