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A Desert Flower Still Blooms on Her Stage

After the death of her longtime 'soul mate,' ballerina, 80, continues the dance.

May 14, 2005|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

DEATH VALLEY JUNCTION, Calif. — Marta Becket, the ballerina, glanced toward stage left, where a red sequined dress and boa drooped from hangers. The clown who wore them was gone.

Thomas J. Willett, Becket's stage partner for two decades, died last month after suffering a stroke. The burly man with Einstein hair, who clomped on stage in an oversized tutu he called a "four-four,'' was 76.

Becket, a spindly woman who once pirouetted in the Radio City Music Hall corps, has decided to keep dancing. She seeks solace in her desert opera house under stage lights that beam from coffee cans.

Becket will glide through this season's last performance of "Masquerade" tonight at her Amargosa Opera House, a lonesome town center for Becket and Willett, who were the Junction's only residents. Its closest neighbors, seven miles away in Nevada, are a casino, grocery store and gas station where the pumps sometimes run dry.

The little adobe opera house sits 80 miles north of Baker, Calif., on a plot of scorched earth where coyotes roam. A handful of crumbling buildings line a windy two-lane road, which thousands of Death Valley and Las Vegas tourists have driven to see the curiosity for themselves.

The performance season runs from October to May; the building lacks air conditioning and the opera goes dark when temperatures reach triple digits.

On Saturdays, Becket and Willett had put on their vaudeville-style show to packed houses who had read about the kitschy pair, or saw the film documentary about Becket, "Amargosa." Amargosa, derived from the Spanish word for "bitter," had once been the name of the town.

Since Willett's death, Becket has asked audiences to pretend the clown is performing when she is silent or the stage is empty. She intends to retool her act this summer and continue performing, ending this chapter of her career as it began: one woman on a desert stage.

"We think this is almost the end of an era. He was so much a part of her," said Colleen Anglin, who drove from Monrovia with a bouquet of pink and white tea roses for Becket.

"She said she'll do this until the day she dies, but for him to pass away and her to keep going ..." Anglin's voice trailed off, her eyes tearing. Becket, 80, transformed the opera house nearly four decades ago, after a flat tire left her and her husband stranded in the tiny desert hamlet.

In the harsh noon sun, Becket became enraptured with the U-shaped white colonnade hall built for Pacific Coast Borax Co. workers in view of the Charleston Mountains. The opera house, called Corkill Hall, was the town's social center until the 1940s, when it was abandoned to dust and ghosts.

"I had found my place in the sun," Becket writes in her show program.

At first, she creaked open the doors three nights a week, and occasionally locals wandered into the one-story structure whose white paint peels like sunburned skin. Sometimes she danced only for the empty wooden benches.

So Becket covered the ceiling and walls with a mural of an appreciative audience: A somber-faced king and queen holding court under cherubs. A maiden tossing a kerchief. Jesters romping as two cats stare past scuffed hardwood floors to a tiny stage.

This speck of culture that rose from dust gradually lured an audience. Many checked in to Becket's adjacent 14-room hotel, whose showers are lighted with skylights, leftovers from an era before electricity. Locals would chitchat about the one-time big city ballerina, who dreamed up her own characters, lyrics, costumes and choreography.

Tom Willett had heard of the desert dancer and was intrigued. He flew his two-seater plane from Trona, Calif., another dot in the desert, to meet her.

Willett, born in Mississippi and reared on Artesia Boulevard in north Long Beach, was both hitchhiking rabble-rouser and girl-shy introvert as a kid, said his younger brother, John "Mick" Willett.

As a teen, Willett would thumb rides to San Francisco, just to explore. He joined the Army and returned to Southern California, laboring at maintenance jobs, said his brother, who still lives in Long Beach.

Tom Willett married and divorced twice, and helped raise four children, whom he caravaned to Yosemite to camp and to the desert to romp in old mines. "He was a desert guy," his brother said. "In a way, he's a loner. He wants to be able to live his own life his own way."

Willett the clown befriended Becket the ballerina and her husband, and the couple hired him as a handyman after he was laid off from a chemical plant in Trona. He lived in mining house No. 7, one of the adobe buildings near the colonnade.

Willett loved to plow through the brush on his three-wheeler, barking like a seal. While sweeping the bumpy cement in front of the hotel, he'd twirl his broom like a dance partner.

Meanwhile, Becket's marriage had soured, and her husband, fed up with the Junction's isolation, left. Willett filled the void as her stage manager, confidante and good friend.

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