By Greg Illes
Trekking across the featureless desert south of Death Valley, traveling dancer/artist Marta Becket got a flat tire. The year was 1967, and that simple loss of air pressure would change her life — and the lives of hundreds of thousands of others — forever.
Marta ended up buying the tiny hamlet of Death Valley Junction, and turning it into a one-of-a-kind stopover. Originally used as housing for borax workers, the structure became a hotel and theater. Outside, wild horses and peacocks made their home in or near the town. A small airstrip invited bold pilots to visit (I was one of them). Surrounding BLM land made it easy to camp, but for many the hotel rooms were too appealing.
In the theater, Marta would produce plays for one or two persons, living out her dream of being a star performer. For three seasons a year, on Friday and Saturday nights, she hardly ever missed a performance.
Rather than a sad story of a lonely wannabe in a forgotten town, this tale turned into a Cinderella life for Marta. People traveled for hundreds of miles to watch the unique artist ply her trade. The performances were quirky, vaudevillian at times, laden with both corny and clever humor.
During non-performing seasons (basically the desert summers), Marta used her artistic skills to decorate the walls of nearly every room in every building. One of the most famous decorations is an admiring audience in the theater. “I’ll always play to a full house,” she would proclaim.
But Marta didn’t really need the painted audience, always playing to an appreciative crowd even after she stopped dancing in her late eighties. You can find out more about her remarkable life with a web search or on Facebook.
Marta has performed as recently as 2013, but at age 91 as of this writing, it’s hard to say when she will grace the old stage again. Marta’s performances may be at an end, but her legacy lives on in the well-preserved buildings at Death Valley Junction and the Amargosa Opera House. If you are traveling across this somewhat monotonous stretch of desert, do yourself a favor and take a delightful break to tour the old town, learn about Marta’s life, and admire what will and determination can accomplish.
photo: Greg Illes and wikipedia