Marta Becket’s Amargosa

Amargosa Opera HouseThe desert plains beg the imagination to run wild with ideas; to speculate on outlandish scenarios. The ease at which you can do this is because so much of what the desert offers up is far beyond the norm of a regular life; beyond the norm of a comfort zone. It provides to the passer-by a glimpse into times past, reclusive life styles, and the occasional entry point into what can only be referred to as the “Twilight Zone“.

A town by the name of Amargosa, population two,  sits at a crossroads known as Death Valley Junction.  Here isolation morphs with the unexpected and the creepy; combining to open the window, just a crack, into another world.  Just a few miles east is Area 51…just saying!

Amargosa is home to a gas station, a cafe, a hotel; all of which are in disrepair and slowly returned to dust; yet the hotel retains a receptionist to promote the town’s history and direct the more curious to a small musty snack shop located in a back room.

Oddest of all though is the Opera House. It was here where current resident Marta Becket staged dance and mime shows from the 1960’s.  Marta makes up fifty percent of the town’s population; she is now in her early 90’s. 

As we left behind the box beetles of early this morning our rear-view mirror reflected Death Valley National Park; in front of us lay a grove of trees just to the right of the approaching junction.  From this vantage we could see no buildings; just an odd rectangular oasis of evergreens in the brown sands of desert.

Upon turning right, a town unfolded. Unlike Ballarat, Population One, where the banter of dusty, leathery, characters kept the mood light and interest high, Amargosa emanated an eerie feeling; maybe it was a sadness.

The white washed, single level, adobe style hotel must have been gorgeous in its day. It wrapped around the center courtyard upon which each room had a view.  The Opera House was attached to the hotel at the far end and lay adjacent to the road.

It was on this road where the adventure really begins.

In 1923 the Pacific Coast Borax Company constructed the town named after the bitter water of the Amargosa River. A complex was built-in the Spanish Colonial style to house company offices, a store, dormitory, a twenty-three room hotel, dining room, lobby, and employees’ headquarters.  A recreation hall was also built and this was used as a community center for dances, church services, movies, funerals, and town meetings. At that time it was known as Corkhill Hall.

By the mid 20th century the town began to decline; its near future was to be that of yet another Mojave ghost town. In 1967, due to a flat tire of a passing motorist, that would all change.

Click on any image to scroll through at full size.

Marta Becket was born on August 9, 1924 and began ballet lessons at age 14. This eventually led her to a career as a ballerina. She was in the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall. On Broadway she appeared in several shows; most notable was “Show Boat”.

She married in 1962 and together with her husband they traveled across country to entertain in small-town theaters. On one trip they made an unexpected stop due to a flat tire.  While waiting for it to be fixed Marta walked around the town. In it she discovered a run-down theater attached to an adobe style hotel; she decided to stay.

Becket rented Corkhill Hall, began repairs and changed the name to the Amargosa Opera House. She personally created all the murals and show sets for her debut performance in 1968.

In 1970, journalists from National Geographic discovered Becket doing a performance at the Opera House; there was no audience. Their profile led to international interest in both Becket and her theater. She began performing to visitors from around the world and continued to do so for the next four decades. The performances being the sole source of income for both the Opera House and the entire town.

Marta Becket’s final show was February 12, 2012.

We parked our car nearby the hotel entrance. The lobby is dark and mirrors seem to cast shadows over every piece of furniture, every statue, every painting, every black and white photo of Marta. The lobby is a museum to the life and grandeur of Marta as told by herself. There are books and films of Marta Becket for sale.

To the right of the entrance is an alcove; again very dark. Behind the desk is a rotund girl; relaxed in the knowledge that we have now created the days rush hour and that it would soon pass. She told us about Marta and that she still lives in the house out back. That the only other town resident is the hotel maintenance man. He had clearly been busy as sand bags were stopped against every door; the area had flooded three weeks ago.

The receptionist pointed us towards the snack shop. The smell was that of hot, musty, stale, post-flood water. The packaged food of the snack shop no longer felt necessary.  We were asked to sit in the lounge area and given a glass of water while the receptionist turned on the tv and the video player. She wanted a video of Marta’s life to answer our questions rather than have us badger her.

