Last week’s death of nationally known theater impresario Zev Buffman was deeply felt in the theater community. Throughout his impressive career, Buffman single-handedly brought theater to dozens of venues around the country. He brought Broadway to the people.
But Buffman, who died of natural causes at age 89 on April 1, 2020, was also a supporter of mysteries, and was honored twice by the Mystery Writers of America.
In 2008, he was awarded an Edgar Award as producer of the play Panic, by playwright and Mystery Scene contributor Joseph Goodrich; it was produced at the International Mystery Writers’ Festival.
Set during 1962, Panic revolves around director Henry Lockwood, who has come to Paris for the premiere of his new film, Panic. But Lockwood, known as the 'Sultan of Suspense,' doesn’t get to enjoy the premiere or the praise he is expecting. Instead, he is accused of a crime that threatens to destroy his career and his marriage.
In 2010, Buffman was awarded an MWA Raven Award for his work with the International Mystery Writers’ Festival, which ran for several years in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Unlike other mystery fiction conferences, the International Mystery Writers’ Festival included authors, as well as TV writers and producers, and playwrights. The International Mystery Writers’ Festival was considered the place to launch new mystery plays.
“[Buffman] had more energy, enthusiasm, and playful glee at 80 than most people have when they are eight. He seemed tireless. Retirement wasn't a word in his vocabulary. He loved creative people—writers, actors, musicians, dancers, etc.—and did whatever he could so they could do their best,” said Lee Goldberg, author, screenwriter, director, and co-owner of the imprint Brash Books.
“Zev was an incredible storyteller himself, a walking archive of Broadway and Hollywood lore. You could name just about any famous actor, director, producer, or writer and Zev not only had a personal encounter with them, but a wonderful story to tell about it. Having dinner with Zev was a performing arts event in itself. I cherished the dinners I had with him. I didn't want them to end. He could regale you for hours with funny, tragic, insightful, and moving stories of Hollywood and Broadway lore. I begged him to record the stories and put them on paper... I hope he did,” added Goldberg, who had two films produced at the mystery festival—the short film Remaindered, and its sequel, Bumsickle. Both were produced in Owensboro using local talent in front of, and behind, the camera.
Goldberg also wrote the essay for the Edgar book the year Buffman received the Raven.
Here is an excerpt::
On August 14, 1936, Owensboro, Kentucky, was the site of the last public hanging of a convicted felon in the United States. And Daviess County, of which Owensboro is the county seat, was named for a hard-charging law enforcement official...Col. Joseph Hamilt on Daviess, the U.S. attorney who unsuccessfully prosecuted Aaron Burr for treason.
Clearly, Owensboro has a taste for theatricality and crime...but it took Broadway producer Zev Buffman to see the potential for mystery writers and fans. Zev created the International Mystery Writers Festival in Owensboro, and in just three years, he’s made it a major force in the mystery field, introducing tens of thousands of people to exciting new mystery plays, screenplays and short-stories professionally performed on stage for the first time.
The festival has also drawn some of the biggest names in genre from every corner of the publishing and entertainment industries, including Mary Higgins Clark, CSI creator Anthony Zuiker, Gene Hackman, Sue Grafton, Angela Lansbury, Columbo creator William Link, and MWA Grandmaster Stuart Kaminsky, to name just a few.
But that’s not all. In the Festival’s first year, the new mystery plays that Zev staged swept all of the nominations for the Edgar Award in the playwriting category and, of course, took home the statuette. It was an unprecedented achievement, unmatched in MWA’s history.
How has Zev managed to draw all of this talent to Owensboro?
Not with prestige, not with money, and certainly not with glamour.
He did it with the sheer force of personality, his boundless energy, his enthusiasm for new talent, his legendary showmanship, and his love of the mystery genre. And BBQ.
Did I mention that Owensboro also happens to have some of the best BBQ joints in the country? That’s the real secret. Where else can you go and see Gene Hackman and Sue Grafton slathered in BBQ sauce and signing books?
Only Zev could have imagined that...and pulled it off.
I'd like to add a personal note. I had the fortune of meeting Zev Buffman when he brought his series of radio plays to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. That was 2013, the year I was honored by MWA witha Raven Award. My husband introduced me and he knew immediately who I was. "A fellow Raven winner," he said. I was thrilled. He was living in South Florida at the time and said he followed my mystery fiction reviews in the Sun Sentinel.
