57°F
weather icon Clear

Marta Becket, who made Amargosa Opera House famous, dies at 92

A flat tire brought classically trained dancer Marta Becket to Death Valley Junction, California, in 1967.

Nothing could ever make her leave.

For decades, the artist and performer put on one-woman shows inside the Pacific Coast Borax Co.’s old community hall, which she transformed with her paint brush and her passion into the weird and world-famous Amargosa Opera House.

Becket died Monday at her home in the near-ghost town of Death Valley Junction, according to Inyo County deputy coroner Jeff Mullenhour. She was 92.

Susan Sorrells, who owns the nearby town of Shoshone, California, and knew Becket throughout her time in the desert, said she will remember Marta for her talent and generosity, her sense of humor and her deep love of animals — from her small army of pet cats to the herds of wild horses and burros she fed and ferociously protected near her home.

The world will remember Marta for what she created, Sorrells said. “Her art really came first. She was extremely dedicated to her art to the point where she could become something of a hermit.”

Becket was born Aug. 9, 1924, in New York City, where she grew up studying dance, piano and art. As a young woman, she performed on Broadway and at Radio City Music Hall.

Becket was camping with her husband in Death Valley in the spring of 1967 when a flat tire sent them to the junction for a repair.

While there, she discovered an abandoned theater in the then-booming mining town just across the border from Nevada, 95 miles west of Las Vegas.

They rented the old building the next day for $45 a month.

 

According to a biography on the opera house’s website, Becket gave her first performance in the theater on Feb. 10, 1968, before an audience of about a dozen people. She made all her own sets and costumes, and she wrote and choreographed the entire production, just as she would for all her original shows — each a mix of ballet and old-fashioned Broadway theatrics, often autobiographical.

PAINTED ‘AUDIENCE’

The curtains parted every Monday, Friday and Saturday for years after that, though some nights no one showed up to buy a ticket.

So she would never have to perform in front of an empty house, Becket decided to paint herself a permanent audience. Over the course of several years in the early 1970s, she decorated the walls and ceiling with elaborate murals depicting a Renaissance theater.

Her marriage dissolved in 1983, but she soon took on a performing partner named Thomas J. Willett, “Wilget” for short, who served as stage manager, emcee, comic relief and companion for Becket until his death in 2005.

Amy Noel, an artist and business owner in Tecopa, California, said she caught her first Marta Becket performance about 30 years ago, and she returned to the opera house countless times.

First-time audience members didn’t always know what to make of the theater and its star, Noel said. “Then the lights would go off, and it was magic.”

The curiosity of Becket’s creation gradually drew attention from around the globe, as the famed dancer in the desert was profiled by dozens of magazines, newspapers and television programs. “Amargosa,” a 2000 documentary about her life, won an Emmy and was a finalist for an Academy Award. Her memoir, “To Dance on Sands,” was published in 2006.

Film crews and so-called “paranormal investigators” also showed up periodically to hunt ghosts in her theater and adjacent motel, but the spirit Sorrells remembers best is the one Becket painted on canvas and in one of her murals: a ghostly ballerina twirling through the opera house’s colonnade.

“That pretty much let everyone know what her wishes were,” Sorrells said.

‘THE SITTING DOWN SHOW’

Becket was still dancing — and still rising onto her toes to stand “en pointe” — well into her 70s. When a fall left her injured and unable to dance, she began staging what she called “The Sitting Down Show.”

“She’s an inspiration to us all,” Noel said. “She was so dedicated and so sharp. She had such a sharp mind, even when her body started to fail.”

Becket gave her farewell performance on Feb. 12, 2012, at age 87, before relinquishing the stage to a series of visiting dancers and placing the property in the hands of a nonprofit board.

Noel was there for the final show.

“It was packed to the gills,” she said. “Before Marta said a word, she got a standing ovation. She said, ‘That was a first,’ and then she went right into (her performance). It was beautiful.”

No funeral arrangements had been announced on Tuesday, but those who knew Becket expect her to be buried in Death Valley Junction’s tiny cemetery, near the graves of her mother and her beloved “Wilget.”

“She never wanted to leave Death Valley Junction,” Sorrells said.

As long as the Amargosa Opera House still stands, Marta Becket’s presence will be felt there, Noel said. “She promised to haunt it, so I expect she’ll be around.”

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.
THE LATEST