By Terrence McCoy
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For 26 years the hits kept coming: Requiem For a Heavyweight, The Odd Couple, A View from the Bridge, Steel Magnolias, Driving Miss Daisy, Oklahoma!, Into the Woods, Les Miserables, and many other Broadway successes headed directly to South Florida from their sold-out runs on New York's Great White Way. All thanks to one man - theater impresario Zev Bufman. Like a charming thief, he consistently managed to rob other U.S. cities of the first chance to see the hottest touring shows, and he brought them here.
From his debut South Florida venture (Pajama Tops at the Coconut Grove Playhouse in 1962) to his last season opener (a revival of South Pacific at Miami Beach's Theater of the Performing Arts in 1988), Bufman single-handedly transformed the theatrical landscape not just in the Miami area but throughout Florida. By the time slumping ticket sales and rising costs forced him to sell his production company in November of 1988, Bufman had firmly established himself as the godfather of the footlights. From Miami Beach to Orlando he exercised a virtual monopoly on big-time shows brought to the state's most prominent venues.
And now, three years after getting out of the business, he is being sued in federal court by former competitors who claim exactly that: for nearly a decade Zev Bufman illegally monopolized the Florida theatrical market.
In a 70-page complaint filed three weeks ago in federal court, Miami concert and theater promoters Brad Krassner and Joe Marsh allege that Bufman obtained this monopoly in Miami Beach, Orlando, and Tampa through a cozy relationship with elected officials. And once in control, the lawsuit states, Bufman cheated each of those cities out of their fair share of profits.
Bufman's attorney, Michael Nachwalter, denies the allegations and calls the lawsuit, which seeks five million dollars in damages, a simple case of "sour grapes." Bufman, he asserts, obtained the exclusive rights to bring Broadway shows to the Theater of the Performing Arts (TOPA) in Miami Beach, the Bob Carr Performing Arts Center in Orlando, and the Performing Arts Center in Tampa by competitively bidding for the contracts. "It wasn't like he did something through a back room somewhere," Nachwalter says. "Anybody could have made a proposal. [Bufman] did it. He was willing to make the deal. He was willing to take the risk to bring Broadway shows to Miami and South Florida."
In addition, Nachwalter says, Bufman did not monopolize the Miami, Orlando, and Tampa markets; there were other theaters in each city that Bufman did not control, any of which could have hosted Broadway shows. In the Miami area, Nachwalter notes, there is the Dade County Auditorium, the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. If Krassner and Marsh had been interested in booking major shows, they could have brought them to those theaters.
The ten-year contract that Bufman signed in 1981 with the Miami Beach City Commission gave him exclusive control over the use of TOPA for Broadway-style shows, on the condition that he bring at least ten first-run productions to the Beach each year. On the dates Bufman scheduled shows, he would pay approximately $1000 per day in rent. The city could also earn a percentage of the ticket sales depending on the type of show. Bufman would also assume the cost for all theater employees and would provide city officials with twenty top-price complimentary tickets for the opening night of each show and ten top-price complimentary tickets for each additional performance, for as long as the show ran at TOPA.
According to Krassner, who runs the Diamond Bullet Corp. and Festival Ventures Inc., the net effect of the Miami Beach contract, and similar contracts in Orlando and Tampa, was that once Bufman controlled the key theaters, he controlled what shows came to town. His powerful position gave him leverage that forced booking agents to work with him because he could guarantee them the best stages in all three markets. "Once he had control of the theaters," Krassner says, "no one else could get in there."
Krassner claims that when he would approach Miami Beach officials about booking a show into TOPA, they would tell him the dates he wanted weren't available. Then, he says, he would receive a call from Bufman's company telling him they understood he had been asking about a particular date, which might be open - if he wanted to book the show through Bufman. The cost would be a rental fee of $35,000 per week. "It was extortion," Krassner alleges, "and the city was in collusion with him." City officials, he contends, were kept happy by a steady supply of shows, free tickets, and invitations to opening-night parties. (Nachwalter says there is no proof any city official acted improperly.)
As to the allegations that Bufman cheated the various cities out of their fair share of profits, Nachwalter says, "I don't know what they're talking about. Let them prove it." Norman Litz, who acted as general manager of TOPA and the Miami Beach Convention Center from 1967 to 1989, says that as far as he could tell, Bufman complied with the terms of his contract and the city was not shortchanged.
Krassner says he and Marsh didn't file a lawsuit earlier because he thought he could negotiate a settlement with Bufman. When that didn't work, the two producers in late 1990 took their case to court, where they suffered a quick setback. Judge Kenneth Ryskamp threw out their original complaint, saying it was unclear and failed to meet the criteria needed to prove a violation of anti-trust laws. (An amended complaint was filed December 13.)
The proceedings were stalled for several more months while Krassner and Marsh's attorney, Steven Kramer, argued that Ryskamp should remove himself from the case because the judge allegedly is prejudiced against Jews and because Kramer actively opposed Ryskamp's nomination to the federal Court of Appeals. (The Senate eventually rejected Ryskamp's nomination, in part because of his membership in Coral Gables's Riviera Country Club, which for years reportedly excluded blacks and Jews.) After hearing the evidence, another federal judge ruled that Ryskamp should remain on the case. Nachwalter, who points out that both he and Bufman are Jewish, says they believe Ryskamp will be fair.
Should Krassner and Marsh win their case, the consequences could be far-reaching. Bufman sold his production company to PACE Entertainment Corp., a Houston-based giant that controls theaters in more than two dozen markets. When PACE bought the company, it also assumed control of Bufman's Florida contracts, all of which have since been renewed. A ruling against Bufman would presumably be a ruling against PACE's current lock on bookings at TOPA and other Florida theaters.