CLEARWATER — Zev Buffman says he’s still in great shape and he’s content knowing he’s leaving Ruth Eckerd Hall in great shape.
“Everything is wonderful there. I’ve done everything I wanted to do,” Buffman, who just turned 88, said Sunday. “Time flies when you’re having fun and I had a great time at Ruth Eckerd.”
Last week Buffman, seven years the CEO and president of the entertainment venue, announced his immediate retirement to Ruth Eckerd Hall’s board of directors. He had a few months left on a contract that two years ago was extended until Jan. 1.
But he’s far from done with his mission to live life at a busy pace.
“I feel good, and so does my wife (Vilma), who’s 86,” he said. “Our hearts are still strong. To me, 88 is just a number, but it does kick in that there are still things you want to do in life before you no longer can. The clock is ticking.”
On his plate are some ambitious endeavors, such as finishing his memoir, titled “From the Holy Land to Hollywood via Broadway,” which he said is one-third complete. Also, he’d like to return to the college lecture circuit, speaking to students interested in pursuing the entertainment business.
Then, there are some basics he needs to address.
“I have seven grandkids and I see them once a year. That’s it,” Buffman said. “That’s not enough.”
He leaves behind a legacy that’s hard to top in the hall’s history. Currently, $19 million has been raised toward a $34 million goal to expand the hall by 6,000 square feet.
“Amazingly, it’s on time and on budget,” Susan Crockett, the hall’s chief operating officer who will temporarily replace Buffman, said. “You don’t hear those words very often.
“He’s brought us incredible accomplishments. He’s earned this. It’s hard to believe he’s 88.”
Crockett said a national search will ensue, with the hall’s board of directors likely hiring a firm to coordinate the process.
Buffman was the hall’s fifth CEO and president. Crockett has been there 30 years and has worked with them all, starting with Arnold Breman.
Where does Buffman stack up in her mind?
“I’ve loved them all. What I will say is he’s made my role as interim less daunting,” she said. “Some of his visionary ideas have come to fruition and as a result Ruth Eckerd Hall has a solid future. We are in a good place in terms of growth and expansion.”
Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos, who worked with Buffman during projects such as the $10 million in renovations and subsequent re-opening of downtown’s Capitol Theatre in 2013, praised Buffman’s contributions.
“Zev Buffman brought to Ruth Eckerd Hall and Clearwater a commitment and energy that will continue to benefit the arts and each of us for years to come,” Cretekos said. “His work with students who want to become artists or to produce shows is noteworthy, and I am proud to have been able to collaborate with him to make Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Capitol Theatre the premier entertainment venues in the area.”
Guiding youngsters is something Buffman cherishes, and his efforts in the area show. Beyond initiating tuition-free arts-based summer camps for select students at the Marcia P. Hoffman School of the Arts, his outreach program to provide resources to schools where arts budget cuts eliminated them has reached great proportions.
“It’s one of the things I’m most proud of,” he said. “Right now, 41,000 students are benefiting in 21 schools across the four-county area.”
Buffman’s resume in show business is something to behold. He has produced more than 40 Broadway plays, including the theatrical debut of Elizabeth Taylor and the first run of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat,” resulting in more than 100 national tours.
He also helped launch the careers of Angela Lansbury and Dustin Hoffman. Nearly 30 Tony nominations have come his way.
Seeing a covered amphitheater at Coachman Park that could seat between 5,000 and 10,000 was the one goal Buffman didn’t see come to fruition, as the city’s Imagine Clearwater plans did not include his suggestion. Instead, it looked to build a new band-shell pavilion with no covered seating, like what exists now.
On Sunday, he said he was elated to learn the City Council’s discussions last week indicated it was going to revisit the idea. And Buffman said he’d like to offer consulting services.