The final curtain: Amargosa Opera House visionary Marta Becket prepares to bow out

After 45 years, Marta Becket is preparing to close her show at Amargosa Opera House
Photo: Sam Morris

"I had a dream the other night that I walked out of my house on two legs, walked to the house across the street, sat on the porch with its potted plants and looked at my house from that vantage point ... I feel grateful for my life, my memories. I'm most grateful that I've had this stage for 40 years to create my own world." — Marta Becket

Marta Becket can't walk. Hip surgery and "dancer's knee" have slowed her down. It's an adjustment for the fiercely independent woman, a lifelong dancer who has performed for more than four decades at the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, 30 miles west of Pahrump.

Fans and the curious have trekked out to watch her mostly one-woman, vaudeville-style shows for decades. Some made multiple pilgrimages to see Becket, a legend, an unusual masterpiece, a hero, a creative icon, an "eccentric" who escaped reality to focus solely on a creative life. But this is it. At 86 years old, she's planning her final season.

Wearing a floral zip-up housecoat and sandals, she navigates a yellow scooter into the dining area of the Amargosa Hotel on a hot July afternoon. Normally, she'd be working on the scenery for next season's performance. This year the audience will have to imagine it. Among other health problems, she's simply too weak. Her left hand and wrist shake. But in a small, yet determined voice, she asserts, "I'm still here."

Of course she is. Becket's departure from the remote world she meticulously created at the intersection of highways 190 and 127 seems unthinkable. She's transformed the small California town, built during the 1920s to house the workers of the Pacific Coast Borax Company. The nonprofit foundation she founded in 1973 to preserve her legacy still owns it, all 268 acres. She's its unofficial mayor and sheriff. Including her, there are three residents.

An imaginary world

The Amargosa Opera House

The former New York ballet dancer fled one world to create another. No more sharing small New York apartments with a possessive mother with whom she roomed well into her 30s. No more chorus girl gigs. No more tours on the college circuit. No more in-between gigs and painting jobs to pay the bills. She prefers the imaginary world of the stage. Death Valley Junction gave that to her.

Becket found permanence in the Opera House, where she spent six years painting a 16th-century audience over every inch of its walls and clouds with cherubs in a trompe l'oeil dome on its ceiling. Performances went ahead whether or not an audience showed up. A dozen locals — "rednecks," as Becket calls them — turned out for the first, in February 1968.

For years Becket shared the stage with a quirky handyman and good friend, Tom "Wilget" Willet. When he died unexpectedly in 2005, she went on with the show, telling audiences that onstage pauses were parts that had been written for Willet. That's her. Whatever happens, she adapts. Most ballet dancers stop performing by their 30s. Becket refused. She still performed en pointe at 80. If her left leg bothered her, she kicked with her right. When she broke her hip last October, she sang her entire show while she waited in pre-surgery. Last season at the Opera House, she performed what she called "the sitting down show."

"Many times I've made my exits in the opera house in the evening thinking this may be the last time I see my painted audience," she says. "I want to keep what I've created here alive. It's my life."

A remote environment

Becket lives alone behind the hotel. There are horses, wild animals and domestic cats on the property. There's an ongoing responsibility for upkeep. Over the years, people have stepped up to help. Some came uninvited. "They just move in. I'm one woman against evil."

Patrons have come forward to help out, but so have con artists, prospectors and squatters, some with agendas that have left Becket guarded, suspicious. Many learned about her through travel guides, newspapers and magazines or the 2000 documentary Amargosa. Death Valley Junction has been featured in television shows, commercials and films. Illusionist Criss Angel filmed a Halloween special, complete with séance, there. The hotel, rumored to be haunted, draws lots of ghost hunters, and Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures has been filmed there. The hotel also appeared in the 1983 music video for Robert Plant's "Big Log."

Temperatures out there can reach 125. The dining hall's swamp coolers hum in the otherwise quiet room, which is filled with enough tables and chairs to host a large event. Hotel guests and tourists on their way to Death Valley pop in and out of the hotel's front door. Some days, Becket is in this room, sketching works for sale to those who happen to walk in. It's so familiar, it might as well be her living room.

The hotel, café and opera house generate income for the town. Bio Centric Energy leases some of the land for an algae farm. About 5,000 guests stay at the hotel each year, according to director of operations Rich Regnell, who lives on the property with his girlfriend, Mary Lee. They tend to Becket's needs and express dedication to her legacy: "Marta's legacy will live on," Regnell says. "I gave her my word. If she wants to work on her stage, she works on her stage. We make it happen."

Becket's legacy is being challenged, however. The walls of the Opera House are deteriorating. Water flows underground. Suzanne Hackett-Morgan, an artist who helped found nearby Goldwell Open Air Museum, helped secure a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to survey the structure for preservation. Like others before her, Hackett-Morgan felt an immediate kinship with Becket. "In the Mojave, and throughout Death Valley, there are a lot of people of that ilk, but there's never going to be another Marta," Hackett-Morgan says. "She's an original. She lives the life a lot of people dream about living. She's very tough, strong-minded and protective of her creativity, determined.

"You have to be like that if you're going to make something like that happen in a harsh environment. There's nothing virtual there. There's the heat, the building, the weirdness of the place and the moist adobe. It kind of breathes and has this own environment that it creates."

The final season

Becket still performs when she can. "I'm not going to live forever," she says, bluntly aware of her own mortality. "I can't imagine the afterworld being as beautiful as this. I'd like to know what it's like over there. I'm getting myself ready for that."

Becket's board is in place to preserve her legacy after she's gone. "I would like [the Opera House] to be for artists who believe as I do," she says. "A string quartet or an opera group. Gilbert and Sullivan."

Recently, Sandy Scheller, a performer who works in costuming for Cirque du Soleil's Zumanity, began presenting If These Walls Could Talk, a variety show that pays tribute to Becket by bringing to life the characters in the wall mural. In February, the UNLV Ragtime Rebels Marimba Band played at the opera house while on tour through Death Valley.

But for now, there's next season. For her final season, Becket's working on a new show that takes place in a carnival midway. It's political, she says, and addresses issues of taxation and war. During dry runs she breaks into song, almost hypnotically, her dark brown eyes staring you down as she sings.

"I want you for the red, white and blue. Just sign and volunteer.

The Army is a place for you, a great military career.

We'll show you how to hold a gun and you can make a kill. You march left, right, left, right, left, right ..."

Becket sings as if nothing exists outside the song, a mechanical rat-a-tat of serious conviction.

The new show, Life is a Three-Ring Circus, debuts on February 10, the Opera House's 45th anniversary. "[But] I can't promise because of health problems," she warns. "I'm not as predictable.

"Last time I was en pointe was four years ago," Becket recalls. "I remember making an exit in Masquerade. I was in pain and a voice said to me, 'You know, they want to see you dance en pointe.' It's hard for a dancer. When I watch old videos of myself I feel jealous of my youth. It's bad enough. Watching Amargosa, I always cry. I'm happy that I did it, but I'm sad that all those years are gone.

"I could do some great things if I could have my knee back. I'd often wish I'd discovered Death Valley Junction earlier because I'd have more years."

She's had 45. Even as she prepares for her final run, for Becket's fans, she is a constant. "They don't expect me to get sick and have a bad knee," she says. "One man asked, 'Marta, when are you going to dance again?' I said, 'There's an end to everything, sir, even an end to me.'"

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