Stage Door

Featured image
Royal Poinciana Playhouse, August 23, 2020. Palm Beach. Shut down and vacant since 2004, the RPP stands as a vestige of the theater’s rise-and-demise when audiences substituted their liking for celebrity-cast traditional plays and musicals in mid-sized theaters with packaged visual spectacles staged in large-scale performing arts centers. Today, the bleak landscape of dark theaters circles the globe. Photo Augustus Mayhew.

In April 2020, showman Zev Buffman (Bufman became Buffman in the early 1990s) died at 89, having transformed South Florida into a major theatrical destination as well as producing 40 Broadway shows and more than 100 National Tours that garnered 27 Tony Award nominations and a Drama Critics Award for Best Musical.

During the time I worked for Zev Buffman Entertainment in various backstage capacities of production, management and press from 1973 to 1980, I acquired a perspective on theater from stage doors, loading docks, dressing rooms, cast parties, box-office windows, and backstage video cams, rather than the viewpoint opening-night audiences grasped sitting fifth-row center.

Those years took me to numerous outposts as varied as Palm Beach’s Royal Poinciana Playhouse and New Orleans’ Saenger Performing Arts Center, among them, working on countless productions with the likes of Anne “Where is my make-up trunk?” Baxter, Angela Lansbury, Yul Brynner, and the ribald Zero Mostel, allowing me to spend hours with Carol Channing without the wig, daily lunches with Jason Robards, dinners in Ella Brennan’s kitchen, a captive listener of Mickey Rooney’s rants on how his childhood film fame left him penniless, and indulge in after-show milkshake and cheeseburger dinners with the delicate Ann Miller.

August 1976. TOPA, Miami Beach. 8 shows-8 weeks-7 telephone lines – “Yul Brynner’s people on line 4 …” Here I am having the time of my life at my desk wearing an Asian rice paddy hat in anticipation of The King and I company’s arrival, feeling terribly strung out, having thought my life as a production coordinator ended weeks earlier following the burning of Atlanta in Harold Rome’s musical version of Gone With the Wind when misplaced fans circulated smoke into the theater causing patrons in the front several rows to flee before the Act I curtain.
Royal Poinciana Playhouse, loading dock and stage door, the service entrance. Imagine eight semi-trailer trucks filled with stage scenery, all-night load-outs and load-ins resulting sometimes in set pieces parked for the week in the Palm Beach Mall lot. Photo Augustus Mayhew.

Zev Buffman’s own roadshow was fueled by chutzpah and tenacity, taking him from 50s-60s Los Angeles to Broadway to South Florida, staging a marathon of box-office bombs and blockbusters, the likes of June “44-D” Wilkinson’s Pajama Tops, Neil Simon sit-coms, and perhaps the zenith of his professional career, the Taylor-Burton Private Lives and The Little Foxes extravaganzas. While theatrical producer stereotypes tend to range from Barnum to Bialystock, ZB attained a notable degree of professional prominence considering he lacked the theatrical real estate portfolio and family legacy of the pervasive Shubert and Nederlander family organizations. “Thanks to Zev, I have the life I have today,” remarked Miles Wilkin, a former Clear Channel-SFX-Pace Theatrical Group executive who today is vice-chair of the John Gore Organization/JGO (Broadway Across America,, The Broadway Channel, and, the leading worldwide developer, producer, marketer, and distributor of Broadway theater.

The same year Buffman took over booking the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in 1981, having presented numerous productions there during the 60s and 70s with matinee idols and screen starlets, he began a two-year association with Elizabeth Taylor (“The longest two years of my life,” Buffman later told an interviewer), marking the film icon’s stage debut.

Elizabeth Taylor & Zev Buffman, far right, at a February 19, 1981 press conference, as Taylor began final rehearsals for her February 27 opening of The Little Foxes at Parker Playhouse, Ft. Lauderdale. Photo Ray Fisher.

