Friday, September 17, 2021
Friday, September 17, 2021

Roadside stop near Death Valley is an unexpected delight. (This story is delightful, too)

By Rod Andrew
Probably most readers of RVtravel.com have visited the amazing landmarks, natural and man-made, that are part of the RV experience. Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon is, well, overwhelming.

During our travels, my wife and I have had our share of these majestic moments, but, strangely, it has been unexpected moments of joy that we remember most vividly, and that have had the most lasting impact on us.

I’d like to share one of those moments.

Don’t judge a building by its outside…

In March of 2015, we stopped in Shoshone on our way to one of America’s wonders: Death Valley. Someone in Shoshone advised us to stop on the way at Death Valley Junction and visit the Amargosa Opera House. We’d researched Death Valley extensively, but had never seen any mention of an opera house; besides, it wasn’t really in Death Valley.

Not far from the entrance to the valley, we both saw an old-style motel off to the left, restored to its original Spanish style. At the end of it, we noticed the Amargosa Opera House.

It was not impressive, so we considered driving past.

We didn’t. A spur of the moment decision that we cherish to this day.

A young woman in the hotel lobby asked if we would like a tour for $5. One of those, “Why not?” moments.

On the walk to the theater, we learned a little about the history. We were told that a dancer and actress called Marta Becket had renovated the Opera House, beginning in 1967, so that she could create and perform her own dances and pantomimes in her own theater. The young woman said that we might be in for a surprise.

“We were in a fantasy world”

When we stepped through the door, my wife and I both stopped, stunned. We were in a fantasy world, awash with images that filled every part of the hall. I can only describe the feeling as magical. We didn’t want to make a sound.

The walls were covered with murals of historical and imaginary characters: vivid, members of a fantastical audience. Every inch of the walls and the ceiling were packed with these people, animated and attentive, under a heavenly sky.

When she saw the decrepit hall and hotel during a performance trip she was taking with her husband, instead of seeing a lost cause, she saw an opportunity in the isolated buildings to create her own world.

Marta Becket, it seems, was also a talented artist. She spent 6 years painting the interior of the opera house, creating an always vibrant and attentive audience for her performances. Since she believed that the show should always go on, when she had no live audience for her dances and vignettes, she performed the entire show for the audience her imagination and talent had created on the walls.

I should mention that Marta Becket was a successful performer at the time, on stage and screen. Her home base was New York, but she traveled all over the U.S., performing in as many places as she could. Until she found her home … in Amargosa.

We sat in the chairs and looked at the hundreds of faces, all intent on the stage, or gossiping as if waiting for the show to begin. This was Marta’s cathedral and we were in awe.

We even got a peek at the stage setting.

Marta was no longer dancing, as she was over 90. We were told that Marta, never one to give up, had performed her final shows while sitting on a stool. A young dancer was now performing her show, just as it had been performed by Marta.

Our guide told us that there was to be a performance, a matinee, on the following Sunday.

We were there.

The performance in the Amargosa Opera House

We arrived a little early so we could spend more time simply being in the theater. An audience of about 30 chatted quietly, as they waited. At the posted opening time, the doors were closed. If you were late, you didn’t get in. No exceptions. This was a professional show.

And it was.

We all watched the performance, joined together in common appreciation. We were entranced by the timeless beauty of the classical ballet segments and, in turn, amused and saddened by the vignettes presented by the young woman who had dedicated that part of her life to Marta.

The performance was over far too soon. The audience stood, clapped and called out in appreciation. We were all sad it was over, hoping for more. Then the dancer and a young man, the stage manager, came onto the stage and answered questions. The dancer explained that she had seen Marta perform at the Opera House as part of a family trip. She was 6 at the time. She already knew she would be a dancer and promised herself that she would dance at the Opera House one day.

And here she was, honoring Marta.

The audience, shy at first, soon began asking questions, some technical and some personal. Finally, someone asked what we were all wondering, “What does Marta think of the show?”

The stage manager said smiling, “Why don’t you ask her yourself? She’s sitting in the front row.”

My wife and I looked at one another. Our eyes were glistening with tears. I don’t think we were the only ones. Everybody just felt so darned pleased! I can’t remember what Marta said, as we all stood up to get a look at her. I think my ears were filled with joy. Corny, I know. I do remember that she signed copies of her autobiography for members of the audience who had purchased them earlier. Apparently, Marta was also a talented writer.

Then, it was over and we were outside. Of course, we bought her book.

Unexpected moments

I know that you have all had similar experiences where an unexpected moment, such as our brief contact with Marta, has left an indelible memory. I hope that, as you read this account, one such memory has come back to you. They’re precious.

Sadly, Marta passed away in 2017. Her amazing theater remains, but COVID has made its continuing operation impossible, at this time. I hope, as do many of Marta’s many admirers, that, as the world becomes a more normal stage, the Amargosa Opera House will reopen and, once again, welcome visitors from all over the world.

