Courtesy of Stephens Press
In 1967, Becket and her husband, Tom Williams, stopped in Death Valley Junction, Calif., to fix a flat tire. There, she found an abandoned theater that later became her home and Amargosa Opera House.
Courtesy of Stephens Press
Photos: Death Valley Dancer
Forty-one years ago, dancer and painter Marta Becket took over a ramshackle meeting hall in the near-ghost town of Death Valley Junction, Calif. The dilapidated old mining town was just outside Death Valley National Park, and there was nothing but desert for 30 miles in every direction. But eventually, people from all over the world came to see her.
Becket, 83, no longer dances. But once a week an audience still comes to see her perform what she calls "The Sitting Down Show."
The Other Half Of Myself
Becket discovered Death Valley Junction quite by accident during Easter Week of 1967. She'd been touring the West with her solo act, and she and her husband, Tom Williams, decided to camp in Death Valley and do their taxes.
A flat tire brought them to the garage in Death Valley Junction. While Becket's husband tended to the car, she was drawn "as if by a magnet," she says, to an abandoned meeting hall.
"I came around the back and looked through the hole in the back door. And it was dark, a very large dark cavern and sunbeams pierced through the cracks in the walls and 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 though I was looking at the other half of myself. Like I was looking in a mirror," she says.
So Becket, a native New Yorker, occasional ballerina and veteran of Broadway, made Death Valley Junction her new home. She renamed the old meeting hall Amargosa Opera House and began performing three nights a week. Her program was part ballet and part "dance pantomimes" of her own devising. The show went on even if no one showed up to see it.
"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."
'The Sitting Down Show'
On a recent Saturday night 80 or so audience members nearly fill the small theater. They're a mix of Death Valley tourists and creative types from Los Angeles.
Becket's become a little bit famous over the years, the focus of documentary films and magazine articles. As he waits for the show to begin, TV producer Ramon Mentor says he is excited about seeing her for the first time.
"I know that there won't be anything like this ever," he says. "She's one of a kind. I just want to experience it completely."
Becket 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. That, and the murals she's painted that cover the interior of the opera house.
As she tells the audience, she'd been cleaning out mud and debris swept into the theater by a flash flood, when "I looked up at the blank white walls and I envisioned a Spanish Renaissance audience seated in gilded balconies waiting for the performance."
So she painted them. It took six years. The king and queen are in the royal box directly opposite the stage. Cherubs and doves grace the ceiling. Filling the galleries along the sides are courtiers and commoners, lovers and drunkards, priests and nuns.
"Right next to the nuns," Marta tells the crowd, "I have the ladies of the night." They're based on the women who lived in a bordello just seven miles away across the state line in Nevada. "The madam heard that we were opening this theater here, so she brought her girls here every month to my performances. For culture," she deadpans.
Living Life On Her Own Terms
In fact, her husband worked at that bordello. That may have contributed to the failure of her marriage. Becket divorced him in 1983. That same year a local man named Tom Willet became her master of ceremonies, her performing partner and soon, her close companion. He died suddenly three years ago. She missed one performance and went back on stage.
"She gives me courage," says Tommy Jordan, a musician from Southern California. He guesses he's seen Becket perform 10 or 20 times. "It's so rare," he says, " to find someone living life on their own terms. ... Maybe someday I'll be more like that."
Being "like that" was not always so revered, says Becket. She's well aware that people thought she was crazy. But "it didn't matter if people thought I was crazy, because whose life is it, theirs or mine?"
'I've Got To Keep Going'
Becket is now coming up against the limits of the uncompromising life she's chosen. She's set up a nonprofit organization in hopes that Death Valley Junction will go on without her. Yet she knows that she's the main attraction here.
"In no way can I retire," she laments. "Who's going to pay the bills?" She still wants to perform, but "maybe not quite so much. Spend more time painting. I'd like the option to decide whether I want to retire or not. I've got no option. I've got to keep going."
She has to keep her opera house alive, she says, the way it's sustained her life for four decades in the desert.