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Legendary Marta Becket continues to fill the seats at Death Valley Junction.
Photo: PR (above); Alvin Tempo (below)
Talk about the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, and you have to talk about Marta Becket. In fact, the attraction’s official website reads, “Marta Becket’s Amargosa Opera House and Hotel.”
Becket is the New York dancer-artist who stumbled upon the facility—part of an old Pacific Coast Borax Company town near the southern Nevada border—nearly 45 years ago. She rescued the old opera house from crumbling into history, painted elaborate murals on its walls and ceiling, and has performed on its stage for more than four decades. She continues to draw audiences today, with Sunday performances scheduled for the upcoming season, November 6 to May 6, 2012.
But any discussion of the Amargosa Opera House has to include its colorful reputation as a hotbed of supernatural activity and its unique place in mining history. Amargosa Opera House is one of a kind. “You’d never find anything like this in a major metropolitan area,” says Rich Regnell, who manages the facility for Becket, now 87.
Regnell also helps Becket run the nonprofit Amargosa Opera House Inc., which owns Death Valley Junction, the 268-acre site where the Amargosa Opera House is located, at the intersection of California State Routes 127 and 190 (the junction is less than 10 miles from the Nevada/California border). Becket created the nonprofit in the early 1970s to ensure the opera house’s preservation, as she explains in her autobiographical publication, Marta Becket—A Theatrical Portrait Before the Amargosa Opera House.
She also wrote of her instant connection to the building in 1967, when her one-woman dance program was touring the country. At that time, bookings for her show were dwindling, and she was searching for a way to continue her work as a dancer. Stopping in Death Valley Junction to fix a flat tire, Becket explored the small town and came across an abandoned recreation hall, the former Corkill Hall.
She looked in the window. “As I peered through the tiny hole, I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at the other half of myself,” Becket writes. “The building seemed to be saying ‘Take me…Do something with me…I offer you life.’” The life it offered was one of almost unfettered creativity, a place to pursue dancing as well as her other artistic gift, painting.
Becket opened the Amargosa Opera House in 1967. A classically trained ballerina who once danced at New York’s Radio City Music Hall and in such musicals as “Showboat” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” Becket embarked on the second act of her career, performing at the Amargosa Opera House, dancing until she was 80. The opera house also became a canvas for Becket the painter: In 1968, she began a four-year project painting the interior walls with murals of a Renaissance-era audience, complete with a king and queen.
“This building, now the Amargosa Opera House, has been home to me,” Becket writes in her 2007 autobiography, To Dance on Sands: The Life and Art of Death Valley’s Marta Becket. “Nowhere else could I attain the artistic fulfillment I have found here.”
These days, Becket (at left) concentrates on her art, leaving many management details—including most media interaction—to Regnell. Hip problems prevent her from dancing, but Becket has developed “The Sitting Down Show” for the upcoming season and hopes to debut a new work, “Life is a Three-Ring Circus,” in February 2012. “She’s doing pretty well,” Regnell says of Becket, who continues to live in Death Valley Junction, where she, Regnell, and a few others make up the population of “roughly five,” Regnell says.
Death Valley Junction is also home to the Amargosa Hotel—where Becket has painted more murals—which sees about 5,000 to 10,000 guests a year, according to Regnell. Visitors are welcome, but warned. “It’s a very different kind of place,” Regnell says. “It’s kind of like stepping back in time.” Meaning there are no televisions, no phones in the rooms, and no cell-phone service.
Oh, and the place could be haunted. “From the first time I ever met Marta, that was something that was part of our conversation,” says filmmaker and historian Ted Faye.
Faye, who makes films that explore Death Valley, says he met Becket in the 1990s, and she told him then about spirits that resided at the Junction. In Faye’s 2010 film, “Weird Tales IV: The Ghosts of Death Valley Junction,” Becket discusses hearing mysterious noises such as a baby crying in the opera house. With a straight face, Becket states that her spirit might remain at the opera house after leaving her earthly life, unless she gets a better offer.
The premise of the film is that the ghosts date back to the area’s pre-Becket days. In 1907, Death Valley Junction was a stop on the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, which hauled borax—a mineral used as a cleaning agent, among other things—out of nearby mines. “At one time, Death Valley Junction was a very noisy, booming complex, with railroads and several hundred people,” Faye says. “It was a really thriving industrial community. When you look at it now, it’s hard to imagine.”
In 1924, the Pacific Coast Borax Company built the town—a U-shaped complex of adobe buildings that included what is now the Opera House—for its workers, reportedly in response to a scathing article written by author Zane Grey deploring the miners’ living conditions.
When the borax mines played out in the late 1920s, Death Valley Junction survived on tourism for the next two decades, Faye says, but it was on the decline in the late 1960s, when Becket happened upon it. “The second part of [Death Valley Junction’s story] is the reinvention of the town as a place for the arts,” Faye says. “That is due to Marta Becket’s flat tire. If she hadn’t had that flat tire in the desert in the 1960s, none of this would have happened. She had a vision to bring her art to the desert, and that was the beginning of Death Valley Junction’s other life, for nearly 50 years.”
UPDATE: It was reported in the January 13, 2012 Pahrump Valley Times that Becket is retiring, and her last performance will be February 12.
Amargosa Opera House & Hotel
P.O. Box 8, Death Valley Junction, CA 92328
WORTH A READ