February 9, 2017 - 4:00 pm
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.
‘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 firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.