Dancing at the end of the Earth: Marta Becket's show at the Amargosa Opera House always goes on--with or without an audience.
There are two reasons people find themselves in Death Valley Junction: They stumble across it on the way to somewhere else, or they've come to see Marta Becket. This 78-year-old former Broadway dancer, still slim and graceful (and single-mindedly dedicated to her art), owns Death Valley Junction and operates the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, aided by a five-person staff and her business and theatrical partner, Tom Willett. She maintains a small menagerie of cats, horses, and peacocks and oversees the long, single-story stucco hotel, throughout which she has painted small scenes and decorative flourishes.
She also creates and stars in every performance the theater offers. She has been dancing on this modest stage, out in the middle of nowhere, for thirty-five years. Becket makes her own costumes and sets, and has painted a sprawling mural of a Renaissance audience inside the theater--at times, it has been her only audience. Despite the stark beauty of the place and the obvious lure of running one's own show, questions still hang in the desert air: How does she do it? Why does she do it? How far will someone go for their art?
"All my New York dancer friends thought I was crazy," Becket says of the decision she made that changed her life dramatically. Around Easter 1967, she and her then-husband/ manager, Tom Williams, had been touring her solo act at colleges across the country when a tire on their trailer went flat outside of Death Valley Junction. At the time they pulled into town, there was a gas station where the tire could be fixed, but Becket was drawn beyond it to the town theater, long unused and badly in need of repair. After some discussion, she and her husband made a deal with the town manager to rent the theater for $45 a month. Then it was back to New York, to pack up their lives and move West.
Becket was leaving behind a long, sometimes lean, and arduous life as a New York dancer. She was born in Greenwich Village and, as a child, was often taken to professional dance and theater performances. She studied ballet, modern, and interpretive dancing, as well as art and music, until World War II broke out and her divorced mother encouraged her to quit school and earn money dancing in nightclubs. She made her debut on New Year's Eve, 1943, at the Hula Hut in the Bronx, where, as she recalls, she was introduced as "Little Marta Becket, Tippy-Toe Dancer." Her less-than-glorious entrance, performing a Slavonic dance she had choreographed herself, was preceded by a tap act and a midget who played the accordion. She was accompanied by a band that played oompah music, on a tiny stage, with the smell of fried potatoes wafting in from the kitchen.
For the next few years she did solo gigs, sometimes three times a night, for some combination of pay, food, and lodging. Once the demand for such entertainment waned, Becket took a job with the Radio City Music Hall corps de ballet. She didn't much like the uniformity of the corps, she says, but she adjusted, and danced four shows daily--these ranged thematically from a Sylphides-style piece to an undersea ballet. She also won parts in a 1946 revival of Showboat, a musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and Wonderful Town.
Periodically, Becket also took work as a model and a freelance artist to support herself and her mother. Her assignments included illustrating George Balanchine's book Complete Stories of the Great Ballets.
She yearned for more autonomy. "As a dancer, you're told what to do," she said. "Dancers aren't encouraged to think for themselves." She developed more solo work; when a would-be impresario's offer to fund a show for Becket and a group of dancers fell through, Becket auditioned for jobs alone, dancing all the parts she'd choreographed for the show by herself. Eventually, she began to tour her solos at schools and universities, dancing up to three shows daily and driving long distances in between engagements. Williams helped book her act, which she toured for a few years. She'd also begun to sell some of her paintings, and had found a gallery to host a one-woman show of her work; but the opening, planned for November 23, 1963, was thwarted by Kennedy's assassination. A second planned opening, two years later at another gallery, coincided with a citywide power outage in New York.
At the same time, bookings were getting harder to find, and often they took place in gymnasiums or dining halls, so when Becket found a theater to call her own, she was elated. "You can't paint on a canvas that's already painted," she says of New York. "Here was an empty canvas."
Just months after discovering the place, she and Williams settled into Death Valley Junction, once the headquarters for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. In its 1920s boom years, the town numbered around 300 people, but by the '60s, the population had dwindled substantially. Williams did occasional printing jobs while Becket set to work restoring the theater (a former community hall) and teaching dance lessons; she continued to give herself class, create choreography, and paint.
A 1968 flash flood cost Becket weeks of cleanup and repair; it was then that she decided to paint her mural. It took her six years to complete the richly detailed work, which covers the walls and ceiling; its centerpiece is a Spanish king and queen seated in a box just above the theater's front entrance, surveying gypsies, nuns, bullfighters, and other colorful characters. In 1983, the same year that Williams left Becket, Willett, himself a colorful character, began working at the hotel as a handyman--Becket put him to work as her emcee and ticket taker, and eventually integrated him into the show.
Performances are held twice weekly at 8:15 P.M., preceded by pre-show banter and a short introductory presentation from Willett, a stout, white-haired gent who wears a black suit and gold-sequined bowler hat for the job. Becket's repertoire is a mix of simple classical and Romantic-style solos on pointe, narrative works, and broad pantomimes involving Willett, who goes by the stage name Wilget and compensates for his lack of dance training with superb comic timing. (As she has gotten older, Becket has made adjustments to her programs--a knee injury last fall forced her to rely on theatrical work with more narrative than dance.) Becket and Willett play multiple roles and make quick costume changes backstage--although Willett plays men, as often as not he appears en travesti. Becket's costumes, like her paintings, are intricate and drenched in color, whether for a can-can dancer or a contessa. Most works, usually set to taped classical music, involve a story or themes familiar to ballet audiences: a baron who falls for a doll; a count juggling multiple love affairs. Some works are autobiographical, including a piece about a dutiful daughter who forsakes her own happiness to care for her mother. And gossips are recurring characters, thanks to the whispers that have followed Becket since she arrived. "You don't do nothing necessary," a local told her once, in speculating about how she earned a living. "I do what's necessary for me," she countered.
Becket is well known in this sparsely populated area--the waitress at the Longstreet Casino diner a half-hour west of Death Valley Junction calls her "an exceptional woman"--but her reputation extends beyond the desert, thanks to word of mouth and Amargosa (2000), Todd Robinson's Academy Award-nominated documentary about her life. She was also profiled in National Geographic in 1969, after a writer caught her act.
In November 2002, Becket signed a deal with the Spanish film company Escima; it paid her $10,000 for the rights to her life story, which it plans to make into a feature film. Further details were unavailable at press time.
Christine Fossemalle, a French expatriate who runs a ballet school outside Santa Barbara and takes students on annual trips to see Becket's performances, says that Death Valley holds a special mystique for Europeans. You can find them among the locals in the 120-seat house, along with the occasional journalist or ghost-hunter--the place has a reputation for being haunted.
Despite the attention, Becket has had to scramble to keep things running. In 1979, with help from San Francisco's Trust for Public Land, Becket's company, the Amargosa Opera House, Inc., bought the town of Death Valley Junction--it's now a nonprofit corporation, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Becket no longer teaches dance, but she occasionally shows and sells paintings. She paid off the town's first mortgage (which inspired her piece The Second Mortgage), and stays solvent through guild membership support, hotel stays, and video and souvenir sales.
"I have seventy bills to pay each month--electricity, taxes, payroll taxes, salaries," Becket says. "People ask me if I get discouraged. Sure I get discouraged--I cry, I rant. But I have to go on. I don't do it for the money: I do it because I must."
Becket's season, now in its thirty-fifth year, runs from February 1 to May 10. For more information, call 760/852-4441.
Heather Wisner is an associate editor of DANCE MAGAZINE.
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|Date:||Feb 1, 2003|
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