You’ll find this stop worth the trip.

If you’d like to donate any amount to this wonderful opera house, struggling to stay afloat, you can do so here.

Visit The Amargosa Opera House’s website here.

Read more from Rod here:

The load mis-taken: A hilarious story on what NOT to bring RVing

RVer shares story of RV park bathhouse; crappy situation unfolds

##RVT1011

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Sam Sprott
1 month ago

We use to camp in our 1957 J.C. Higgins tent trailer (which we still have, btw) (and which we towed behind our 1967 VW bug with AC and eight track) (which we still do not have, btw 🙁 ) at Furnace Creek back in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Marta had just started painting her audience. The big change in the second year were the security measures her stage hand/manager/friend and all-around nice guy had to implement. The empty coffee can at the back of the theater used to collect the admission price had been nailed down to the stump upon which it sat. Seems one of the patrons in the preceding year decided to take the can and its contents back to the camp ground or where ever they had come from. Crime had come to the desert. 🙁
Her performances were a real treat for Sandy and me, and our three year old decided she wanted to be a ballerina when she grew up. That three year old now has a daughter older than we were.

Ann Feeser
1 month ago

Excellent story! This is such a wonderful example of the serendipity of travel and the importance of taking a chance on an unconventional stop.

Sam Sprott
1 month ago
Reply to  Ann Feeser

You’re so right, Ann. This was an excellent article. Thank you to the author and to RV Travel for running it.

Sharan Harrison
1 month ago

We were there when Marta was still performing and are so regretful that we didn’t stay for the show. A few years later we toured the Opera House and were enthralled. We had breakfast at the little cafe nearby. Another delightful find near there is China Ranch Date Farm which is well worth a visit (but not in the RV!) And those were the days when Scotty’s Castle was open for tours and we had such a good time doing that as the guides wore period clothing while telling the stories about Scotty and Albert Johnson. We’ve learned to never put anything off – do it and do it as soon as possible.

Scott Hunter
1 month ago

We had a friend that lived in Shoshone ad we would visit every spring to see the desert flowers bloom. We always went to the opera house and would watch the show. We met Marta on several occassions. What a classy, beautiful and creative woman! I have often though how fun it would be to paint an “audience” in one of our bedrooms. Alas, I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler, so it’ll never happen. LOL!

Kamwick
1 month ago
Reply to  Scott Hunter

So, there must be interesting performances happening in your bedrooms? 😉

Admin
RV Staff (@rvstaff)
1 month ago
Reply to  Kamwick

Remember, Kamwick. RVtravel.com is a G-rated website. 😯 Have a good night. 🙂 –Diane

Judy Hallett
1 month ago

We were there in April 2021 but of course it was closed due to Covid. Your story makes us want to visit once it is open again. The paintings are amazing! Can’t wait to see the inside.

Lorie
1 month ago

Beautiful story. Thank you for sharing!

Robert N. Cordy
1 month ago

My wife and I visited the Amargosa Opera House in 1994 and had the very great pleasure of seeing Marta Becket on stage relating the history of the Opera House and watching her performance. A very, very unique and memorable experience!

Cee Cee
1 month ago

We stopped there in October 2020! Sadly, everything was closed due to Covid, but it was still very interesting. Having read this article, we may go back next time we are in Pahrump, if things are still open.

Drew
1 month ago

Nice story-thanks!

Ray
1 month ago

We visited the motel and opera house in 2019, a totally unexpected and wonderful surprise. I love old ruins and at first glance and lack of cars I thought the place was abandoned so I hopped out just to take some photos. The U shaped adobe structure had a badly peeling white exterior. It reminded me of an old Spanish fort. To add to the spooky ambiance it was lightly raining at the time, an obviously rare event for the location. The song “Welcome to the Hotel California” kept rolling over in my mind. That’s when I noticed 3 women sitting on a porch, watching me and probably thinking I was nuts. I struck up a conversation and learned of the motel, built by the Borox company back in the 30s to house guests/investors. Not only that, we got a personal tour of the motel and the opera house by the granddaughter of Marta, including the origins of the opera house and motel paintings. The place is a masterpiece legacy created by one woman in the desert. 2 words – Bucket List.

Charles Yaker
1 month ago

We visited shortly after Marta died. The motel is also an interesting place with murals quaint old style rooms and reports of ghost sightings. It was featured in a 2013 TV show available art Amazon but there are numerous Youtube videos just type in Amargosa Opera House ghosts in your search engines and you will get several pages of results

wanderer
1 month ago

Drove past it several times this spring and summer, it was closed. The whole junction looked deserted. Make a call before you plan a visit.

Tommy Molnar
1 month ago

We have passed the Opera House several times when headed to Death Valley – and drove on by. Now I wish we had stopped to check it out. We actually had a good laugh the first time as we passed saying, “Opera House – here? They must be kidding.” Sigh . . .

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