Death Valley Night

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

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.

Jillian Northrup

Even the earliest photographs of Marta Becketreveal 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 Abbottmusicals A Tree Grows in Brooklyn with Shirley Booth and Wonderful Townstarring 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 Househeld 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 Framptonwho, 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."

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