March 23, 2023
Zev Buffman is a ‘Florida Icon'

Photo: Gregg McGough

Zev Buffman is a ‘Florida Icon'

CEO, Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater; theater producer; founding partner, NBA's Miami Heat; Clearwater; age 86

Art Levy | 1/26/2017

» My first real job was stealing cars. I was 13 or 14 and Israel’s war of independence was coming. I was training in every kind of weapon one should know, but I was a great car thief. I was stealing cars because we had no cars. They would send us out to embassies — the ones that had Jeeps — and we would hotwire them in the middle of night and drive them to the desert, where they were painted in Israeli colors.

» I don’t celebrate birthdays. I don’t celebrate New Year’s Eve. I don’t believe in anything that acknowledges the passage of time.

» This was 1987. I met with David Stern, the NBA commissioner, in New York to talk about bringing an expansion team to Miami. David said ‘Zev, you’re in the theater. You don’t know what you’re talking about.’ He said ‘Zev, you’re Jewish. I’m Jewish. So I’m not going to offend you, but Florida is a place where old Jews go to die and Cubans come to look for a new life, and they are crazy about two things: Baseball and boxing — not basketball. So you’re offering me a DOA market, and you’ll never make it.’ I went back to Miami and told everyone that we have to prove him wrong.

» The key is to train your staff and to, eventually, train your board. Boards are so afraid. They’re mostly accountants, money managers and bankers, and they just choke ingenuity, and they choke imagination. They want to see all the money upfront instead of the design or the idea.

» A producer is part shrink. You have to be a great listener. You have to be patient. You must communicate. You just can’t be a bull in the china shop.

» My dad owned two movie houses in Tel Aviv. I grew up in the back of a projection room. After school, I would rush to a matinee performance, and the projectionist would let me run things.

» I came to Hollywood to be a star. I did seven or eight movies, and then I did the Ten Commandments for Cecil B. DeMille. I played various parts, including one of Moses’ disciples and a slave. Eventually, I realized that my dreams of being a star actor were not going to be realized because I was not that good.

» Taking a vacation, within two days I get very restless. Although I love to travel, all I can think about is what I can do at work.

» When the Russian Revolution was taking hold and the pogroms were becoming very popular in the Ukraine, my family fled. Young Ukrainians along with a handful of Russian soldiers, but mostly Ukrainian civilians, they would storm the villages — and my parents came from a little village called Charkov — and they would beat up the men, rape the women, kill a few men and take the young men and conscript them into the Soviet army. That’s what they did to the Jews then. My parents settled in Palestine, and that’s where I was born.

» In Florida, economic development and tourism get respect, but education does not.

» Despite television, despite movies, despite the iPads and the other devices, there’s still that need for live entertainment, that interaction face to face, that you cannot duplicate. When you go to a live show, and you’re able to applaud and scream and cheer, it’s a social experience.

» When I was a teenager and in the war, I felt invincible. I told myself it was a movie. It wasn’t real. We’re not really getting shot at. We’re not really dying. I was not afraid.

» A project happens if it happens fast. If it doesn’t happen fast, it doesn’t happen. I live by that.

» Clearwater brought me back to Florida. St. Petersburg has momentum. It’s like San Francisco 60 years ago. It’s going someplace. And Tampa has a leader, Jeff Vinik. He’ll make it happen there. But Clearwater is the third city, the forgotten city, and that’s what attracted me. I came here to build. I’m a builder.

» My wife and I have been married for 55 years. In show business, that is one of the most amazing miracles. My marriage is like a rock.

» Probably the core of what I am today, what I preach and practice and get on the soapbox about, is don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Don’t be afraid to lead.

» I’ve produced 41 Broadway shows, the majority of them from the late ’70s to late ’80s. I’ve run as many as 14 performing arts centers around the country, mostly in Florida, at one time. I built four 20,000-seat amphitheaters in the ’90s. My partner was Wayne Huizenga, a good partner and a good buddy.

» Treat everything as an adventure. Otherwise, life can be very boring. One adventure — and I know this is reckless — is I try to beat my old time getting to work. It takes 24 minutes, for a normal person driving correctly, to get here from my house. I’m trying to beat 17 minutes, which is the best time I ever had. Thank God I haven’t had a speeding ticket in five years.

» If and when the time comes that I cannot continue being the president and CEO of Ruth Eckerd Hall, I want to be a teacher. There’s still room in my life to teach.

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