74°F
weather icon Mostly Cloudy

After Marta Becket’s death, will the show go on at Amargosa Opera House?

Artist and performer Marta Becket spent decades nurturing her unique vision for the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction, California.

After her death, that legacy is in jeopardy.

Authorities in California are moving to shut the charitable trust that operates Becket’s opera house, citing years of missed filings and unpaid fees.

In a Feb. 7 notice sent to Amargosa Opera House Inc., the California attorney general’s office gave the trust 30 days to address violations dating to 2011.

“If we do not receive a written appeal, your registration will be suspended or revoked, and you will no longer be permitted to conduct business in the State of California,” the notice warns.

Becket and her then-husband established the corporation in 1973, five years after she staged her first one-woman show inside the Pacific Coast Borax Co.’s abandoned community hall just across the Nevada state line, 95 miles west of Las Vegas.

By then, Becket was in the midst of painting herself an audience, a years-long labor of love that would transform the old performance space into an intricately detailed Renaissance theater. She also made her own sets and costumes and wrote and choreographed original shows, which she performed regularly until her farewell performance in 2012.

Becket, 92, died at her home in Death Valley Junction on Jan. 30. A celebration of her life will be held at the opera house at 2 p.m. Friday.

‘EVERYTHING WAS DELINQUENT’

The stated mission of the charitable trust is to preserve Becket’s “cultural legacy” and the historic ghost town 95 miles west of Las Vegas. But Rhonda Shade, general manager of the opera house and hotel, acknowledged this week that the organization has “had its ups and downs.”

One former employee put it another way: “It’s a Pandora’s Box,” said Jenna McClintock, a professional ballet dancer who took over performing at the opera house under Becket’s direction from 2013 until last May.

The past five years have seen considerable turmoil and turnover in administration and staff, including allegations of embezzlement and abuse against a previous manager.

Before Tuesday’s notice, the California attorney general’s office sent a delinquency letter to the charitable trust in December warning that its tax-exempt status was in jeopardy and that trustees could be held personally liable for any unpaid fees and late charges.

The letter said Amargosa Opera House Inc. hadn’t paid registration fees or submitted required copies of its annual IRS tax forms to the state since 2010.

The trust appears to have filed federal tax returns for at least two more years. Records available through the nonprofit information service Guidestar show the opera house and hotel brought in between $320,000 and $460,000 a year but operated at an annual loss of between $14,000 and $36,000 from 2009 through 2012.

Online records from Inyo County, California, meanwhile, show it frequently failed to pay its payroll taxes over the past five years, resulting in a series of liens against the property that were later released when the money was submitted.

In 2011, the operation reported 33 people on the payroll. A year later, the staff was down to 13, according to tax records.

McClintock said she and others wanted to apply for grants or accept donations to help the opera house, but Shade wouldn’t — or couldn’t — provide the documents they needed to prove the opera house’s nonprofit status.

Bills never seemed to get paid on time. “Everything was delinquent,” McClintock said. “Housekeepers’ (pay)checks were being bounced — at Christmas time no less.”

Starting early last year, McClintock said, she wasn’t being paid as much as she was due. She said she tried to talk to Becket about it, but Shade barred her from seeing her. A few weeks later, McClintock said, Shade abruptly canceled the season’s last two weekends of scheduled performances and ordered her off the property.

“I never even got to say goodbye to Marta when I left,” McClintock said.

IN NEED OF REPAIR

Shade flatly denied McClintock’s allegations. Though some bills have gone unpaid, including a portion of the property taxes on the opera house and hotel, Shade said employees have received every cent they were owed, McClintock included.

Shade said Becket was the one who wanted the dancer to leave. “Marta made her own decisions about who she wanted around her and who she didn’t,” she said.

Shade said she inherited a real mess when she took over as manager, but things are running better now. “I’ve been doing the best I could with what I have,” she said

Shade said she hadn’t seen the letter from the attorney general’s office yet, but is counting on the charitable trust’s two remaining board members to straighten out problems like that. Neither board member could be reached for comment on Thursday.