After the press romp, The Miami News reported Taylor “… didn’t look petite … but she didn’t look like a pachyderm either.” Three months later, The Little Foxes’ New York production temporarily shut down, as Taylor landed in Lenox Hill Hospital for an 11-day respite before returning to her role. Health concerns and critical slams dogged her onstage escapades although these blips did not stop the couple from making more headlines from LA to London, forming the Elizabeth Theatre Group partnership with even more grandiose plans for bigger box office grosses, staging an ET-Richard Burton reunion, perhaps what some may have considered a high-risk gamble, “a revival to end all revivals.”

By November 1983, the Taylor-Burton Private Lives rematch had fizzled; the Taylor-Buffman partnership dissolved. The following month, Taylor exited stage left and checked-in to the Betty Ford Center, followed soon after by the death of Richard Burton, as Buffman regrouped and joined forces with Houston’s Pace Theatrical Group to tour road shows, as for Buffman, The show must go on … and on.

In 1988 Buffman announced his departure from the Royal Poinciana Playhouse and other theater venues in favor of developing sports franchises, partnering with Carnival Cruise Lines’ Ted Arison to found the Miami Heat, and teaming with Waste Management’s Wayne Huizenga to build and manage large-scale performing arts centers and super-sized amphitheaters, before ending his ambitious odyssey at western Kentucky’s RiverPark Performing Arts Center and Gulf Coast Florida’s Ruth Eckerd Hall where he was CEO until the year before he died.

Zev Buffman. Pictured above, a time-lapse collage of a theatrical producer’s progression from 1950s Los Angeles to 1980s Palm Beach.

After an extensive overland 1973 trip through Morocco, I retreated to Delray Beach for a daily tennis regime, sometimes asked by some of the older gents to fill in for their doubles matches. One day after a few sets, one of them, Mike Ellis, who had recently moved to South Florida from Bucks County and I would learn was a retired Broadway producer, said to me, “You are much too young to do nothing. Zev Buffman asked me to become Managing Director at Parker Playhouse, and I want you to be my assistant,” Ellis said, always a bit of a martinet. Having never worked in theater or aspired to it, having never known any actors or anyone involved in show business, I found myself in the wings for the next several years.

Here is montage of Zev Buffman’s 20th-century portfolio and a few scenes from my life behind the curtain.

Zev Buffman
Los Angeles:1959-1964

Born in Tel Aviv, Zev Buffman immigrated to the US in 1951, settling in Los Angeles to attend college and pursue an acting career. When film roles became limited, he formed partnerships and began packaging showcases for various theater venues. Since Hollywood was a movie and television factory town, making live stage entertainment an economic success proved challenging.

Laff Capades of 1959 with Jack Albertson and Joey Faye was one of Buffman’s earliest staged productions at Hollywood’s LeGrand Comedy Theater at 1481 Cahuenga, formerly the Hollywood Canteen, now a parking garage.
Ivar Theatre, 1605 Ivar Avenue. Two blocks over from the LeGrand Theater, Buffman and Seiden presented shows at the Ivar, a former restaurant, including the early 1960s production of Under the Yum-Yum Tree starring Bill Bixby. Julio Martinez’s fascinating history of the Ivar is at This Stage magazine.
In 1960 David Merrick declared Los Angeles “a first-rate tryout town.” Merrick brought Zev Buffman’s Vintage ’60 show to Broadway, making for Buffman’s first New York production.
Buffman-Seiden productions. Los Angeles, 1960-1964. Within a few years, Ray Aghayan and his life partner and business partner Bob Mackie would become Hollywood’s top red carpet designers, defining the era’s Hollywood glamour.
“Small theater operation, they say, need not necessarily mean small business.” – Stan Seiden & Zev Buffman.

Pajama Tops played various LA venues for two years before Stan Seiden acquired production rights in June 1960.  Six months later, Seiden formed a partnership with Zev Buffman, opening the racy French farce in January 1961 at the renamed Le Grand Theater, the former Hollywood Canteen, with UK bombshell June “44-D” Wilkinson. The Le Grand’s 30-week run, racked-up a $97,000 gross.

