Sunday, Oct. 16, 2005 | 9:54 a.m.
The first glimpse audiences have of Marta Becket is that of the 81-year-old entertainer walking onstage wearing a black dress with a red feather boa. With her face painted, her eyes intense and her dark hair pulled back, her mere presence is theatrical. Immediately, she breaks into song.
She moves in a circle, then grabs a tambourine and introduces "Masquerade," a show she wrote, produced and choreographed.
"I've always felt that I should be someone other than me," she sings. "I need to escape for a day." The lyrics are a perfect reflection of the tireless artist, who has lived for nearly 40 years in Death Valley Junction.
Her theater is covered floor-to-ceiling in murals she painted, which portray an audience of kings, monks, nuns, commoners, gypsies and ladies of the night.
Becket prefers, she says, to live in the imaginary world she creates on stage or in her paintings.
Audiences come from as far away as Poland, Germany and Japan to see her. They come from nearby Pahrump and Las Vegas for a chance to see her dance en pointe in such an isolated and desolate area.
Some call it a religious experience, a spiritual pilgrimage, a life-transforming event.
"People continue to be fascinated with this woman who has so much staying power and continues to be creative against all odds," Fred Conboy, a friend and fan of Becket's, said.
"You have to appreciate this woman who has been dancing 40 years in the desert. It's kind of like she's this wildflower out there. Her root is deep and she continues to blossom."
Becket's story has been told in several articles and documentaries. A "tell-all" autobiography, called "To Dance on Sands," is scheduled for release early next month.
But for all the praise thrown her way, she's also been deemed an oddity, more vaudevillian than the classical artist she once was. Others say their sudden desire to support this fiercely independent woman is a calling. They see meeting her as destiny.
In some way, the visions of Becket the artist have become larger than the woman. It's become a phenomenon of international proportions.
But as Becket and the opera house grow older, the question is, "What's next?"
"If I should drop off tomorrow, I just hope that those who care about it come to the rescue and save it," Becket said one day this summer while sitting at a table in the Amargosa Hotel, which is connected to the opera house.
The former New York dancer settled in Death Valley Junction in the 1960s with her husband, Tom Williams, after they stopped there to fix a flat tire on their trailer while camping in Death Valley.
Tired of touring, they paid $45 a month to rent the small theater used by the workers of the Pacific Coast Borax Company who were housed in what is now the Amargosa Hotel.
They renovated and opened the theater. Becket performed her ballet. Audiences came, followed by a trail of journalists intrigued by the eccentric lifestyle.
Whether her performances are appreciated is of little concern to Becket, who charges $15 for admission. She has wanted only to practice her art and was never willing to compromise.
When her first husband left her, she found a partner in stage and in life with Tom "Wilget" Willet, a jokester who was by her side for 23 years before he died of a stroke this spring.
Now a solo performer, she uses props to perform Willet's roles, and now that her left leg is troubling her, she simply kicks with the right.
Over the years, donors (many anonymous) have come forward to help Becket live her dream. In the mid-1980s Jean Bennett, a physicist and friend living in Ridgecrest, Calif., paid Becket's $64,000 mortgage on the town. The opera house is already on the National Register of Historic Places. Save America's Treasures has Amargosa Opera House listed as an official project.
Prospective investors had come and offered to buy the town, but Becket didn't want it to be turned into a commercialized tourist destination that would compromise her artistic legacy.
There is also a long list of con artists, squatters, thieves and shysters who have crossed her path. The dancer is undoubtedly and unsurprisingly guarded.
More recently, assistance has arrived from Suzanne Hackett-Morgan, an artist who is a friend and professional fundraiser. Hackett-Morgan is, in Becket's words, "The Sheriff of Death Valley Junction."
She is more aggressive with practical matters than Becket has ever really wanted to be. And her background includes her work with the Goldwell Open Air Museum, an outdoor collection of sculptures near the ghost town of Rhyolite. Goldwell is being restored, preserved and turned into an artist community. Amargosa Opera House is unofficially affiliated with that project.
"(We're) trying to build for the future, doing things like having a donor base that's involved and committed," Hackett-Morgan said, referring to Amargosa Opera House. "There's a lot of people who love Marta. I'm here to get the love organized.
"Marta's always had professional accounting and professional legal advisers. But to be competitive these days in the grant arena you have to have a strategic plan."
Already, Hackett-Morgan, who is one of three board members, has written a National Endowment for the Arts grant proposal for $10,000 to conserve the murals painted on the crumbling adobe walls and ceiling of the opera house.
"It's really critical," Hackett-Morgan said. "The priority is the opera house. The opera house is the masterpiece. It's where the work was really produced."
The show goes on
But everyone who has involved themselves has their own ideas about Becket and the opera house. Bennett, who paid the Amargosa Opera House mortgage, says the building is not salvageable. The damage, she says, comes from the Amargosa River, which runs under Death Valley Junction and seeps into the walls of the facility.