So that is why I am also posting the photo of Zev and myself. The radio play he was producing starred Gary Sandy, who was Travis in the TV series WKRP in Cincinnati. And yes, I have a photo of that meeting, but that's another story.
Here is full obit that ran in the Florida Theater on Stage website. We have permission to post it.
Zev Buffman, Legendary Local & National Figure, Dead At 89
by Bill Hirschman
Nationally known theater impresario Zev Buffman, a key figure in the evolution of South Florida theater, died Wednesday at the age of 89 in Seattle, according to a news release from Ruth Eckerd Hall which he managed in Clearwater.
A charismatic man with an elfin visage and a slight accent from his origins in Israel, he was known for enthusiasm, showmanship and drive as he managed and significantly developed three South Florida venues as well as a dozen others across the country. He earned at least six Tony Award nominations for shows on Broadway across a half-century, helped develop the modern-day national touring system, and was a co-founder of the Miami Heat.
His resume as an old-style hands-on producer listed more than 100 national tours and 40 Broadway shows including the original U.S. production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Elizabeth Taylor’s fabled turns in The Little Foxes and Private Lives, the latter with Richard Burton and the former, which first bowed in Fort Lauderdale’s Parker Playhouse, providing her Broadway debut in 1981.
Seeking a Miami area venue to present a show he was producing in 1962, Pajama Tops, he was shown the then-dormant Coconut Grove Playhouse. He bought it, resurrected it, remodeled it and produced shows there for eight years. He brought in New York and Hollywood actors to star in roles they’d never get the chance to play elsewhere.
He did a similar job managing and reviving other venues such as the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans; the Chicago Theatre; the RiverPark Center of Performing Arts in Owensboro, Kentucky, the Royal Poinciana in Palm, Beach, and the Jackie Gleason Performing Arts Center in Miami Beach which he served as president from 1976-1990. He was often credited with invigorating the commercial areas around the venues.
With Louis Parker, he pushed for the creation of Parker Playhouse in 1967 as a showcase for his productions, one of the first arts presenting venues in Fort Lauderdale, and was its primary producer for 30 years. He toured his productions both through the Grove and the Parker for a few years.
He, the late publicist Charlie Cinnamon and several others also initiated the Coconut Grove Arts Festival around 1963. He cofounded the Miami Heat basketball team in 1987, campaigned for its arena and served as a general partner.
He was born in Tel Aviv on October 11, 1930. His love of movies like Gunga Din, which helped teach him English, prompted him after military service to migrate in 1951 to Hollywood where he worked as an actor in small parts. Within a decade, he was producing works and developing a string of theaters across the country.
After leaving the Grove Playhouse in 1971, he spent the next decade developing the Zev Buffman Broadway Series, which brought national tours across Florida, New Orleans, and Chicago. His work regularly won so many Carbonell Awards for theatrical excellence in South Florida that observers joked he should just back up a truck to the ceremony to pick up his awards.
His touring paradigm became a template for many tour companies. He sold the firm and other theaters in 1988 to Pace Theatrical Group, which has morphed over the years into Live Nation’s Broadway Across America.
Buffman moved in 2003 to Owensboro, a small college town in western Kentucky where an ailing sister lived. He agreed to manage a local theater complex but it needed “product.” He gathered Angela Lansbury and an equally well-known collection of friends to help create an International Mystery Writers Festival that would choose and produce mount full productions or readings of complete plays, one-acts and radio scripts. The first edition in 2007 sorted through 1,000 entries and mounted 12 productions.
Creating the festival won him a Raven Award in 2010 from the Mystery Writers of America and also a 2008 Edgar Award for producing the best play in the genre, Panic.
In 2011, he moved to the west coast and became president and CEO at Ruth Eckerd Hall and the Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, heading similar efforts to revitalize the two facilities.
He and his surviving wife Vilma retired to Seattle in 2018.
In a 2013 interview about an on-stage recreation of radio dramas that he wanted to tour, he was asked whether it seemed strange for an 82-year-old man to be running an entertainment complex on Florida’s west coast, helming what he hopes will be a national tour and changing the fate of empty theatres across the country by providing such relatively inexpensive shows for medium sized venues.
Photos: Top, Zev Buffman; center, Zev Buffman and Oline Cogdill