Everything around us was plush red velvet, deep brown wood, silver and gold. Images of Marta stared down on us as the video staggered then hopped to life. The water we sipped was caustic and immediately we knew why the river bore the name. I have never tasted that flavor before.

As we watched the television flicker, breathing dank humidity, while the window mounted air-conditioner wrestled with its right to exist, it was another movie that sprang to mind. As an eldery Marta, made up in bright red lipstick, faded pink tutu, white tights and ballet shoes performed a pirouette across the stage it was Bette Davis in “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” who began to occupied my thoughts.

As Amargosa became the rear-view mirrors latest reflection the sense of anxiety that had enveloped us during our stay began to lift. Just another weird and wonderful desert experience to add to the many.

We headed to the next town, Shoshone, population ten, where we ate a good meal and fed the car for $5.56 a gallon.

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31 thoughts on “Marta Becket’s Amargosa

  1. Very interesting story. The town sounds very unique even if there are just 2 residents. Performing in an empty theater would be difficult unless you love what you’re doing.

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  2. I often wonder when I see empty buildings and theaters. People build for two reasons, the present and the future. Factories, houses are built for work and protection from the elements. Buildings like theatres are built for entertainment, and also for the future. They imagined a place where people can gather, to be entertained and educated. These abandoned theaters then represent lost dreams.
    These empty places were once elegant and magnificent things of beauty, and like our dreams, now are slowly fading away into nothingness.

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  3. Oh wow! The opera house is beautiful.
    What an amazing story Tim.
    Thank you for taking us on a virtual tour.
    The experience and all from your trips around the world is amazing. You should have a TV programme based on your travel, people will love it.
    Have you thought of approaching Discovery Channel and all?
    Thanks for sharing x

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  4. What an incredible story! Of course I had to dash over to YouTube to see her. I just finished watching one of her performances,unbelievable! It’s kind of ghoulish, Mara surrounded by her murals of onlookers. I’m surprised no one has written a screenplay about her and her life in Amargosa.

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  5. There are few sights sadder than an empty theatre. I can see why you felt a heaviness there, and you’ve done a beautiful job conveying the feeling! Fascinating.

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  6. Great story Tim. What a fascinating woman – I loved the Opera House – It’s not hard to imagine whole scenes being played out there. When you said Marta Becket was 50% of the population, I gather the hotel receptionist was the other 50%?

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  7. What a fascinating story. I love the way you’ve described everything. I can picture, feel and smell it. The desert seems to attract the unusual. Your opening statement, “The desert plains beg the imagination to run wild with ideas” resonated with me.

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  8. The town of Armagosa makes for quite an eclectic story. If I ever make it to Death Valley, visiting Marta Beckett will be on the top of my list. Too bad that I’m too late to actually see one of her shows.

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  9. Loved this stop Tim! That old opera house is just the kind of place I enjoy poking my nose into and I can easily imagine any number of spooky stories taking place in that little town. In fact it reminds me a bit of the place in J. Konrath’s book Endurance. Talk about creepy!!!

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  10. Marta is an amazing woman, especially for her day when she was in her prime. I had the pleasure of meeting her and stayed at Amargosa. There is nothing else like it or her! I’m headed back there and staying again mid April.

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  11. Tim — you’re a great story teller. So often a minor event, like a flat tire, can change the entire trajectory of someone’s life. I was at a cocktail party and spoke to another guest, a man, for just a couple of minutes before we both wandered off. About an hour later, I had to leave for the airport and as I was walking out I spied him sitting on the sofa. For no reason I wandered over and asked him if he was having a good time. He replied, “No, not really.” He offered to drive me to the airport. We were married seven months later.

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  12. Thanks you for this beautiful glimpse into the life of Marta Becket Tim and the intriguing little town of Amargosa. Jaquie is right, I was completely captivated by your writing and could easily see a novel or film around your story. I’d love to sit down and chat with Marta! What a woman! The theatre is stunning and the thought of those performances somewhat magical…

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  13. Wow! This actually did read like an episode right out of The Twilight Zone! But what a marvelous experience in Marta Becket’s Amargosa…unforgettable! That theatre is something else!! You could fashion a whole novel around that story Tim!

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    1. You’re right Jacquie and it has crossed my mind. The whole trip through the desert has been a blast and full of characters and life which is kind of ironic given that the name.

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