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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2018 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved.


 

February 26, 2016  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

From Israeli kid to Broadway producer, Ruth Eckerd CEO remains in spotlight

By BRUCE LOWITT Jewish Press


Zev Buffman, 85, at the Capitol Theater in downtown Clearwater, one of the venues he oversees as CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall. Zev Buffman, 85, at the Capitol Theater in downtown Clearwater, one of the venues he oversees as CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall. It all began with Gunga Din – and Danny Kaye.

“My dad owned two movie houses in Tel Aviv. School was over 2:30-3 p.m., and traditionally in the 1930s there was a 3:30 matinee every day of the week except on Shabbos. So I would go right from school to the cinema and sit up in the projection room,” recalls Zev Buffman, who would grow up to become a theatrical producer, and is in his fifth year as president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater.

Buffman spoke various languages as a youngster – but not English. “We spoke Russian at home, my parents’ language,” he said during an interview in his office, lined with posters of his Tony Award-winning Broadway shows and other productions.

“Then came Hebrew and Arabic because of where we lived.

“Then German because of all the refugees, and French came in school. Because we were preparing to liberate (Israel) from the British, we revolted; we were not going to study English.”

But many of the films were in English and so, first by osmosis, then by intent, he learned.

“I know that’s where it started.” He laughed.

“I saw Gunga Din 78 times because a movie ran for weeks in Israel until it ran out of steam. … And there was Danny Kaye, and I fell in love with him. I watched every one of his movies on the screen time and time and time again.

“I started doing imitations of his real quick say-it-as-fast-as-you-can bits, like the Russian composers. Not for anyone, just for me. And I memorized three or four of the most difficult numbers,” Buffman said. “When you’re a kid – 12,13,14 – you retain those things.”

Buffman was born in 1930 and by age 13 he was in the Gadna, an acronym for Hebrew Youth Battalions, established by the Haganah. It later became the core of the Israeli Defense Forces. They trained in kibbutzim, thousands of kids spread all over the country.

“You also met girls at a very young age because everything was coed,” Buffman said, wistfully. “It was a lovely life. … Every night, 150-200 kids round a fire.

“One day someone said, ‘Why don’t you do (one of your routines)?’ So I did Danny Kaye, did one every time we got together. One thing led to another and I started writing my own material and doing improvisational theater and monologues. They worked. We laughed at anything in those days.”

Buffman was a commando in Gaza and later in the Sinai during the series of 1947-49 Arab-Israeli wars. The fighting was “continuously interrupted by U.N. cease-fires. Three months later, more war. Then another cease-fire,” he said.

“During those breaks I formed what Bob Hope used to do with the USO, tour camps. We had boys and girls, comics, dancers, like a two-hour show traveling camp to camp, 10 minutes away, 20 minutes. An hour was a schlep.”

He served his three years in the military. Back then, people who studied something considered important for Israel could get a student visa to study abroad – and Buffman had his sights on Hollywood. From watching the movies, he knew the names of the heads of all the studios, the directors.

“I decided I was going to go to L.A., not to a big school but to Los Angeles City College, small but literally five or six blocks away from Paramount, RKO, Columbia Pictures. …”

Going to be an actor would not get him a student visa. Engineering would, so he applied with agricultural engineering as his major and motion pictures as his minor. He got his visa, arrived in 1951, took the minimum required two years at LACC, dropped the engineering studies and transferred to L.A. State College.

Buffman’s first break came during opening night in a play at L.A. City College. He played Sgt. Schulz in Stalag 17. The studios would send talent scouts and after the show “a guy comes to the dressing room – five foot tall, big cigar, big fedora, cape – right out of central casting. ‘You the kid from Israel?’ Hands me a card. ‘I’m Milton Lewis, head of talent for Paramount Pictures.’

“I knew who he was. He discovered William Holden, Kim Novak. We talk in Hebrew. Says, ‘See my address at Paramount? Tomorrow morning, go to Central Casting. I’ll be there.’

“The next day I’m there. The talent scout says, ‘What do you do? What can you do? Sing? Dance? ... Are you free Friday night?’ He writes an address. “Wear your best suit.’ I only had one.”

It was a bonds-for-Israel dinner. He goes to the dais, finds his seat. “A man comes over, speaks in Hebrew, says, ‘My name is Dory Schary, I’m the president of MGM. I’m going to do a lot of talking, then I’m going to introduce you. Milton Lewis tells me you’re going to do a song or dance. Need anything?’ ”

Buffman asked for the longest corded microphone available. He was going to walk the room.

“ ‘I’m going to sing you a love song that’s very popular in Israel,’ ” he told the house in decent English. “ ‘It’s about a boy going to war and a girl who believes he’s not coming back. It’s got a lot of refrains, La-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la-la. Repeat after me. … Louder. … Louder.’ ”

He went from table to table, leading the singing, got to the VIP table, climbed on. “ ‘One more time! … Thank you very much.’ ”

Buffman returned to his seat. About 10 men from the VIP table approached with Dore Schary in the lead. “They started introducing themselves. Darryl Zanuck (20th Century Fox). Jack Warner (Warner Bros.). Adolph Zukor (Paramount). One by one. I can’t believe my luck.

“ ‘We raised a lot of money tonight, more money than ever. Is there anything we can do for you? Can you work?’ ”

“Yes, if it’s related to my studies.”

