TEN YEARS AGO, after the Los Angeles premiere of "Story Theater" -- which we will be hearing "More From" at the Kennedy Center this week -- two of the producers most eager to move the show to Broadway were Zev Bufman and Roger L. Stevens.
Bufman won out -- by agreeing (along with "Story Theater" creator Paul Sills) to waive all potential profits and funnel them into workshops, children's theater programs and the general propagation of the Story Theater concept.
"I was not prepared to go that far," says Stevens in mock-sourness now that he and Bufman are working together on the sequel.
Bufman says he has had mixed feelings about the non-profit arrangement, too. "When you see tens of thousands of dollars pour in over the years, you feel a little foolish," he says. But he and Sills, Bufman adds, may decide to go the non-profit route all over again with "More From Story Theater." They are that starry-eyed about the whole enterprise.
"Story Theater" (based on material from Grimm'sfairy tales), represented a "brand new style and form in theater," says Bufman, who is about to set what must be a modern Washington record by treating the town to four shows -- "Oklahoma!", "Peter Pan" and "Timbuktu" are the others -- in a space of three months.
"It was not something that we copied from the English or the French," says Bufman. "It was simply something that a man called Paul Sills [a leading figure in improvisational theater and the founder of Chicago's Second City] invented. It was so fresh in form and concept that I had yearned for it -- and finally I did it."
If all this sounds gushy and mushy and implausible, it is, because Zev Bufman himself is gushy and mushy and implausible.
Bufman spent the first 17 years of his life in Palestine and the next three in the new state of Israel -- a background only gently hinted at by his high, slightly accented voice. At 13, he was active in the Haganah underground, encouraging the British to think about vacating the country. At 15, he spent a summer in a relocation camp on Cyprus with his father (who ran a Tel Aviv movie theater when he was not making trouble for the British), and various uncles and cousins. And, at 17, he was leading night commando raids as the youngest first lieutenant in the Israeli army.
So Bufman must have had a memorable youth. But the most exciting experience of his life, he insists, was the "Oklahoma hello" that greeted the opening of "Oklahoma!" in Oklahoma City this June -- a welcome complete with parades, barbecues, dances and real surreys with real fringes on top.
"I'm so hooked on 'Oklahoma!' it's beyond good sense and good reason," says Bufman, adding that he has devoted more personal attention to this revival than to any of the hundreds of other shows he has overseen in two decades as a producer.
He does not like to hear "Oklahoma!" called a "revival," however. "The 'Oklahomas' and 'South Pacifics' are our 'Traviatas' and 'La Bohemes,'" he says. "No one calls 'Hamlet' a revival."
With most producers, of course, the best show, the one closest to their hearts, tends to be whichever one opened last. But in "Oklahoma's" case, the production -- a remarkably polished ensemble effort in an age of haphazardly assembled star vehicles -- is strong circumstantial evidence that Bufman's commitment was more than rhetorical.
Enthusiasm for the production is running so high that Bufman, co-producer James Nederlander and the Rodgers and Hammerstein interests hope to cut a new record album, make a TV film and bring the production to London and China after it completes its domestic sweep through Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and New York.
From the start -- last winter in Florida -- Bufman was determined to do the show without stars, although theater owners and other colleagues were pressing him to hire a John Davidson or a Glenn Campbell.
The reasoning behind the no-star policy, he explains, was that a star would distort the group focus of the show. But once freed of the need to find box-office names, the producers must have had an easier time finding young performers who could sing and act and, where required, dance.
"You know you're not going to give in," he says, "but you have to go through the motions. I actually made some meaningless offers in some cases, knowing they wouldn't be accepted."
Only one principal, Mary Wickes as Aunt Eller, survived all nine months from Miami to Washington. "The Florida production was good but not of Broadway caliber," explains Bufman. And not only was the cast almost totally replaced, but a new director, William Hammerstein (son of Oscar) was brought in before the show moved west to Los Angeles.
One personnel change was unusually traumatic. The original Jud, Alexander Orfaly, who had walked off with some of the best notices in Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, was killed in a car crash late one night after hosting a cast party, and Bufman was called by police to make the identification.
The company met the next day, a Monday, to debate whether to perform that night (with a replacement). No one mentioned the difficulty of the song, "Poor Jud Is Daid," says Bufman, and the stunned gathering voted to continue.
Ever since, Bufman adds with utter seriousness, whenever he has had doubts about the show, "I find myself speaking to Alexander, who's watching over us, and I know everything's going to be all right. We read and see and hear a lot about strange phenomena, but I've never believed in any of it until now."
Bufman was an actor and director before he became a producer in the late 1950s.
While pursuing four different master's degrees at Los Angeles State College (in theater, journalism, history and "a thing called language arts, I don't know what it was"), he found time to play one of Moses' disciples in "The Ten Commandments" and also to appear in "The Buccaneer" and "Flight to Tangiers." (On "Oklahoma," incidentally, he says choreographer Agnes DeMille's managerial style reminded him of her uncle C.B.'s: she would sit in the audience with a megaphone and, when something displeased her, interrupt with a command "You there! Give me a little more profile. Yes, let's see that nose. Good.")
In 1959, when the producer of a play he had been hired to direct fell ill, Bufman took over that job, too. A year later he was running four small Los Angeles theaters. (And at one of them, he sponsored the first road appearance for the improvisational group, Second City, the occasion of his introduction to Sills.)
Bufman now manages theaters or municipal auditoriums in Ft. Lauderdale, Orlando, Jacksonville, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and Miami, Fla., plus New Orleans, Houston, Tulsa, Oklahoma City and Norfolk, Va. He is also associated with theater operations in Dallas and Atlanta.
And he has a permanent staff of 300 -- split among his main office in Miami and branch offices in New York and Los Angeles -- making his "the largest theatrical organization in the country today," Bufman says.
His aspirations do not end there. A supporter of Jerry Brown before moving from California to Florida, Bufman is now active in the politics of his new state, and says, "If one day I should not be in show business any longer, when I have had enough of the theater, I really would love to run for office."
What propelled Bufman to a plateau fit for such visions was his keen sense of the American South as a theater market. Three years ago, he says, no Broadway show had ever played in Miami for longer than a week. So he booked "A Chorus Line" for eight weeks -- during the relatively less popular months of May and June, no less -- and it sold out its entire run. Last season (again in association with producer Emanuel Azenberg), he brought "Chrous Line" to the "one-night-stand" town of Orlando, and kept it there for three strong weeks.
"New York does not have to be the Wall Street of the theater," says Bufman. "A good show can spring from anywhere. New York can just be a six-week or eight-week stop in between a lot of other cities."
Needless to say, Bufman has not been presenting the riskiest of plays in Orlando, or elsewhere (although he plans to bring "Whose Life Is It, Anyway?" to his Gusman Theater in Miami this season).
His specialty is "family entertainment," which he says "can be and should be sold just as easily as football."