By 1963, the Seiden-Buffman three-year partnership had grossed $2.5 million from 28 productions at their LA venues and touring shows. At their Hollywood office, Buffman said there was a framed needlepoint adage they stole from Mike Todd, “A man who does a show he likes is a producer. A man who does a show the public likes is a showman.”

Coconut Grove Playhouse
Miami: 1962-c.1970s

“Stars, stars, stars, that’s what Miami wants …” Zev Buffman.

Pajama Tops opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1962. In May 1963, the Seiden-Buffman production of Pajama Tops moved from the Coconut Grove Playhouse to Broadway at the Winter Garden Theater.
Zev Buffman at the entrance to the Coconut Grove Playhouse, c. early-1960s. In 1964 ZB bought the Coconut Grove Playhouse. Later, Stan Seiden would run the Nederlander Organization’s West Coast theaters. ZB’s Florida partnership included Jim Riley who produced shows at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse. Jim’s father was a Palm Beach Town Councilman and managed Bessemer Properties for the Phipps family that built the Royal Poinciana Plaza.

Buffman’s early 1960s productions at the Coconut Grove Playhouse followed his star-formula.
Coconut Grove Playhouse, 1969-1970. Our Town and The Boys in the Band were among this season’s highlights.

New York

December 5, 1968. Dustin Hoffman makes his stage debut in Jimmy Shine (161 performances) opens at the Brooks Atkinson Theater, directed by Donald Driver who would direct several Buffman productions. Courtesy Playbill, 1968.
Donald Driver directed the Buffman hit Your Own Thing.
Zev Buffman became a US citizen in 1964.

Parker Playhouse
Ft. Lauderdale: 1967-1988

Philanthropist and inventor Louis Parker spent more than $1 million building the 1,200-seat Parker Playhouse, designed by architect John Volk and modeled on Volk’s design a decade earlier for the Royal Poinciana Playhouse. On February 6, 1967, the theater opened with a Zev Buffman production of The Odd Couple, starring E.G. Marshall and Dennis O’Keefe.

Parker Playhouse. Season subscriptions were the key to ZB’s South Florida success, often providing him a sizable advance months before shows began production. In 1967, there were 7,997 subscribers; 1977 brought in 21,500; and in 1981, the season of ET’s The Little Foxes, 21,800 subscribers. Today, while the Royal Poinciana and the Coconut Grove Playhouse have remained dark, the city-owned Parker Playhouse is undergoing a $30 million renovation.
Parker Playhouse, c. 1973. Left, Mordecai and Clara Buffman, Zev Buffman’s parents; right, background, Beverly Sapp, longtime treasurer at Parker Playhouse, and former Broadway and Bucks County Playhouse producer Mike Ellis, managing director at Parker Playhouse.
Zev’s father, called “Papa” by all, was treasurer for his son’s ventures who because he constantly telephoned the theater, a monogram stamp was made.
December 1973. My first season of theater — the uneasy Robert Alda, daily meditation with the mindful Julie Wilson, and my introduction to playwright Neil Simon’s comedic talent.
Sada Thompson! Yes, Paul Lynde sold out the entire two-week run; even so, among the most unpleasant. With his stash of joints and inhalants tucked into his LV valise, Lynde did not always stick to the script. After-show dinners took a dark turn following the proverbial second drink, witty repartee became mean-spirited attacks on fellow actors as well as strangers at nearby tables, resulting in near melees. Had success come too late in life?
Left: Barbara Rush!! When Chicago’s Arthur Wirtz made his yacht Blackhawk available to her during her Ft. Lauderdale stint, she invited us to join her, great fun.
Right: Jason Robards! Ed Flanders put together a real ensemble of actors, though the theater was filled with rows of empty seats.
When Berle declined the role for the Broadway production of “A Funny Thing …”, Zero Mostel, a painfully funny actor, was cast. “Mr. Television” was one of several performers who would go off-script with shtick, without regard for the rest of the actors, caring only whether his one-liners worked.
After falling down a flight of backstage steps, my leg was in a cast for 6-8 weeks. One night sitting in my office, Angela Lansbury and the cast entered, with Angela carrying a several-weeks old toy fox terrier, named Gypsy, that the company wanted me to have, “someone to really take care of …” Gypsy was with me for more than a year. When I began traveling, I left her with my parents who became so attached. Gypsy became the best gift they ever received.
Gypsy and AM. Although my parents never gave up custody of Gypsy, they gave me unlimited visitation.
Hume and Jessica, a pleasure; Anne Baxter, not so much.