Her plan for now is to keep the opera house, hotel and recently renovated cafe open and operating. “Everything continues on,” she said.

Ultimately, though, Shade said they will need financial help from a philanthropist or foundation to save the opera house from the ravages of time.

“I’m dealing with 100-year-old plumbing and electric and adobe walls falling,” she said. “We’re going to start losing structures with the next rainy season or two.”

Amargosa Opera House Inc. owns the entire 254-acre town site, which blossomed in the early 20th century as a railroad stop and hub for borax mining. The Death Valley Junction Historic District and its roughly two dozen structures have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1980.

The property is prone to flooding. Mud and debris have filled the opera house several times, most recently in 2014.

By some estimates, more that $1.5 million is needed to stabilize the old buildings and fix existing damage. Shade said the property’s historic status complicates that effort, limiting the kinds of work that can be done.

McClintock hopes someone will step in to help preserve Becket’s dream. After all, it was a visit to the Amargosa Opera House when she was 6 that inspired her to become a professional ballerina.

“This is a legend they’re dealing with,” said McClintock, who now lives in nearby Tecopa, California. “I hope Marta’s theater maintains. It’s the most amazing source of inspiration.”

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Entertainment Videos
Heavier traffic expected from EDC festival attendees
Electric Daisy Carnival attendees began to vacate the Las Vegas Motor Speedway starting before 5 a.m., the majority heading south on Interstate 15.
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC
What it's like to skip the lines and fly by helicopter to EDC. (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
DJ Steve Aoki visits Las Vegas comic book store
DJ Steve Aoki visits Torpedo Comics in Las Vegas Friday, May 17, 2019, for a signing for his new comic book series "Neon Future." (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @KMCannonPhoto
Las Vegas Smith & Wollensky opens at The Venetian
After 18 years, the Smith & Wollensky location on Las Vegas’ south Strip closed in 2017, to be re-born two years later with a rib-cutting — instead of a ribbon-cutting — in The Grand Canal Shoppes at The Venetian. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal)
Colin Cantwell, Creator Of Iconic Star Wars Ships Visits Vegas
Colin Cantwell, who created and designed such "Star Wars" ships as the X-Wing fighter, and Death Star, met fans at Rogue Toys in Las Vegas today. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Beauty & Essex in Las Vegas makes an EDC Wonder Wheel
In honor of the Electric Daisy Carnival, Beauty & Essex at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas makes its Wonder Wheel party-worthy. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Giada talks Vegas Uncork’d
Giada De Laurentiis talks during Aperitivo Hour, a Vegas Uncork'd event, at her Caesars Palace restaurant, Pronto, May 10, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Scenes from Vegas Uncork’d 2019 on the Las Vegas Strip
The 13th edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit brought four days of food, wine, celebrity chefs and parties to town, May 9-12. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Three ingredients Gordon Ramsay can’t live without
Bon Appetit's Andy Baraghani interviews the "Hell's Kitchen" chef during a Vegas Uncork'd event at Caesars Palace, May 11, 2019. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vegas Uncork’d launches wiith bubbles and a blade
Dozens of chefs representing some of the Strip’s top restaurants gathered Thursday at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas to launch the 2019 edition of Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Bunky the Clown at the clown convention
Bob "Bunky the Clown" Gretton talks about his life as a clown and the Clown Convention which was in Las Vegas at Texas Station this week. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Frying soft-shell crab at Lola’s in Las Vegas
At Lola’s: A Louisiana Kitchen in Las Vegas, soft-shell crab is breaded and fried and served either as an appetizer, po’boy or platter. Heidi Knapp Rinella/Review-Journal
The Stove in Henderson makes Pecan Pie Pancakes
