One-woman show in ghost town still goes on

Sunday, December 16, 2001

DEATH VALLEY JUNCTION, Calif. -- When the theater lights dim and the audience is gone, Marta Becket slips off her ballet shoes and reviews her work.

She eases her 77-year-old body into a creaky, old donated theater seat, alone with her thoughts inside the cold, aging building.

It was a good show, a good audience for such a chilly night in this desert ghost town.

Watching her is the audience she painted on the walls long ago -- kings, queens, nuns, monks, ladies of the night. They were here before most tourists came to see her one-woman show, and they are her solace.

"After the show, when I'm alone and putting things away and just the stage is lit. I love that moment," Becket says.

'The world I want'

Becket always knew she wanted to be a dancer, but didn't take her first lesson until she was 14. She attended ballet school on scholarship because her family couldn't afford lessons.

"I love dance. I love ballet. It's the world I want," she says.

She performed for her high school and later in nightclubs and restaurants in New York. She danced at Radio City Music Hall and in Broadway shows, but never cared much for dancing with other girls. Becket preferred to be the star.

"When I was 29, I decided it was time to start out on my own."

She created her own show, arranging music, sewing costumes. She went on the road, performing in tours for several colleges. Later, she married and made money by selling her paintings in Greenwich Village. All the while, she continued dancing.

Then, on a trip out West with her husband, a flat tire changed her life.

During a camping trip in 1967 in Death Valley, Calif., the trailer tire went flat. Becket and her husband, Tom Williams, heard about a nearby ghost town with a gas station and traveled to Death Valley Junction, an abandoned borax mining camp on the Nevada-California border.

She walked the dusty streets as the sun began to disappear. There was the Amargosa Hotel, the adobe houses she thought resembled a Mexican village and at one end, an abandoned social hall.

"I looked around this town. I was transfixed," she says.

Becket peered through a hole in the social hall's door and saw a tiny stage.

"I saw the other half of my life when I looked through that door," she says.

She had wanted to leave New York anyway, so she and Tom agreed to rent the hall for $45 a month. They moved to Death Valley Junction and Becket began her new life.

"My ship came in late. In fact, I came out here and found my ship in the desert."

Even with a leaky ceiling, warped wood floor, muddy walls and a stage that needed remodeling, Becket saw only the building's beauty. It was the perfect place for her one-woman show.

And in 1968, she made her debut at the renamed Amargosa Opera House. In the beginning, only the three Mormon families who lived in the town came to watch. Becket asked for a $1.50 donation.

She wrote songs, dialogue, sewed costumes, painted sets. And she danced. She danced as if thousands of fans were watching her.

Even when every seat was empty, she still danced.

When a flood washed muddy water into the opera house, Becket looked up at the plain, white walls and decided to create her own admirers. "I said, 'I'm going to put an audience on these walls.' I will create a world of the past."

Tourists find their way

It's four hours until show time and Becket is trying to rest her legs. She tugs at the purple sweater draping her frail frame and tightens it around her waist.

"It's mystifying. I feel as if this is what I was intended to do," she says.

Evening comes and the tourists have lined up outside the opera house. The nearest town is 23 miles away, but somehow they find their way here.

The audience -- 50 people tonight -- takes its seats and the curtain opens. This show is "The Dollmaker," about a baron who falls in love with a doll. Her performance season runs October through May.

Her back slightly stooped and her arms extended, Becket glides up on her toe shoes, turning and stepping as she tells the story with her dance. Delicate and graceful, she dances across the stage to taped music, her real audience and the one on the walls watching her.

"Her strength and freedom to be what she wants to be -- she's just beautiful," says Claudia Hood, who came to the show from Claremont, Calif.

Afterward, the crowd waits to get Becket's autograph. They file out, stealing one more glance at the artwork.

Becket puts her costumes away and is alone again in the world she created.

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