For more than four decades, Marta Becket danced in the desert. Becket, who died in 2017, operated the quirky Amargosa Opera House on the edge of Death Valley, where she performed classical ballet and modern dance from 1968 to 2012.
She only stopped when her knees and hip gave out from years of dancing and she was forced to retire at the age of 87.
The story of how a New York-trained dancer ended up dancing in the middle of nowhere remains a fascinating tale. Recalling the story to me in the late 1990s, Becket said that she stumbled onto the opera house by accident.
“In 1967, we were vacationing in Death Valley,” she said. “One morning we woke up to find we had a flat tire on our trailer. From one of the park rangers there we learned the best place to have it repaired was Death Valley Junction.”
Upon arriving in the community, which consisted of a gas station and a U-shaped complex of Mexican Colonial-style buildings, her ex-husband, Tom Williams, began fixing the tire and she explored the town.
The Pacific Coast Borax Company founded Death Valley Junction in 1907. Most of the buildings were built from 1923-24 as part of a company town that included company offices, a general store, dormitory, hotel and — importantly — a recreation hall.
The small, crumbling building fascinated her. Through a small hole in a door, she noticed a small stage draped with a worn curtain, rows of wooden benches and lots of trash. The roof looked like it might collapse at any time.
Becket said she thought it was the most beautiful thing she’d ever seen.
She had spent more than 20 years dancing in New York, including Radio City Music Hall and in a number of Broadway productions such as “Showboat” and “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Additionally, she’d danced solo on musical tours around the country.
By 1967, however, Becket was finding it difficult to survive as a solo performer. She remembers being tired and filled with uncertainty about the future when her ex-husband suggested a desert vacation.
She showed him the decrepit town hall building and ideas began to pour out of her. She wanted to use it as an opera house, where she could continue to dance.
Williams, who was no fan of New York, also saw the possibilities and the two set out to make the dream become a reality. They rented the theater, repaired the roof, painted walls, sewed a curtain and costumes, and opened for business.
“On opening night, we had 12 people,” she remembered. “But the audiences started to grow and the publicity reached a point where you now need reservations during the season.
“I had no idea this would happen. I just wanted to extend myself.”
She recalled that her New York friends thought she was crazy to leave the Big Apple for subsistence in the desert — but she persevered and thrived.
Over the years, performances included programs of original ballet-mimes, during which Becket would assume multiple roles.
In addition to performing, Becket was also an accomplished painter, who illustrated several books as well as painted stage backdrops. While her works have been exhibited in galleries in New York, perhaps her most ambitious project was painting the interior of the Opera House, which includes a huge wall and ceiling mural.
The impressive, Renaissance-influenced painting, which she worked on for six years, depicts a 16th-century opera audience, including a king and queen, as well as entertainers ranging from Native Americans to characters from her favorite operas.
The facility is now operated by the Amargosa Opera House, Inc., a nonprofit association, which purchased the Opera House and much of the town of Death Valley Junction, to ensure its survival in the 1990s. In 1981, the site was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
These days, the Opera House is open for periodic performances by visiting artists and visitors can stay in the Opera House Hotel and dine at the Amargosa Café.
The Amargosa Opera House and Hotel is located about 50 miles southwest of Beatty, Nevada, via U.S. Highway 95 and State Route 373. It sits in Death Valley Junction, on the edge of the Death Valley National Monument, about eight miles from the Nevada-California border on California State Route 127 (which connects to Route 373).
For information, go to www.amargosa-opera-house.com.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.