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.
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, Broadway.com, The Broadway Channel, and BroadwayBox.com), 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Coconut Grove Playhouse
“Stars, stars, stars, that’s what Miami wants …” Zev Buffman.
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.
“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.
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.
Royal Poinciana Playhouse
Palm Beach, 1981-1988
The Little Foxes
“No gossip is going to change our plans to work together. Let the rumors continue.” Zev Buffman, 1981.
“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