At The Stove in Henderson, chef/partner Antonio Nunez stacks buttermilk pancakes with pecans and dulce de leche and tops them pie crust crumbs. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Vinnie Paul remembered at Count's Vamp'd
The late rocker's favorite table at one of his favorite clubs in Las Vegas. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
4DX movie experience at Red Rock
4DX movie experience during a demo reel at Red Rock. (Christopher Lawrence/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
What To Do On May The 4th
There are plenty of events going on May the 4th this year around Las Vegas. Celebrate Star Wars and Comic Book Day all at once. The Rogue Toys, the 501st, Rebel Legion and Millennium Fandom Bar are all hosting fun events to help celebrate your geek-dom. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Water Sports Introduces New Attraction At Lake Las Vegas
Las Vegas Water Sports will debut its new aqua park attraction at Lake Las Vegas Days this weekend. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Making the Space Invader at Greene St. Kitchen in Las Vegas
Lysa Huerta, pastry cook at Greene St. Kitchen at the Palms in Las Vegas, starts with angel food cake, Fruity Pebbles ice cream and strawberry sorbet to create a space creature engulfed in flashing lights and swirling mists. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Pools
The M, Park MGM and NoMad are just a few great pools in Las Vegas. (Mat Luschek/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Jose Andres explains Iberico pork
(Al Mancini/Las Vega Review-Journal)
Inside Life is Beautiful
Craig Asher Nyman explains how Life is Beautiful festival is booked and talks about this year's line-up. (Jason Bracelin/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America Pops Up In Vegas
Tattoo'd America, a new pop-up attraction on the Linq Promenade, had their grand opening Friday. The attraction is dedicate to the culture of tattoos. (Mat Luschek / Review-Journal)
Jose Andres gets key to the Strip
Chef Jose Andres was presented with a Key to the Las Vegas Strip and a proclamation declaring April 26 Jose Andres Day in Clark County by County Commissioner Tick Segerblom on Friday. The ceremony took place at his restaurant Bazaar Meat in the SLS Las Vegas. (Al Mancini/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sadelle’s in Las Vegas makes a grilled cheese with an inverted bagel
Michael Vargas, executive sous chef at Sadelle’s at Bellagio in Las Vegas, inverts an everything bagel and grills it with Swiss, cheddar and Muenster cheeses to make the Inverted Bagel Grilled Cheese. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita
Learn how to make China Poblano's Salt Air Margarita (Janna Karel Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures
Kassandra Lopez at Tattoo'd America invites you to have fun and take pictures. (Janna Karel/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Prime rib is carved tableside at Lawry’s The Prime Rib in Las Vegas
Dave Simmons, executive chef of Lawry’s The Prime in Las Vegas, which plans special cuts for National Prime Rib Day, demonstrates the restaurant’s service from rolling tableside carving carts. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Making gluten-free pizza at Good Pie in Las Vegas
Good Pie owner/pizzaiola Vincent Rotolo makes his gluten-free pizza.
Rockabilly fans enjoy Las Vegas weather poolside
Viva Las Vegas Rockabilly Weekender runs Thursday, April 18th through Sunday, April 21st with a huge car show on Saturday featuring The Reverend Horton Heat, The Delta Bombers and The Coasters. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Brownie sundae at VegeNation in Las Vegas is completely vegan
Donald Lemperle, chef/owner of VegeNation in Las Vegas and nearby Henderson, NV, makes his sundae with ice cream made with coconut and almond milks, a brownie made with coconut flour and oil and organic sugar and cacao, and fresh fruit. (Heidi Knapp Rinella/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST
Laughlin couple among 5 dead in wrong-way crash in Arizona

Authorities said the five people killed in a wrong-way wreck on Interstate 40 in northwestern Arizona included two from a nearby Nevada town and three from New York City.

Downtown Reno part of NASA’s final testing to manage drones

Multiple drones took to downtown Reno streets this week as NASA launched the final stage of a four-year effort to develop a national traffic management system for drones.