After eight years in Owensboro, Ky., where he has brought programming life to RiverPark Center, Zev Buffman will be moving to Clearwater, Fla., where he will replace Robert Friedman as president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall.
Buffman and his wife, Vilma, a former Broadway actress and costume designer, have strong ties in the performing arts and in Florida. Buffman’s major contributions during his Florida years started as a Broadway series producer and event creator at over a dozen performing arts centers and included opening four amphitheaters with Blockbuster and Miami Arena with the Miami Heat of the National Basketball Association.
But his roots are in Broadway. He began producing shows before he graduated college. He took those contacts and experiences to the “new frontier” of Kentucky in 2003.
Ruth Eckerd Hall conducted a national search for a replacement for Friedman, conducting more than 60 interviews, before settling on Buffman and his broad background.
Among his more recent contributions is creation of the International Mystery Writers Festival in Owensboro. The event is underwritten by several sponsors, including the state of Kentucky, and cost $1 million annually the first two years. Now, costs are about $250,000 and sponsors more than cover that amount. He said the festival grosses $200,000 from tickets and $350,000-$400,000 from sponsors today.
Buffman said the festival was an idea he hatched in Southern California with Angela Lansbury of “Murder She Wrote,” but before launching it there, he moved to Kentucky. The two were concerned about the disappearance of mystery from Broadway. It had been a mainstay for so long, but was reduced to maybe one new play every three years after mystery and mystery writers migrated to cable television.
Buffman’s goal was to bring it back to live theater through the festival, which draws mystery writers and playwrights, offering up live shows in a radio-broadcast format in the theaters in Owensboro, writer book signings and lectures, and filmed mystery shown on a big screen, free of charge, down by the river.
It sells 10,000 tickets over six days and the economic impact and international fame is tremendous for Kentucky, Buffman said. Long-term, Buffman’s goal is to revive the genre, the mystery play, in live theater year-round and worldwide, returning it to staple status.
In Florida, Buffman will also oversee the Capitol Theater in Clearwater, and envisions more plays and festivals for that venue as well as the major performing arts halls he’ll manage.
Buffman also managed to put Owensboro on the map as a site for rehearsing touring shows. He lured 12 rehearsals over six years, calling Owensboro America’s Broadway West, touting the fact producers pay “50-60 cents on the dollar rehearsing in a beautiful theater in Kentucky.”
“We are now well-known to Broadway producers,” Buffman said, and to mystery writers and enthusiasts. He said the staff in Owensboro is well trained to carry on these traditions, and the board of directors will embark on a search for Buffman’s replacement soon. Buffman has agreed to return to Owensboro to produce the 2012 International Mystery Writers Festival June 17-27 as part of this move.
Besides his work as President and CEO of the RiverPark Center of Performing Arts in Owensboro, Buffman was director on Kentucky Arts Council Board, director on the new Louisville Arena Board (KFC Yum! Center), and president and CEO of International Mystery Writers Festival.
Buffman has produced more than 40 Broadway shows and 100 national tours; served as president and CEO for many first-class performing arts centers and/or Broadway Series including seven in Florida; and has been nominated for 29 Tony Awards.
Buffman will join Ruth Eckerd Hall, Inc. in January 2012.
Interviewed for this story: Zev Buffman, (270) 687-2770