Dancer-Artist Marta Becket Adds a Cultural Bloom to a Death Valley Ghost Town
Marta Becket smiles. Things hadn't always been like this at the Amargosa Opera House in the California ghost town of Death Valley Junction (current pop.: 7). For years she had danced often to a house as empty as it was on the day she and her husband, Tom Williams, arrived in 1967. They had been camping in the California desert that spring day when a punctured tire forced them to seek help in the nearby town. Marta, the daughter of two journalists, had been raised in the art-steeped worlds of Philadelphia and New York. She had danced professionally in Broadway choruses and had toured as a one-woman show. Tired of the road after eight years, she envisioned a creative oasis in the forlorn town, most notably in its abandoned adobe movie theater.
"I ran back to the gas station as fast as I could to tell Tom about the theater," she recalls. "We were both ready for a new life, where time, space and limitless creative opportunity could be ours every day of our lives. We located the town manager. We signed on a piece of scrap paper and gave him a handshake." The rent: $45 per month.
Marta and Tom worked tirelessly on the theater, painting and renovating for the Feb. 10, 1968 opening of Marta's one-woman show. Stage lights were fashioned out of Folger's coffee cans, as were the "crystal" chandeliers. On opening night Marta danced to an audience of 12 neighbors. Box-office receipts totaled $11.25.
The enthusiastic local audience could only enjoy the program just so often, however, and by July, Marta found herself dancing each Friday, Saturday and Monday to white walls. "So I decided to paint in an audience," she says. With renewed fervor she painted figures on the walls—figures of dance-hall ladies, noblemen, nuns, a king and queen, even a likeness of New York theater critic Clive Barnes. During the six years it took Becket to complete the murals, the Amargosa Opera House gradually gained renown. Tourists trekked in to see her progress and take in a performance. One well-wisher donated a concert grand. Becket and Williams soon were taking in as much as $20,000 per season.
In 1980 the Amargosa Opera House incorporated and bought the entire town of Death Valley Junction for $160,000, registering it in the National Register of Historic Places. The hotel, restaurant and post office reopened. Even when Marta's husband, Tom, left for L.A. three years later ("He got desert burnout," says the now divorced Marta), her spirits couldn't be quelled. She hired a local handyman, Tom Willett, as her new stage manager, business manager and emcee.
"I can't imagine any other life being as exciting as this," says Marta, who is now in her mid-50s. "I'd dance whether people showed up or not. I danced my 2,000th performance last Jan. 21. Not bad for an off-off-off Broadway production."
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