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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

In California's Death Valley, temperatures in the summer can exceed 120 degrees, not such a great place, one might argue, for ballet. But dancer Marta Becket would disagree. Four decades ago in the near-ghost town of Death Valley Junction, Becket turned a ramshackle meeting hall into what she calls an opera house. It's just outside the boundary of Death Valley National Park, in the middle of empty desert. But people from around the world who are traveling to the park also travel to see Becket perform.

NPR's Ina Jaffe has this profile as part of our series this week on the national parks.

INA JAFFE: At 83 years of age, the dancer of Death Valley is no longer dancing. But once a week, the audience still comes to see Marta Becket perform what she calls "The Sitting Down Show."

On a Saturday night, the 80 or so people in the audience nearly fill the small theater. Ramon Mentor, a Los Angeles TV producer, is here for the first time.

Mr. RAMON MENTOR (TV Producer): I know that there won't be anything like this ever. She's one of a kind. I just want to experience it completely.

JAFFE: My first experience with Marta Becket was 20 years ago. She was in her early 60s then. Long past the time when most dancers retire, she still danced on point, pirouetting to classical music in a white froth of the costume. Her theater was an accidental discovery, she told me then.

In the spring of 1967, she'd been touring the West with her solo act. Her husband was having a flat tire repaired at a service station down the road, and she was drawn to an abandoned old auditorium, she said, as if by a magnet.

Ms. MARTA BECKET (Dancer and Painter): Oh, I came around the back and looked through the hole in the backdoor. It was dark, very large, dark cavern, and sunbeams pierced through the cracks in the walls would hit a doll's head that stared back at me and kangaroo rats were running around. And I could see an old calico curtain hanging from a track. And I really did feel as if I was looking at the other half of myself. Like I was looking in a mirror.

JAFFE: So Marta Becket - native New Yorker, occasional ballerina and veteran of Broadway - made the tiny dilapidated Death Valley Junction her new home. She renamed the old theater the Amargosa Opera House and gave performances three times a week.

Ms. BECKET: And the performances kept on going regardless of whether anyone showed up or not. And…

JAFFE: So sometimes you perform to a completely empty house?

Ms. BECKET: Oh, yes. Oh, yeah, that was like a dress rehearsal. A dancer has to work. I mean, you have to have even a dress rehearsal so that you have something there when someone does show up.

(Soundbite of applause)

JAFFE: Twenty years later, she takes the stage leaning on the arm of an assistant. She's still raven-haired and elegant in her blue velvet gown. She no longer needs to dance to draw the admiration of the crowd; her life is her major creation.

Ms. BECKET: Thank you so much. It's taken me 40 years to get that kind of applause without having to do anything.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: The stories of Becket's early days in Death Valley Junction now make up a good part of her sitting down show. She tells the old tales the way she did 20 years ago, just her voice has changed.

Ms. BECKET: The people who lived here were very strange and very rural to us and, of course, we were strange to them. Later on, a few years later, I wrote many musicals depicting my experiences here in Death Valley Junction. And I wrote a song that was the overture to it, and I'll sing that.

(Singing) Once I was a chorus girl on Broadway, thought that I would be a big star someday. The years went by, so with a sigh I realized that I was never going to make it on the Great White Way.

JAFFE: But Marta Becket has become a star of sorts. She's been the subject of documentaries and magazine articles. Tourists passing through Death Valley have spread her reputation around the country and the world. And her story is bound up with the derelict theater she transformed into an opera house.

Ms. BECKET: I looked up at the blank white walls and I envisioned a Renaissance audience seated in gilded balconies waiting for the performances.

JAFFE: So she painted them. It took six years.

Ms. BECKET: I have royalty in the center and nobility on the left and the right. The Spanish bullfighters, families on the lower left.

JAFFE: The murals envelop the audience. The ceiling has doves and cherubs. Filling the galleries along the sides are courtiers and commoners, lovers and drunkards, priests and nuns.

Ms. BECKET: Right next to the nuns, in this spot in here, I have the ladies of the night. Now, we were seven miles west of the bordello, and the madam heard that we were opening this theater and so she brought her girls every month to my performances, for culture.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAFFE: And in fact, Becket's husband worked at that bordello. That may have contributed to the failure of her marriage. She was divorced in 1983. That same year, a local man named Tom Willet became her emcee, her performing partner, and soon, her close companion. He died suddenly three years ago. She missed one performance and went back on stage - another chapter in the Marta Becket legend.

Mr. TOMMY JORDAN (Musician): She gives me courage.

JAFFE: Says Tommy Jordan after the show, a musician from Southern California. He guesses he's seen Becket perform 10 or 20 times.

Mr. JORDAN: It's so rare to find someone living their life on their own terms. Maybe someday I'll be more like that.

JAFFE: Being like that was not always so revered, says Becket.

Ms. BECKET: It didn't matter if people thought I was crazy, because whose life is it, theirs or mine?

JAFFE: Were you aware of that, that people sometimes thought or seem to act like you were…

Ms. BECKET: Oh, yes. Somebody did a picture of me dancing to a painted wall.

JAFFE: Making fun of you?

Ms. BECKET: It made me like a freak because I was dancing to a painted audience. I was hurt, but it's not going to stop me because this is what I wanted to do.

JAFFE: Marta Becket is now coming up against the limits of the uncompromising life she's chosen. She's now the sole resident of Death Valley Junction, she's set up a nonprofit organization in hopes the town will go on without her. But she knows that she's what people really come here to see.

Ms. BECKET: No way can I retire. Who's going to pay the bills?

JAFFE: Would you prefer to retire, would you prefer to not perform anymore?

Ms. BECKET: No, I want to perform, but I like to perform maybe not quite so much. Spend more time painting. I'd like the option to decide whether I want to retire or not. I have no option. I've got to keep going.

JAFFE: Because she has to keep her opera house alive, she says, the way it's sustained her life for four decades in the desert.

Ina Jaffe, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You can see photos of Marta Becket's 40 years of dancing in Death Valley at npr.org.

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