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Walnut Creek Magazine

The Maestro Takes His Final Bow

Jan 03, 2022 02:30PM ● By Pam Kessler

When the Lesher Center’s General Manager and Center Rep’s Managing Director retires on January 4, he’ll leave behind a profound legacy. Towering like a basketball player, Denison has spread his energy across the court, not only operating the city’s largest building, but producing six shows annually for Center Rep, directing Fantasy Forum productions, and masterminding the annual Shellie Awards, which he founded in 1979 to honor arts achievement in Contra Costa County. 

“In my job,” said Denison, “I jokingly say I work any day that ends with ‘y.’ Running an arts organization of this size and fitting into a city system is challenging but rewarding. Because my family’s involved, it’s easier. I’m married both to Kerri and to the Lesher Center.”


Denison and his wife, dancer, actor, and theater arts educator Kerri Shawn have influenced the East Bay arts community for over 50 years in significant, generation-bridging ways. Together they have three daughters, two grandchildren, and an untold number of actors, singers, costumers, designers, directors, and arts educators who consider them family.

Originally a walnut warehouse on the corner of Locust and Civic Drive, the small “Nut House” theater that had supplanted the warehouse, was replaced in 1990 with a $21 million stunning regional performing arts center.

Denison, like so many in the arts and entertainment community, had his world turned upside down by the Covid-19 pandemic. Almost overnight, the Lesher Center went from a robust organization presenting 900 performances and entertaining over 350,000 people each year, to a five-person staff with canceled shows and a slashed budget in the spring of 2020.

As of July 2021, it is estimated arts organizations lost nearly $18 billion in revenue during the pandemic, according to Americans for the Arts. About half a billion of lost revenue was due to canceled events. 

Despite substantial budget cuts, Denison innovated with backstage tours, rooftop movie nights, virtual performances, outdoor concerts, and visits to the North Pole. October marked the official return of theater to Walnut Creek with a glamorous On Broadway gala, orchestrated by Denison and the Diablo Regional Arts Association, which raised over $250K for live theatre, visual arts, and youth education at the Lesher Center for the Arts.

“Since 1970, I’ve kept the arts alive in Walnut Creek. I’m leaving the Lesher Center well-positioned for 2023 with a full roster of shows booked," he said.


“This has been a great ride; I have no complaints. My greatest hope is for the City to stay focused on the arts.” For Denison that means expanding the city’s arts district and even building a new concert hall to host touring shows. “If you remain stagnant, like a plant in a pot, you die. You have to keep growing.” 

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