Zev Buffman, president and chief executive officer of the RiverPark Center from 2003 to 2011, died Wednesday in Seattle, Washington, of natural causes.

He was 89.

The announcement was made by Ruth Eckerd Hall, a 73,000-square-foot performing arts venue in Clearwater, Florida, where Buffman had served as president from 2011 until his retirement in October 2018.

Buffman and his wife, Vilma, retired to Seattle that year.

“Zev was an interesting man,” said Roxi Witt on Friday, who was general manager of the RiverPark under Buffman and became executive director after he left. “Some people thought he was a snake oil salesman and others thought he walked on water. We did some very exciting projects while he was here — Winter Wonderland and International Mystery Writers’ Festival in particular. I learned a lot from him.”

In December 2002, Kirk Kirkpatrick resigned as president of the RiverPark Foundation and, two months later, John Bolton resigned as executive director of the center.

The board decided to combine the two positions when Buffman was hired.

“Zev brought the RiverPark Center into the 21st century,” Kirkpatrick said Friday. “His connections and experience resulted in building and premiering Broadway shows in Owensboro. The RiverPark Center and our community were the beneficiaries of his big dreams.”

Buffman was 81 when he left Owensboro.

But he said, “I love my work. The thought (of retirement) never enters my mind. I’m doing exactly what I want to do. But I wish we were staying.”

Buffman loved to tell the story about being in Louisville in May 1993 with his roadshow production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

He said the executive director of the Kentucky Center for the Arts told him that a small town in western Kentucky had just opened a performing arts center that he should see.

So, he rented a car and drove to Owensboro on a Friday afternoon, he said.

Buffman said he walked into Cannon Hall, listened to a performance of the symphony, watched a sunset over the Ohio River and fell in love with Owensboro.

“I’d been yearning to settle down for a long time,” he said.

But he returned to New York and didn’t think about Owensboro again until 2003 when he read that the center was seeking a new president.

Buffman’s 68-year career in show business dated back to 1950, when he made his stage debut as a 20-year-old cabaret entertainer in his native Tel Aviv, Israel.

A year later, when he was an Israeli exchange student in Los Angeles, Buffman made his American debut, cast as an Arab guard in the movie “Flight to Tangier” with Jack Palance.

Buffman also had small parts in such movies as “The Ten Commandments” and “The Buccaneer” before moving into the theater. He produced his first play, “A Hole in the Head,” at the Civic Playhouse in Los Angeles in 1958.

He went on to produce more than 40 Broadway shows and 100 national tours.

Among his productions were Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Elizabeth Taylor’s Broadway debut in “The Little Foxes,” Taylor and Richard Burton in “Private Lives,” Dustin Hoffman in “Jimmy Shine” and Muhammad Ali in the musical “Buck White.”

Buffman also revived “Peter Pan,” “Oklahoma,” “West Side Story” and “Brigadoon” for Broadway.

He had served as president and CEO of 13 performing arts centers scattered across the U.S. and was the founder of five outdoor amphitheaters. He was also a founding partner of the Miami Heat professional basketball team and had been nominated for 27 Tony Awards.

At the RiverPark Center, Buffman created a “Broadway West” campaign that has seen several national tours build their productions in Owensboro rather than New York City, and the Young Adult Theatre Academy. He was also instrumental in creating such events as Winter Wonderland, Free Movies on the River and the International Mystery Writers’ Festival.

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301 klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

Keith Lawrence, 270-691-7301

klawrence@messenger-inquirer.com

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