PRODUCER ZEV Bufman divides his career into three distinct eras:
* The late '60s to early '70s, when he was a successful but less than top-rank producer in New York.
* The several years he "wasted" in Hollywood, having "foolishly followed my greed for fame."
* And the last seven years, during which he has built a chain of eight theaters in the South and returned triumphantly to New York, with a string of hit revivals and Elizabeth Taylor to add luster to his still-rising star.
The last era, in particular, was plotted with precision by the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Bufman, who seems more like a man who would be running a bookstore than a high-powered executive with a staff of 100 and homes in Miami, New York and Aspen, Colo. But Bufman is the classic achiever, delighted with such career landmarks as the three musicals he'll have opening on Broadway within eight days in November, including "Oh, Brother," which is currently at the Kennedy Center.
Bufman's prescription for How to Succeed in Show Business by Really Trying combines such modern tools as demographic studies and phone banks with old-fashioned politicking.
He built his chain of theaters in the South with the intention of creating both a financial base for himself and a tryout network. Elizabeth Taylor, for example, got her stage baptism in "The Little Foxes" at Fort Lauderdale's Parker Playhouse. All but one of the the- aters are successful -- the Jacksonville, Fla., playhouse is the exception -- and all were started by similar methods.
First, Bufman looks for cities that have a healthy sports industry. "I firmly believe that sports are very tied to entertainment," he said. "If people will spend money on sports, they'll spend money on theater." After that, Bufman's staff produces demographic research on the city, its income levels, age groups, industries and so forth. Then Bufman checks the Yellow Pages.
"I look to see how many synagogues there are," said the Israeli-born Bufman, who was a commando in the Israeli War of Independence. "If there is a Jewish community of 20,000, I know I can get at least 6,000 subscribers." Six cities in Florida, as well as Norfolk, Va., and New Orleans, La., are home to Bufman theaters.
Then he arranges, through newspaper friends, an introduction to the head of the local newspaper and meets with the editorial board. He also uses political contacts to arrange meetings with the mayor and other local bigwigs. "I explain to them that I want to bring clean industry to their town. Who can say no to art? This way I avoid having to work through committees, which are usually more trouble than they're worth."
Having enlisted this support, located a theater and scheduled a season of three shows at 10 weeks each, with well-known lead performers, he begins a promotion campaign.
"The hardest thing is to teach people to buy a reserved seat. So many people don't come to the theater because it seems so intimidating. You have to sort of teach them how to do it in the simplest terms -- my marketing campaigns are modeled after sports advertising. You have to show them it isn't elitist."
He also mails out thousands of brochures, and follows these up with phone calls, rather like a politician uses a phone bank to drum up support. Sometimes the phone banks are in other cities: "It's pretty impressive if someone says they are calling you from Hollywood or New York," he said.
The first year, Bufman expects a 5-percent return on this telephone operation. "You'd have to be a fool not to invest three years in a theater," he said. "You can't expect it to succeed in one year." His theater in Fort Lauderdale now has more subscribers that the Opera House and the Eisenhower Theater combined, he said.
"To have a successful theater you have to tie glamor, society and the establishment together."
Once his southern theaters were doing well, Bufman looked around for a way to break back into the New York scene. He settled on a revival of "Oklahoma," with Agnes de Mille recreating her original choreography. In the meantime, Sandy Duncan wanted to do "Peter Pan" and, in a scene worthy of a Hollywood tycoon, Bufman arranged for the rights in a telephone call from a Florida cafe while Duncan sat and watched.
But Bufman didn't want to call them revivals. He wanted them to be something more: classics. "We don't call productions of Shakespeare revivals," he said. Soon he had plans for a grand scheme: a living library of classic American musicals, three a year, performed at New York's City Center during the six months a year it wasn't booked. Bufman "got on the soapbox" and sold the idea hard, also using his theater program to write articles campaigning for the idea. (He is one of the few producers who publishes his own playbill.)
The idea fell through, but may yet live. In any case, he ended up with three musicals on Broadway ("Timbuktu" was the third) and then "Brigadoon," which was a big success here at Wolf Trap and the National Theatre but lost money after getting to New York. It was at the opening night of "Brigadoon" at Wolf Trap that he met Elizabeth Taylor, and subsequently persuaded her to make her stage debut in "The Little Foxes," which has recently opened in Los Angeles and will go to London in 1982. "She's hooked on the stage," he said of his star. "I want her to do a comedy next, I hope with Walter Matthau."