In this series we’re looking at some of the world’s best destinations in unexpected locations. This week, it’s the turn of Amargosa Opera House, Death Valley Junction, California
The year is 1967 and you’re on a roadtrip, crossing the desert where California meets Nevada, when you get a flat tire. Battling stifling heat and dust, you manage to reach the nearest repair place: Death Valley Junction. Here you find a desolate gas station in a Spanish Colonial Revival building dating from 1923-24 at the head of a railroad whose tracks were uprooted long ago and sent to Egypt to help the Allies in the war.
The tumble-down U-shaped premises used to be home to the Pacific Coast Borax Company offices, plus a general store, an infirmary, and a hotel. You peer through broken walls into a former recreation hall. Despite its dilapidated state, there are benches for the audience and curtains draped across a stage.
You fall in love and decide…to set up your own Opera House.
Such was the brainchild of Marta Becket (1924-2017), an American performer, who founded her own theatre in the desert, performing one-woman shows and living there until her death, aged 92.
In 1967, Becket had been a performer in New York for 20 years but had struggled to make her living. After a mysterious vision in which she learned she would build a new life in a place beginning with ‘A’, she was inspired to take over the strange building in the former desert mining town once known as ‘Amargosa’. Friends in New York, derided her decision, but securing a rent of $45 a month (as long as she was responsible for all repairs), she promptly began her life’s work, battling with flash floods and prompting interest from National Geographic and Life magazine.
As well as being a dancer and singer, Becket decorated the theatre (including a glorious painted-on audience) over the course of the years. She completed her murals in 1974 and created a non-profit organisation that eventually bought the whole town and had it listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1981.
About twelve years ago, I visited during one of Marta’s final seasons and was disappointed to find she wasn’t performing due to injury. Nonetheless, I stayed the night in one of the motel rooms, where the choice as you lay in bed in one of the hottest places on Earth was between the rattle of the air-conditioning or the feeling of falling asleep in a dark furnace.
A night of suffocating heat was worth it, to wake early in the desert, in this iconic but lonely place featured by filmmaker David Lynch as the Lost Highway Hotel. Just before dawn, I made the short drive to Dante’s View, in the Black Mountains, considered one of the best viewpoints over Death Valley. I gazed out as the sun rose over tawny slopes and the swirl of white salt in the basin below, conjuring the world’s largest cappuccino. I may not have seen the legendary Marta, but I saw another spectacular show.
These days the Opera House and Hotel is still honouring Marta’s legacy (although it has been closed until July and is taking donations to help it survive the current COVID-19 crisis). Traditional performing arts, including acoustic music, theatrical plays, opera and spoken word are hosted every weekend during the season (October through May). For refreshments, the Amargosa Cafe offers a menu of choices from local artisanal growers. Stepping inside is like stepping back in history, as you are greeted by an old counter and circular counter chairs – and who knows? Maybe Marta’s voice will drift by on the desert wind.