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Death Valley Night 

A trip to the Mojave and the Amargosa Opera House, where Marta Becket has acted out a dream for 35 years

Wednesday, May 26 2004
Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

-- Miriam Beard

Death Valley Junction is a whisper in the middle of the Mojave Desert. Thirty miles from the next town -- a spit of civilization called Pahrump that boasts three infamous fireworks outlets -- Death Valley Junction sits on a ribbon of lonesome highway that marks the once prosperous union between the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad and the spur lines operated by the Pacific Coast Borax Co. In those days, this was a company town, and the U-shaped complex of Mexican colonials at its center shimmered like a pearl in the arid landscape, offering an orderly company store, well-equipped offices, a dormitory, a 23-room hotel, a grand dining room, and a large recreation hall used for dances, movies, funerals, and town meetings. But the boom days of 1925 are over. The adobe structures that still endure in Death Valley Junction gape and peel in the stark sunlight like desiccated lizards; tumbleweeds gather as a tide against the barbed-wire fences that sketch insignificant demarcations across the dust; and the town's solemn appellation fades into the whitewashed arcade hanging above a long-silent railway station. To the quick and casual eye, Death Valley Junction is a ghost town, all but abandoned by history and thought -- it is listed as such on, along with the forlorn outposts of Buzzard's Roost, Lookout, and Deadwood -- but Death Valley Junction is not a ghost town. It is, in fact, a dream come true.

Even the earliest photographs of Marta Becket reveal her artistic bent, the theatrical jut of her chin, her coquettish smile, a certain élan expressed in the 5-year-old's manner of dress. She was a natural. Born in New York City and suckled on free tickets to the opera, ballet, and theater that had been sent to her journalist father, Becket developed a passion for the stage that she never outgrew. By the age of 9, she had earned scholarships in piano and art; by high school, she had devoted herself wholly to dance; during the Great Depression, she supported herself and her mother by performing on the nightclub circuit and posing as a fashion model. Being too tall for a traditional ballet company, Becket then auditioned for the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall and earned a role in the 1946 revival of Showboat. Over the next few years, she appeared in the long-running George Abbott musicals A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with Shirley Booth and Wonderful Town starring Rosalind Russell, all the while writing and choreographing pieces for her own repertoire, including The Mirror, the Carpet, and the Lemon, a one-woman ballet that would lay the foundation for her future work.

In 1954, at the age of 29, Becket turned her back on Broadway, choosing to focus her creative energy on original work. She designed elaborate costumes, which her mother sewed by hand, and began touring universities with her one-woman shows. It was during this time she met her future husband and erstwhile concert manager, Tom Williams. Together they hit the road, touring out west, where a change was clearly in the air: Rock 'n' roll had usurped the touring artisan; soloists were no longer in vogue. Crisscrossing the country, Becket says, she felt as the early vaudeville performers must have watching their old theaters give way to newfangled movie houses.

"The magic," she notes in her 30-page self-published autobiography, "was disappearing."

In 1967, weary and dispirited by a fruitless tour, Williams and Becket decided to take Easter week off to camp in Death Valley, and that's when Marta saw it: the dilapidated remains of Death Valley Junction's Corkhill Hall.

"I peered through a hole in the door," says Becket. "Debris was strewn all over the warped floorboards, and several rows of wooden benches faced the stage. ... I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at the other half of myself."

While picking up mail in Las Vegas later that day, Becket was informed that the original Metropolitan Opera House where she attended performances as a girl was slated for demolition. This only strengthened her resolve. The next day, she and her husband returned to Death Valley Junction, put a dollar down, and promised the town manager they would return the following year to begin repairs.

On Feb. 10, 1968, the Amargosa Opera House held its grand opening. Becket performed to a house of 12 mystified Death Valley Junction residents, half of them children, while rain dripped into coffee cans through holes in the roof. Rain or shine, audience or no, Becket has remained loyal to opera season ever since, opening with a new show every October and closing around the second weekend in May.

