Monday, June 27, 2011

Amaragosa Opera House

Think back to places that your car has broken down.  I, personally, have been stranded halfway down a busy off-ramp in downtown Chicago, in front of a fly-infested goat ranch in Central California, and off a long stretch of empty highway in the middle Utah's putrid smelling salt flats. Never have I looked around in these moments and thought- What if I just stayed here?

Marta Becket is one of those few people who can begin a story with, "My car broke down," and then end it with, "and then I decided this is where I was meant to be." In the Spring of '67, Marta, a professional dancer from New York, was camping with her husband in Death Valley when their trailer got a flat.  As her husband dealt with the mechanic, Marta began snooping around the old building across from the garage and spied a dilapidated old theater that was falling victim to neglect in a place that was quickly becoming a ghost town.  By the next day, she and her husband had put down rent on the theater with the promise of restoring it.

Architecturally speaking, the place they were standing in as they handed over that $45.00 in rent has remained mostly unchanged in these forty plus years.  In fact, the shell of the town was constructed in 1923, when Death Valley was a booming mining area for borax.  Though most of the population had left by the time that Marta happened across it, the same buildings remained.  Today, looking at the Amaragosa Opera House, you are sharing the same sights as the railway workers, miners, and wild horses that passed through close to a century ago.

Nowadays, Death Valley Junction has a population of just under 20.  The whole town wouldn't fill half of an LA city bus.  Back when Marta arrived, the whole town could share a cab.  So, it shouldn't come as a big suprise that many nights Marta found herself dancing to an empty theater.  She made her own audience by painting the walls with kings and queens, court jesters and nuns, musicians, and groups of whispering young girls.  She spent four years creating an audience that she would end up dancing for, for over 40 years.  As Marta worked at making her dreams materialize her husband tended bar at a Nevada brothel and eventually left her.  But she wasn't alone.  LIFE magazine and National Geographic profiled her and soon people began traveling to this tiny pinpoint of a town in the middle of Death Valley, to watch her sing, dance, and play piano.  While Marta has since retired from dancing, there are now performances at the opera house based on her life and the audience that was painted there so many years ago, now gets to watch a little piece of offbeat history that they were there for since the beginning.

The Amaragosa Opera House is a U-shaped building, it's anchors being the theater on one end and the Cafe on the other.  The small rooms in between are hotel rooms.  However, this one building was once the whole town.  The theater used to be the Amaragosa town hall and all the hotel rooms were used for business and practices.  Stay a night at the Opera House and you may be sleeping in what was once the doctor's office, the blacksmith's post, or the grocery.

Don't expect much from the rooms; it's not why you're there anyways. You're lucky if your room has  a hand painted mural of cherubs on the wall, even luckier if it has an alarm clock from the 1980's.  The air conditioning runs on full blast and, if you visit in August like I did (125 degrees!), it's really the only thing that's matters.

As we travel-if we're lucky-we find those places that resonate with us and we are struck with the notion of diving into the local current and creating a new life in a new town.  Imaginations run on all cylinders as you try on that location and like the the way it looks on you.  Within moments most of us realize that we are, indeed, just passing through and we just keep rolling down the road.  Imagine if that trailer never got a flat and just kept rolling down the road.  We would be short one California gem; an unlikely opera house in the middle of Death Valley where an 80-year old woman dances en pointe for a room full of nobility. 

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