Summer 1976. The King and I promotional photo, Miami News archive. Yul Brynner, desperately successful, was as difficult as his reviews were spectacular, making for a sold-out run.

“Basic black and a bald head,” might have been YB’s most noticeable trademarks but he was also infamous for his backstage demands. At first, the King’s list was challenging. The FAA approved limo + luggage van (baggage marked “KING”) on the tarmac with a private staircase exit to avoid pesky National Enquirer paparazzi. Dressing room makeover with Asian theme and wall coverings, courtesy of Pier One, pink-frosted light bulbs for all lighting in sitting/reception area (afforded guests best possible complexions), 1000-watt overhead operating-room lights over full-length mirror outside of shower (assure complete make-up removal on King’s body), extended length telephone cords, and no stage door exits for the King to engage his fans as the limo went into the underground loading dock.

By Day Two, annoyance set in, when my phone rang from the King’s quarters at The Cricket Club where ZB had arranged “all the best” with club owner Al Malnik (historians may recall, several years later a car bomb destroyed Mr. Malnik’s Rolls-Royce when a Cricket Club valet attendant turned on the ignition). Something about inadequate whirlpool temperature requiring plumbing/engineering specialist … the king-size bed not kingly enough, must be replaced with one of greater length … and on and on.

On Day Three, I learned the King wanted to inspect the suite where Angela Lansbury stayed at the Fontainebleau Hotel. “I do not chat,” were his only words spoken directly to me. Of course, it was too small, furnishings too tired, and enter and exit through a lobby, never.

Ann Miller called me into her dressing room; she wanted to talk about something important. Would I speak with her co-star in the dressing room next door, as she was certain he and his visiting lover were having oral sex before each performance; she could not be expected to kiss him on the lips at the end of their duet. “For God’s sakes, I will tell him you think you may be catching a cold and will kiss him on the cheek …  She came up to my office carrying a stack of 8-by-10s and unopened letters, fan mail. “Here’s how I do It, Ann Miller … just write them all back, say something nice.” Several hours later, they were all done.  Years later, I was invited by a theater patron who wanted me to see his extensive star autograph collection … Yes, there it was, framed under glass, one of my Ann Miller letters. I left without a word.

Left: Same Time Next Year … OMG, Cloris! And then, Panama Hattie with Ann … “Ladies and gentlemen, we regret the delay … the show will begin momentarily. Tick … tick … tick, night after night, 10-20-30 minutes, and then, never knowing when, house lights went down, and the show went on.
Right: Mack & Mabel, my favorite Jerry Herman score, despite only 66 performances on Broadway and numerous short-term revivals. Big Lucie and her husband Gary Morton came to see Little Lucie for the Miami opening, with Morton camped in our production office while Big Lucy counted empty seats in the balcony and scrutinized the box-office statements before the nightly backgammon marathons.

Barry Moss was a prolific casting director, along with Julie Hughes, casting numerous Broadway shows and television programs. Barry stayed at my house in Coconut Grove on Bayshore Lane, located across from where Marty Margulies would build Grove Isle and a block down the street from the  Bayshore Drive gated compound of houses where Guatemalan president Anastasio Somoza, his family, and bodyguards, sought asylum with a fleet of black limousines. The following year, Somoza fled to Paraguay where he was assassinated by a rocket bomb.

