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Trip of the Week

Death Valley Theater Comes Alive

March 20, 1988|MICHELE GRIMM and TOM GRIMM | The Grimms of Laguna Beach are authors of "Away for the Weekend," a travel guide to Southern California.

DEATH VALLEY JUNCTION — Marta Becket knows that this desolate crossroads in the Mojave Desert isn't Broadway. But the former New Yorker, who performs classical ballet and pantomime, isn't complaining. After all, she's the star of the show.

With a population of only two people and a dozen cats, Death Valley Junction resembles a ghost town. But three evenings a week, cars, motor homes and buses roll in with an audience to fill the 114 seats of the Amargosa Opera House.

Last month Becket gave a special performance to celebrate her 20th year on the stage here. She also told how her long-term engagement in the desert began with a flat tire during a road tour.

While waiting here for the tire to be repaired, Becket saw a boarded-up theater amid a complex of Spanish colonial buildings. She learned that the theater had been a social hall for miners who had lived in the company town that the Pacific Coast Borax Co. established in 1907.

Beneath a Leaky Roof

The dancer, tired of crisscrossing the country to give her one-woman shows, rented the abandoned building and settled down. She opened in Death Valley Junction on Feb. 10, 1968, to an audience of 12.

They sat on wooden benches beneath a leaky roof and left donations in a coffee can. Becket performed regularly at 8:15 p.m., even if no one showed up, and gave ballet lessons to get extra money for repairs to the building.

The dancer also used her artistic talents, painting an audience around the sides of the room, with a king and queen watching from their royal box in the balcony. Among her other subjects are characters from her favorite operas.

Created Permanent Audience

Becket spent four years creating this permanent audience, and two more years painting the ceiling with cherubs, doves and 16 ladies playing antique musical instruments. Her artwork brought more people to the theater.

Today, Becket often performs before a full house, despite Death Valley Junction's remote location. Many visitors come from Furnace Creek Resort at Death Valley National Monument, a 30-mile trip through the Funeral Mountains.

Travelers on Interstate 15 will find the town 86 miles north of Baker. To reach the opera house from Las Vegas, drive 106 miles via Lathrop Wells.

At one time Death Valley Junction was accessible by train. The private Tonopath & Tidewater Railroad made connections with Union Pacific and Santa Fe rail lines to all parts of the nation. The T&T belonged to the borax company.

Junction Declines

Improved highways and discontinuance of borax mining in the area meant the end of rail service and the decline of Death Valley Junction.

To help preserve the junction, Becket got it declared a national historic district. Then she established a nonprofit corporation, Amargosa Opera House Inc., and bought the entire 400-acre town in 1980.

A happy announcement at her 20th anniversary show was that an anonymous donor had contributed $60,000 to pay the mortgage.

Recently a group of volunteers arrived to restore and operate the vintage Amargosa Hotel, but it remains closed pending approvals by Inyo County officials. The town restaurant, gas station and grocery store are still boarded up.

Visitors who arrive to see Becket perform can take seats on a first-come, first-served basis after the doors to the opera house open at 7:45 p.m. The show begins at 8:15. Reservations can be made by calling (619) 852-4316.

Performances are scheduled on Friday, Saturday and Monday evenings, November through April. In May and October, shows are only on Saturday. The opera house is closed in summer when the desert heats up.

Donations Accepted

Admission is by donation ($5 adults, $3 children), and there's still a coffee can into which the money is dropped at the door.

Original wooden benches have been replaced by well-worn seats from an old theater in Boulder City, Nev. On chilly evenings, gas is turned on in a potbellied stove near the front row.

There is nothing ostentatious about the staging; the spotlights are the same as those fashioned from coffee cans for Becket's opening show two decades ago.

The acts are announced, as in the days of vaudeville, with placards placed on a floor stand. Music for Becket's dances is recorded.

Her repertoire is original, however, and varies each night. She has created 47 characters and costumes that make up three programs of ballet and pantomime.

Meet the Actors

By the time this season is over Becket will have given 2,500 performances since opening the Amargosa Opera House.

Her only assistant is Tom Willett, who serves as master of ceremonies, stage manager and actor. After the show you can meet them in the adjacent art galleries, where Becket sells her paintings and autographs her posters and books.

For information about Becket's performances, phone (619) 852-4316. Or write to Amargosa Opera House, P.O. Box B, Death Valley Junction, Calif. 92328.

Visitors who are overnighting at Furnace Creek Ranch or inn at Death Valley National Monument can take a bus to the opera house. Show admission and round-trip transportation on a Fred Harvey Resorts bus costs $18, children $10. Call (619) 786-2345, Ranch extension 61.

To drive to Death Valley Junction from Los Angeles, go east on Interstates 10 and 15 to Baker, then turn north on California 127 to the junction with California 190. Round trip from Los Angeles is 570 miles.

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