“What do you want to be?”

“A movie star.”

“Your English is lousy. There’s very little we can find for you.” But they said they’d see what they could do.

The next day Zukor’s son calls. They need extras for Flight to Tangier. Buffman would be an Arab guard.

“All you have to do,” Zukor told him, “is guard an airplane (Jack) Palance needs to escape. He beats you up. Then you drop and pass out. Scene over.”

They rehearsed the scene. The 6-foot-4 Palance, towering over Buffman, shows him how he’d be taken down on his back, his head pounded two or three times into padding painted to look like pavement.

“We do the scene,” Buffman said. “He comes in like a tiger. I’m fighting him back, punching him. He drops me on the floor, misses the spot, my head’s hitting the concrete. I’m out cold. They’re calling the ambulances. The next day in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, the two trade publications, ‘Young Israeli commando officer in first movie gets killed by Jack Palance playing an Arab.’ ”

He played two different Hebrew slaves in The Ten Commandments, “played every Frenchman, every Russian, every Turk, everything with an accent that they could find.”

But when he saw himself on the screen he realized the movies weren’t for him. Acting for the camera requires subtlety, he said, and he was a stage actor, where everything has to be exaggerated for a large audience.

“And I was playing garbage parts.” So he quit and decided to try directing, which he’d also done in college.

He directed the 1958 Hollywood production of A Hole in the Head, and Roy Steckler, the producer and son of a New York pharmaceutical magnate, was hospitalized with seizures the night before the opening.

“I called his father,” Buffman said. “He told me, ‘You be the producer. Just tell me what you need.’ We were a big hit. That’s how careers happen. … Four or five months after we closed I get a $35,000 check from Steckler Phamaceuticals. “It says, ‘Here is your share of the profits. Spend it wisely, Mr. Producer.’ ”

The Hollywood Canteen, a club off Sunset Boulevard that offered food, entertainment and dancing (often with movie stars) for World War II servicemen during 1942-45, had fallen into disrepair and was in receivership, $20,000 overdue.

“I bought the place and used another $5,000 to convert it into the first dinner theater in America,” Buffman said. “We called it the Legrand Theater and I produced my first original play called Laffcapades of 1959” with Vaudevillians Jack Albertson and Joey Faye.”

The following year he produced Vintage 60, a musical revue in Hollywood about the 1960 presidential campaign. New York producer David Merrick brought it to the Big Apple where it opened on Sept. 12 – and closed on Sept. 17 after eight performances.

(It wasn’t Buffman’s biggest flop; that honor went to Oh, Brother, a 1981 musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors about Middle East twins who vanish from a plane hijacked in Iraq. It ran from Nov. 10 to Nov. 11 – three performances.)

But after Vintage 60 “I never looked back,” Buffman said. “Since 1960 ‘til 1990 I produced at least one Broadway show a year. In the ‘80s I would do three shows a year.” And he said he began the trend of Broadway revivals - Oklahoma, West Side Story, Brigadoon.

And he produced Elizabeth Taylor’s stage debut in The Little Foxes, a sellout hit on Broadway in 1981. Two years later he reunited Taylor and Richard Burton in Noel Coward’s Private Lives.

“The two longest years of my life,” Buffman said of being with the twice-divorced Taylor and Burton on Broadway and touring. The critics savaged it and them “but we sold out everywhere.”

In 1962 he moved to Florida, buying the Coconut Grove Playhouse in Miami, and during the 1970s he brought Broadway to Florida with the Zev Buffman Sunshine Series, with a stop at the Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg (now the Mahaffey Theater), and later at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now the Straz Center for the Performing Arts).

He also bought and built theaters and arenas around the country and even dabbled in sports as one of the founders of the Miami Heat NBA team.

Another venture was the founding of the International Mystery Writers Festival. In 2011, he wanted to bring it to Florida, premiering an Agatha Christie play at the historic Capitol Theater in downtown Clearwater.

At the time he expressed an interest in Ruth Eckerd Hall, which operates the Capitol Theater along with its flagship 2,180-seat venue and adjacent, 174-seat Murray Theater. He was hired as the non-profit Ruth Eckerd’s CEO.

Buffman is 85. He is in the last year of his contract with Ruth Eckerd Hall, “but we’re talking renewal.”

To hear more…

He was born Ze’ev Bufman. Ze’ev means “wolf.” It’s his legal Hebrew name, and because of the spelling of his last name, when he came to the United States people pronounced it “boofman.”

He changed his first name to Zev when he got his green card.

When he married Vilma Gruel, who was a Broadway actress and costume designer, they made a bet that if they remained married 10 years he would change it, putting in another “f”.

One day in July 1991 he’s on a tennis court in Aspen and gets a call from his attorney telling him to come immediately to the attorney’s office. Bufman walks in to find his attorney, Vilma and a judge, and a bunch of papers on a desk. Vilma tells him they’ve been married 10 years, sign the papers and he can put in the extra “f’.

By whatever name, he is a fascinating man.

Buffman will sit down for an interview with Judy Ludin, chief development and community operations officer for Menorah Manor, on Wednesday, March 30 at 1:30 p.m. at Inn on the Pond, 2010, Greenbriar Blvd., Clearwater.

This is a free community event.

RSVP to (727) 302-3710 or email RSVP@MenorahManor.org.


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