NY-LA casting director Barry Moss and AM, someplace, sometime during the late ’70s-early ’80s, probably during the Mariel invasion, at one of those tintype costume-photo stores.
On the road with Oklahoma! In 1979 … Agnes arrived in Jacksonville before the opening where she directed by tapping her cane on top of theater seats, “Cowgirls left, left, left; Cowboys right, right …”

Royal Poinciana Playhouse
Palm Beach, 1981-1988

ZB leased the Royal Poinciana Playhouse, as The Little Foxes production made headlines, promising an array of seasonal offerings in conjunction with his new partner the Houston-based PACE Theatrical Group that would buy the Zev Buffman Theater Partnership in 1988. Photo Augustus Mayhew.
“Buffman plans rewrite for Playhouse’s future.” Palm Beach Daily News archive.
Palm Beach Playhouse, March 1955. At the time, Helen Hayes starred in her Broadway comedy “Mrs. McThing.” The Palm Beach Playhouse was a forerunner of the Royal Poinciana that opened in 1958. Courtesy Bert Morgan Collection, State of Florida Archives.
Palm Beach Playhouse, January 1931. Muriel McCormick was the theater’s first principal underwriter. Palm Beach Post archive.
John Lane, pictured above with actress Betsy Palmer, managed the RPP’s winter stock productions for many years. Lane was known for his curtain speeches, reminding Palm Beach patrons not to bolt for the valet parking before the final curtain call, refrain from talking during the performance, and the like. Nonetheless, Palm Beach audiences were like no other. They arrived when they wanted, and left whenever, just after they arrived, at intermission, or after being photographed. They slept, snored, mumbled, spoke with each other, and responded to onstage dialogue. Actors were known to do imitations of audience members. And a few times, a star was known to stop the show. Photo courtesy Ogunquit Playhouse archive.
“Privileged Excitement.” Zev Buffman attempted to revive the theater’s black-tie opening nights, “A Grand Tradition.”
Palm Beach Daily News archive, 1981.
Royal Poinciana Playhouse, 2020. Photo Augustus Mayhew.

The Little Foxes

“No gossip is going to change our plans to work together. Let the rumors continue.” Zev Buffman, 1981.

Elizabeth Taylor, photograph, 1981. Courtesy Beverly Sapp.
May 1981. The Little Foxes, billing sheet.
The Little Foxes, newspaper ad. “… theatre at its best …” at least according to one reviewer, as the show became a box office hit. Offstage, apparently there were snags.
1981. The Elizabeth Theater Group formed with visions of reviving landmark theater productions. ET plans “to get with the emotion and make it real.” What happened in London? New York Times archive.
As The Little Foxes opened in Los Angeles, the LA Times ran a three-page bio in November 1981 on Buffman’s success. Los Angeles Times archive.

Private Lives
May 1983

Playbill, 1983.
Playbill, 1983.
“Zev Buffman & Elizabeth Taylor greet you … Champagne, Chateaubriand and Charlotte.” May 1983.

“Miss Taylor swept into Tavern-on-the-Green on the arm of her latest escort, Victor Luna. She wore a low-cut, white beaded gown, massive jewels at her neck, a tiara, and was wrapped in what seemed to be thousands of white feathers. It was not an outfit in which one could disappear!” — Liz Smith Live at Five.

Private Lives — Opening Night Dinner
Seating Charts

Table 37. ET and her extended family with her escort Victor Luna and her producer ZB.
Table 47. Richard Burton’s table included playwright Emlyn Williams whose play The Corn is Green would be ETG’s final production.
“Private Lives will close early,” headline. Los Angeles Times, June 17, 1983.
August 1983. ETG opens The Corn is Green. New York Daily News review, by Don Nelsen.
October 1983, New York Times headline. “Elizabeth Theater said near virtual collapse.”
November 1983. “Taylor Buffman end joint business venture.”
November 1988. “Zev Buffman Quits Theater.” Palm Beach Daily News archive.
Royal Poinciana Playhouse. Photo Augustus Mayhew.

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