The purpose of ‘findings’, as originally conceived, was to showcase innovation and achievement in the world of jewellery, and in the arts in general. We actively seek out those who pushed the boundaries of their craft while building their success so that we can bring their stories to you – true originals in spirit and method. In our first three issues we’ve visited a self-taught master jeweller from Hamilton, an aluminum sculpture forge on the shores of Lake Ontario, and an iconic Greek jeweller from Athens who revived the styles and methods of ancient Greece and other cultures from around the world. These stories are fantastic examples of innovation and achievement, they are profiles of artistic expression unbridled from fear and unbound from insecurity. But what about the third side of the artistry triangle, that which comes before all others? What about passion!
Innovation and achievement are subjective concepts that may or may not be agreed upon, really. But passion is unmistakable and undeniable. Passion leaves it’s mark in a deep way, an indelible impression in the minds of those who bear witness. From a chance encounter in the least likely of places, CJ Expos brings you a story of passion – a story of magnificent passion that lead one artist to embark upon four decades of relentless creation fuelled by an outright refusal to consider stopping. This is the story of Marta Becket, and the Amargosa Opera House that she built in Death Valley Junction, California. The least likely of places, to be sure.
Driving west through the Nevada desert the sand coloured mountains are a perfect backdrop for the impossibly blue skies overhead. As we pass north of Shadow Mountain and cross into California we descend down into the Death Valley flats that extend beyond our vision and disappear into the heat-blurred horizon. The lower we descend, the higher the outside temperature gauge reads. At 120 degrees Fahrenheit it stops rising. I don’t know if that’s the hottest the dry air got, or if that was just the upper limit of the gauge. And at that point, what’s the difference? Death Valley though, is beautiful in it’s stark splendour. The natural colours, shapes, and textures found in the rock formations, caused by millenia of oxidation and weathering, form a perfect collage of geometric abstraction – nature never clashes here, it’s always a perfect combination. And it’s a balance of extremes as well; there are vast flatlands or vast mountain ranges; it never rains, but if it does it floods; the hottest days reach 50 Celsius, yet the coldest nights can hit zero. And somehow, there exists some life in this precarious balance. Every stop we make and exit the air-conditioned comfort of our vehicle is like opening an oven door, and the heat clings to you. No amount of wind brings any relief, it just makes it worse.
Born in New York City in 1924 Marta Becket was professional dancer, choreographer, pianist, actress, and composer. Trained as a ballerina, she performed in the corps de ballet of Radio City Music Hall and also appeared in several productions on Broadway. By her early forties Marta began producing her own one-woman shows and taking them on the road, performing in schools and small theatres around the United States. She was always a prolific and rather diverse talent – as a child she played the piano, danced, and even wrote plays under the pseudonym of a Russian peasant. So for Marta, the transition from stage performer to troubadour was a natural evolution for expression that had matured and outgrown circumstance. In 1967 while travelling through California, a flat tire paused Marta and her husband in Death Valley Junction. Awaiting the repair, Marta happened across the road and saw the empty horseshoe-shaped building that once housed offices, a cafe, a hotel, and – unbelievably, a theatre. The tire was soon fixed, but Marta never left.
The Amargosa Cafe, Hotel, and Opera House sits right at the intersection of two state highways that criss-cross the valley just east of Death Valley State Park. It is one of only a handful of buildings that make up Death Valley Junction, and maybe the only commercial one still in use. The whitewashed adobe exterior of the one-story complex is blinding in the midday sun. Built in 1924 in a Mexican colonial style, it was originally part of a company town for the Pacific Coast Borax Company. The Amargosa complex is miles from anywhere else, and any trip out there requires mindfulness of one’s fuel gauge. Place names such as Furnace Creek, Badwater, and Funeral Mountain dot the map around Death Valley Junction and seem appropriate monikers for such a locale.
When Marta moved into the complex in 1967 the clean-up began in tandem with the creativity. Her life had been a series of poignant stepping-stones that lead her karmically toward such an opportunity – a theatre of her own to showcase her own productions. For the next 40-plus years Marta wrote the plays, created the characters, choreographed the dances, scored the music, sewed the costumes, and painted the backdrops. Sometimes she played to a full house, and sometimes she played to no one. It was after one performance in 1969 without an audience that she had another idea: she painted an audience on the interior walls of the theatre. In a tromp l’oeil styling she created balconies full of characters – some spectators, some dignitaries, some performers – that became her audience when there was none. It is a remarkable feat of talented work that took over four years to complete. After the walls were finished, she spent another two years painting a renaissance-style fresco on the ceiling.
The interior of the Opera House stands in clear contrast to the building’s design and locale. It is a vibrant kaleidoscope of colour and life set in what must be the epicentre of extreme living conditions. There is little-to-no foliage, no visible animal life, a paucity of water, and crippling heat eight months of the year. But like the Death Valley primrose that defies the harshness and blossoms in the dark, the Opera House comes alive on performance nights – a cultural outpost in the vast expanse of the Mojave desert.
It is hard to imagine the depth of commitment required to take on such an endeavour, to have such a lengthy and complex vision so clearly from the first glance and to continue the work, not necessarily to completion of the project, but to the utmost limit of one’s ability. I don’t think Marta ever saw in her mind a ‘finished version’ of the Opera House that she was working toward creating, I think she only saw the inspiring process of endless possibilities. It seems that the goal for Marta Becket was sustaining creativity through whatever media she could grasp at the time, applied to whatever task was at hand. The troubadour had found her home, and would ply her craft – or any craft needed in the passionate pursuit of her art.
For over forty years Marta danced and sang on that stage, bringing her own creations to life. Along the way, profiles in National Geographic and Life magazine brought her some national prominence, and people began travelling from around the world to visit her opera house and watch her perform. When she could no longer dance, she wrote and performed the weekly ‘Sitting Down Show’. As always, she did what she could with what she had.
Marta retired from the stage in February 2012, at the age of 88 but continued to run the theater and hotel. She passed away four years later in the building that been her home since 1967, The Amargosa Hotel and Opera House in Death Valley Junction, California. Performances of her work still take place in the Opera House, with an empty seat left vacant in the front row as an homage to her persistent passion, innovation, and yes, achievement.
As we left Death Valley Junction heading east back to Nevada the sun began to sink in the rear-view mirror. Looking backward into the red-amber sky that hung over the distant mountains, emptiness was stretching out behind us as if we and the sun were pulling the desert in different directions. But the Opera house stayed in view a good long time, last seen as a sparkle on the dusty horizon.