"Thirty-five years, she's been doing this," says Al Frampton, shaking his head in wonder. "We saw her the first time in 1992 while I was out here on a job. It's been a number of years, but we had to see her perform again."

"I almost didn't want to come," counters Monika Frampton who, along with her husband, resides most of the year in Utah. "It's such an emotional experience for me. She's really followed her dreams. It's a thing of beauty. Her whole life is a thing of beauty."

"Just like Sinatra," chuckles Al Frampton. "She did it her way."

The Framptons are among the 125 people who have traveled from all over the country to see this season's closing show. With only 14 rooms habitable in Becket's Amargosa Hotel (the whole municipality was purchased by Amargosa Opera Inc. in the early 1980s), many of tonight's guests have happily opted to camp out in their vehicles across the road. Others drove two hours from Vegas.

Rick and Diane Streiff traveled from Arcata, Calif., after seeing a story about Becket, but they are among the lucky ones.

"We actually came in September," admits Rick Streiff. "It wasn't opera season, so we booked our reservation back then, well in advance. We have a room in the hotel."

Jerry Taylor first saw Becket perform 15 years ago, during a motorcycle trip through the desert. This year, he made the pilgrimage from Pacific Grove, Calif., with his wife, Brenda, and their 6-year-old son, Grant.

In the courtyard, a peacock begins to scream. The sun sets quickly in the west, streaking the inexhaustible sky with vermilion scars and drawing our attention to a small spotlight shining above the hand-painted Amargosa Opera House sign, under which a white-haired gent in a top hat waits.

As Amargosa's stage manager, ticket-taker, master of ceremonies, usher, curtain-puller, set-builder, and reluctant second actor, Thomas Willet, or Wilget as he is more affectionately known, is Becket's right-hand man, a position Wilget cheerfully filled when Tom Williams "resigned" in '83. With the obvious good humor of a man in love with his life, Wilget snarls at the crowd for demanding amenities like indoor plumbing and welcomes us inside the hall, which is covered from floor to ceiling with rich murals of Becket's execution and design: A lavish audience is depicted in seats in a tiered balcony from the early 16th century, eternally applauding Becket's efforts as gypsies and harlots giggle over the heads of nuns and monks; American Indians are shown performing feats of skill for the king and queen of Spain; and two Death Valley Junction cats -- Rhubarb and Tuxedo -- sleep forever on red velvet cushions on the back wall of the house. Overhead, a blue painted sky is filled with dancing cherubs; a central dome holds 16 ladies playing musical instruments; and painted on the west wall, a marble statue holds an inscription that reads: "The walls of this theatre and I dedicate these murals to the past without which our times would have no beauty." An old tape of Becket's voice whirls into life, explaining the symbols in her paintings and the history of the opera house, from its purchase to the flash flood of '68 that buried the building under 16 inches of mud.

This season's original performance, set to the canned music of Giuseppe Verdi, is titled Masquerade and tells the tale of a yearly dance in which dreams become reality, if only for a very short time. Marta Becket, pale and slender with her thick black hair pulled into a tight bun, enters the stage and begins to dance "in search of herself." Over the course of 14 songs, numerous set changes, and even more costume changes, the winsome 79-year-old sings and dances, performing semicomic routines with Wilget and executing dramatic ronds de jambe that have her pointing her toe and lifting her leg higher than I ever could have lifted mine, under the watchful gaze of a cast of cloth-dummy co-stars. Sometimes silly, but more often poignant and remarkable, Masquerade culminates with Becket performing the final number almost entirely en pointe. Even in witnessing, it is difficult to believe and inspiring to contemplate.

"In my life, I have discovered that dreams are so often more beautiful than the culmination of reality," explains Becket later that night in a receiving line in the lobby of her peeling hotel. "You must live your dreams. Waste little time on reality."

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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