February 21, 2017
Those who follow headline news may have noted the passing of dancer-entertainer Marta Becket on January 30th, age 92. Perhaps, like me, you marveled at her creative, eccentric life, or wondered how you had entirely missed her story before now.
Becket’s alluring creation is the Amargosa Opera House. Situated in the vast California desert known as Death Valley, it has sparked public interest for 50 years. Now on the registry of historic places, the extensive murals she painted inside the theater are a testament to the hardship and perseverance that accompany a life in pursuit of self-expression. This is her legacy.
Becket’s first 40 years were remarkable. Born in 1924 in Greenwich Village, New York City, she was a product of the boundless Jazz Age, precocious and ambitiously educated in the visual and performing arts. Her mother, mistaken that vaudeville would make a comeback, encouraged her to develop a solo dance and comedy act in lieu of finishing school. In the decades to come, Becket would rise in the ranks of the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall and later on Broadway, but she would always crave the creative freedom of solo performance. She also played the piano and was a talented painter who showed her work in New York galleries.
Her second 40 years were extraordinary.
Early success did not shield Becket from the disappointments of middle age. As she approached her 40th year, a gallery show that might have been her “big break” as a visual artist was eclipsed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. When rock and roll changed the face of popular culture, she struggled to compete for stage bookings. No longer wishing to keep pace with New York City, she spent increasing time on the road with her artist-manager husband, Tom Williams, touring America with a self-written, one-woman show of ballet and pantomime.
Sometimes you leave home to find one.
It takes courage to go there.
From Todd Robinson’s Emmy award-winning documentary “Amargosa” (2000)
Many aspects of the story are enchanting, but I’ll start with the psychic prediction that the New York ballerina would leave home for a desolate location beginning with the letter “A”.
Soon after, while on tour in the American southwest in the spring of 1967, a flat tire would lead Becket and Williams to chance upon a set of abandoned buildings in the California desert, more than 90 miles from civilization. The compound included a hotel and a small theater in drastic need of renovation. Both were constructed in 1924, the year Becket was born, and the hotel had been named Amargosa.
As I peered through the tiny hole [in the theater door]
I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at the other half of myself.
The building seemed to be saying,
“Take me … do something with me … I offer you life.”
Becket and Williams rented the buildings and opened for business in February 1968. They presented three shows a week. Audiences consisted of locals and tourists, and sometimes no one came at all.
Cleaning up from a flash flood in the summer of their first year, Becket shrugged off despair and instead, saw opportunity. In a flash of inspiration she decided to cover the flood-damaged walls with Renaissance images, thereby creating an entire audience that would greet her even when real audiences did not. Once the 16th-century king, queen and court were painted, she added characters from other eras and whimsical figures that reflect her years on the stage.
The murals took a total of seven years to complete.
A painted scroll on one wall reads:
The walls of this theater and I dedicate these murals to the past, without which our times would have no beauty
In 1970, the murals and the artist’s story led to features in Life Magazine and National Geographic. Audiences grew and Los Angeles celebrities took notice. After attending a performance, writer Ray Bradbury said, “Tears came to my eyes. Marta represented to me the spirit of the individual. The spirit of the theater. The spirit of creativity.”
Marta Becket continued to perform at the Amargosa Opera House until 2012. An interview for the Mojave Project in 2015 captured her words, “I love what I do. My talents are my children, and they deserve to be used.” She struggled mightily with the necessity to pass her life’s work along to others. At the time of this writing it is difficult to know what the future holds for Amargosa.
Becket’s autobiography, To Dance on Sands (2007), is available on Internet sites.
© 2017 Cynthia Albers, All Rights Reserved