Dancing in the Desert


If a ballerina is performing for an audience of empty seats, would anyone ever observe her pointe?  For artist Marta Becket, the answer was yes. Finding an abandoned theater while changing a flat tire, Becket would work tirelessly for the next several decades to put a deserted mining town back on the map, eventually being “discovered” herself. 

In the unincorporated town of Death Valley Junction, there are no grocery stores, no bars, or any gas station – but there is an opera house. It wasn’t always this way, as in the early 20th century the town then known as Amargosa sprung up alongside the Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad. In 1923, the Pacific Coast Borax Company built a U-shaped lodging and community hall for their workers mining borax sodium in the surrounding mountains of Death Valley. By 1925, however, operations ceased to exist, and the desert structures were left to the sands of time. Even the railroad departed the small settlement, with the tracks ripped up, and was sent to Egypt to aid the Allied war effort. It would be over twenty years until a fateful car ride would change the direction of the barely-over-the-border community.

On a road trip with her husband, ballet dancer Marta Becket would happen upon the forgotten mining town due to a flat tire. While her partner changed the wheel, Marta found the Borax Company’s community hall and theater wasting away.  Peering through the building’s keyhole, the artist and performer felt almost called by the space to open a theater. From 1967 onward, it is here that Becket would spend the rest of her life, naming the building Amargosa Opera House in an homage to the original name of the settlement. 

Opening a theater in a town with a population under ten doesn’t bode well for filling seats, so why not paint in audience members? Beginning in 1968, Marta started painting murals covering the walls and ceiling of the hall, creating scenes of royals and noble characters seeming to watch the stage themselves. Along with this four-year painting project, Marta would begin performing dances and mimes- sometimes even to an empty house (besides the painted kings and queens, of course). It was one quiet night in particular that led to her fame and international recognition when writers from National Geographic profiled her performance to no one. From that point onward, Becket wouldn’t have an issue filling seats with celebrities and those looking for a unique performance in the American desert.

While Marta passed in 2017, her spirit lives on with a range of performances year-round continuing to bring patrons to the rustic opera house. Along with the entertainment venue, a hotel and restaurant are also run by the Becket’s non-profit organization. A five-minute drive from the California and Nevada border, the once-abandoned mining town now happily has a population of four.

Written By: Seamus McMahon

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