Storytelling is an art.
Nobody knows that better – or has done that better than Marta Becket.
For over 45 years, Marta Becket has told stories through dance, art, and theatre, captivating audiences, young and old, at the Amargosa Opera House in the otherwise unforgiving landscape of Death Valley in the California desert. And for those unable to have seen her in person, her story is memorialized in her autobiography, To Dance on Sands.
And now, Marta’s closed another chapter, giving her last performance on stage before an adoring crowd. One of her most devoted fans, Las Vegas Review-Journal journalist John L. Smith, dedicates a column to the creative artist that is Marta.
On Valentine’s Day, I have a blushing confession: I’m in love with a ballerina. Have been for years.
I know I am not alone in this regard. In fact, it’s safe to say I am just one of thousands of Stage Door Johnnys to visit the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction and make moon eyes over the amazing Marta Becket.
For the past 45 years, Marta has been a one-woman wellspring of creativity in a most unlikely oasis in the California desert less than two hours from Las Vegas.
On Sunday before a capacity crowd at the opera house, Marta officially had her final performance. A series of injuries have prevented her from dancing, and her friends say she decided to put an end to any speculation that she might have one more comeback in her. I would say the remarkable woman has more than earned her bouquets and ovations. She is, after all, 87.
As a boy on desert prospecting trips with my father and grandfather, we passed through Death Valley Junction not long after Marta began her incredible run. She was no more than an oddity then. Some desert rats thought it strange that a trained ballet dancer would inhabit the cobwebbed Corkhill Hall in what was then essentially a ghost town. But that’s one of the great things about the desert: There’s room for every eccentricity.
Marta didn’t just sweep out the Pacific Borax Co. recreation center. She transformed it by painting murals of as eclectic an audience as was ever assembled in the Old Globe. Within a few years, she gained an international celebrity and coverage in major magazines, National Geographic among many.
Decades later, I brought my daughter, Amelia, to meet the great woman. They exchanged books and talked about art. Marta was still mending from injuries suffered in a fall but was generous with her time and energy. As always, she was the gracious hostess.
Although she no longer will perform, Amargosa Opera House Director of Operations Rich Regnell tells me she will continue her artwork and greet visitors. While many of those are curious tourists, a fair number are artists themselves who have learned of Marta’s devotion to her own artistic quest.
“She’s a legend,” Regnell says. “She’s an icon in the business, but she’s also an inspiration. She’s Marta. People are inspired by her. She has inspired people to do what they love. She would say, ‘Do what you want to do and don’t worry. The money will come.’ She’s inspired dancers, writers, choreographers, memoirists, playrights, moviemakers, people who teach art to kids. It’s amazing the amount of people who have been impressed to move forward and do their own art thanks to Marta.”
When word went out that Marta would be ending her long, long run in Death Valley Junction, Regnell’s phone rang constantly. The opera house quickly sold out with a 10-page waiting list to spare.
“The calls varied all the way from ‘Oh my gosh, what do you mean I can’t get tickets,’ to crying on the phone because they’ve been so inspired by her,” he says. “I keep asking Marta if she wants to retire again next weekend.
“This is a new beginning. It’s not the end. Marta will focus on what she wants to do with her art. She’ll continue to meet with visitors.”
There’s even a plan to develop “Dinner and a Movie with Marta” nights at the opera house. No doubt they’ll be a draw.
After all, she is beloved.
Ray Bradbury had it right many years ago. After watching her perform, Bradbury wrote, “Tears came to my eyes. Marta represented to be the spirit of the individual. The spirit of the theater. The spirit of creativity.”
That lovely spirit endures at the Amargosa Opera House in Death Valley Junction.
John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Email him at Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.