What Becket needs is a benefactor, Bennett said. She needs someone who will give her $50,000 to pay her annual bills so that she will be more comfortable in her final years.
"It's always been a hand-to-mouth existence," Bennett said. "It's a ghost town. Things are always breaking."
Becket's paintings sell for $2,000 and $3,000. Other than that, some say the only money that's really been running the place since the 1960s has been donations coming in via coffee cans at the entrance to the theater, and responses from an Amargosa Opera House newsletter that at one time reached 3,000 readers.
For years, friends and supporters encouraged the idea of having Becket oversee a group performing out there. When Becket did arrange for a group of musicians to perform at the opera house, it angered a bus tour that had arrived to see Becket.
So it's been Marta's show, and without Willett she's been concerned that the audience wouldn't laugh when she appeared onstage in his roles.
On a recent Saturday they did laugh. They applauded and gave her a standing ovation. She is the star, the narrator and the lighting and sound technician.
"I saw her in a documentary and said, 'I've got to meet that lady,' " said Margo Harrell from Frankfurt, Germany, who had come to Las Vegas with her husband solely to see Becket perform. "Twice it didn't work. Today it worked.
"She is amazing. This is out of this world. Where does she get the energy?"
That's a question many have asked.
Becket wakes at 6:30 each morning, drinks a cup of coffee, feeds the cats, eats a cherry turnover and a bowl of Total. Dennis Bostwic, operations manager of the hotel and opera house, knocks on her door to talk about the jobs of the day. Afterward she feeds the geese on her property, has another cup of coffee, rests for 20 minutes, knowing, she said, "It's 20 minutes I could be painting again."
Afterward she has another cup of coffee, paints until 4 p.m., feeds the cats again and at 5 p.m. she goes to work out in the theater. At 8 p.m. she goes home, eats supper (provided by Meals on Wheels), then her day is over.
"When evening comes I feel a great peacefulness," Becket said.
Paying the bills
Becket will tell you that performing is not as easy as it once was.
But, she said, "As long as I can perform something, I will because the town depends on me. It costs $8,000 to $9,000 a month to keep this town going."
She's been refused grants for having too large of an audience, or not an edgy enough show. But always there is an individual who wants to contribute to Becket's vision. Charlotte Farr, a Denver resident, was enamored after seeing Becket first perform.
"Like everyone else, I thought, 'What is this all about?' then I walked into the theater and said, 'Oh yeah, that's what this is all about,' " Farr said.
Eventually, Farr's son and his partner had a commitment ceremony in Death Valley Junction. Guests stayed the night and watched Marta's performance.
"I had people come up and say it was a life-transforming experience," Farr said. "One woman said she will never say 'never.'
"With a lot of people, they're really touched by her willingness to have a life where she has complete authority over her creativity."
At the time Farr worked for UNLV's distance education program and contacted Conboy, who works for the UNLV Foundation to see if Death Valley Junction might fit in with UNLV programs.
Conboy concluded that the cost of the upkeep and the California location of Death Valley Junction was not in the university's best interest. But he befriended Becket and Willet and spent many weekends visiting them.
Knowing Hackett-Morgan, Conboy introduced the two, or as he said, "brokered two kindred spirits.
"I saw the obvious link," Conboy said. "Suzanne is a person of great energy. Because she too is a great artist, she understands why someone would want to live out there and dedicate her life to art. She gets Marta."
Hackett-Morgan is trying to bring an art conservator from Los Angeles to assess the condition of the opera house. She's also contacted the Irvine Foundation, seeking financial support for Becket's 2008 circus-themed production, and will continue to write grants. Certain grants aren't available while Becket is still living.
Hackett-Morgan shuns the idea that the opera house can't be preserved.
"Think of the frescos in the museums in Italy," she said. "There's always a way. Things in worse condition have been preserved. I've seen entire folk art environments removed in total and reinstalled in a museum."
But the dream is that the opera house remain in Death Valley Junction, and possibly be folded into an artist-in-residence program.
At nights the town is occupied only by Becket and hotel guests -- mostly Europeans, who Hackett-Morgan said, get caught up in the fantasy of escaping into the middle of nowhere to do nothing but create.
Workers and visitors talk of the ghosts on the property, the most recent being Willet. Even Becket shares stories of her ghosts, including that of her deceased father, who she said visited her two days before Willet died.
With the opera house, Becket said, "I'm happy to know that someone wants to help preserve it, that something is happening, something is on the way."
And she plans to keep dancing and painting for as long as she can -- whenever that may be.
"Every time I've gone to a fortune-teller, my fortune has come out perfectly true," Becket said. "I don't want to go to a fortune teller. I don't want to know the end."
Conboy doesn't see an end to Becket or the Amargosa Opera House.
"Her legend will outlive the physical place, regardless," he said. "She has become iconic."
"There is," he said, "another chapter that will be written."
Kristen Peterson can be reached at at 259-2317 or [email protected]