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Walnut Creek Magazine

A Look Back: Opening Night at the Lesher Center

Oct 06, 2020 01:17PM ● By Gail Murray

Spotlights swept across the sky on October 4, 1990, announcing the opening of Walnut Creek’s $21 million Regional Center for the Arts (RCA). The lobby was abuzz that night with 800 of us who bought tickets to attend the first performance in the theater.

Bejeweled ladies carefully stepped from white limousines to enter the opulent entrance. As they picked up their long gowns, black tie escorts dutifully held the door and perfume drifted into the air. The building was ablaze with white bulbs ringing the rotunda’s exterior. I could see passers-by craning their necks in wonder at the high fashion opening night extravaganza.

Bob Hope was our headliner, and as the city’s mayor at the time, I felt like a Hollywood star surrounded by excited celebrities at the Oscars. I approached Dean Lesher, publisher of the Contra Costa Times, to offer my congratulations. In a black tuxedo and getting on in years, he sat in a wheelchair pushed by his wife Margaret. I tried not to stare at the magnificent emerald in the center of the diamond necklace around her neck and the diamond earrings cascading from her ears. Margaret was a stunning beauty in her black off-shoulder dress. 

“Without your belief in this project from the very beginning, we wouldn’t be here tonight, Mr. Lesher. Thank you,” I said. With the first major private gift of $423,000 in 1981, the Lesher's had kicked-off the theater’s fundraising campaign, only to be followed by years of conflict and negotiation among the City Council and the City Manager weighing the benefits versus the costs of building a performing arts center in Walnut Creek. Despite efforts by The Regional Center for the Arts, Inc.— a fundraising organization headed by Bill Armstrong, which raised $7.5 million from major donors including Oakland A’s owner Kenneth Hofmann and his wife Jean, Peter and Kit Bedford, among others—the RCA’s construction budget necessitated a substantial contribution from the city.  

“The RCA has requested $13.5 million from the City of Walnut Creek so that the construction contract can be awarded,” said Tom Dunne, City Manager. “The council should be aware that the city has many other pressing expenses that this money could be used for,” he continued, visibly concerned about the city’s solvency. “Arts are what distinguish us from other towns and move us into an extraordinary city,” I countered.  “We’re already a financial and retail hub in central Contra Costa County.  An arts center will enhance our residents’ quality of life. It will boost the image of Walnut Creek as a civic leader and spur more economic growth.”

My colleague Gwen Regalia and I were both stalwart supporters of building the RCA.  In the end, we won the day. Originally a walnut warehouse on the corner of Locust and Civic Drive, the small “Nut House” theater that had supplanted the warehouse was torn down and replaced with a stunning regional performing arts center.

Bursts of laughter and rustling dresses surrounded me as I had moved from the lobby into the main auditorium. The expectant atmosphere in the room quieted as the curtain went up, spotlighting Oscar-winning performer Joel Grey who was emcee for the opening night gala. “Good evening, ladies and gentlemen of Walnut Creek.  I’m proud to be here to help you celebrate the first performance in your beautiful new theater!” 

 Singers Diahann Carroll and Vic Damone belted out the first duet. I had to pinch myself—we weren’t in the big city of San Francisco—our own Walnut Creek was hosting major entertainment stars.  We were the talk of the Bay Area on all the local TV networks. “Thanks for the memory.” The 87- year-old Bob Hope, who had given us 45-minutes of laughs, sang his signature song, and then opening night was over.  All those years of dreaming about this night, followed by years of planning and fundraising, overcoming voices of naysayers, and a myriad of controversies were behind us.

After Dean’s death, his wife Margaret successfully campaigned to change the name to the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts. Now in its 30th year of operation, the Lesher Center draws over 250,000 people a year for 800 performances in its three theaters and brings in millions of dollars in revenue for the city and business community. Restaurants have sprung up all over downtown to support theater-goers before and after performances. No longer just a retail and financial hub, Walnut Creek earned a reputation as a center for arts and culture.

And I was there, proud of my role in making it happen, as the curtain went up for the first time on October 4, 1990. “Thanks for the memory.”



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