Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Night at the Amargosa Hotel

Happiness is transitory.  My father even questioned its reality.  "It's the pursuit of happiness that our founding fathers wisely recognized as a fundamental right.  Happiness cannot be guaranteed."

"You seem so happy," my travel buddy commented as we walked the grounds of the Amargosa Hotel last week.

"I am," I said.  "Being here is a dream come true.  I have wanted to see the Amargosa Opera House all my life."

He looked around at the peeling paint, the broken furniture and piles of horse poop.  I attempted an explanation.
I saw Marta Becket perform her one-woman show in Coffeyville, Kansas, when I was a girl.  I had been dancing since I was six years old.  At twelve, I still loved it but I knew there would always be a dancer with a higher kick, a thinner waist and a more graceful arm.  I would always be mediocre, at best.  But here was a middle-aged woman (my mom's age for crying out loud) dancing on toe with complete abandon.  She was funny and entertaining; never clownish.  She was technically sound, but no Maria Tallchief.  It occurred to me for the very first time that I should stop comparing myself to other people.  Forget about auditions.  Forget about passing the next Cecchetti exam.  I should dance for the pure joy of dancing.  Like Marta Becket.
Marta Becket's journey from the stages of New York to the stage at Death Valley Junction is an inspiring story and one that has fueled my imagination with infinite possibilities.  On one of her touring trips across the country in 1967, she and her husband had a flat tire on their trailer.  The closest place to have it repaired was tiny Death Valley Junction, only a few miles away from one of the most inhospitable places on earth.  The minute she set eyes on the abandoned adobe buildings and the recreation hall at the far end, her life changed forever.  "This tiny theatre had cast a spell on me."

The u-shaped complex had been built by the Borax Company in the 1920's to house offices and rooms for the company's employees.  Long since abandoned, Becket immediately saw its potential.  She left New York and the world of touring and moved here to create a world that has enchanted the local population and travelers like me, for decades.  She spent four years painting murals on the theatre's walls and ceilings.  She would dance every Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights to an appreciative audience of kings, queens, gypsies and American Indians.  She would dance.  And dance.  And dance.  Far into her seventies.  Not caring one iota what anyone thought.

"I would not have to please agents, managers, or a fickle public whose taste changes like the wind.  I would please myself.  I would work and create . . .without the official nod from critics.  I had found my place in the sun."

Of course, word got out.  National Geographic and the Sundance Channel discovered her, wrote about her and filmed her magical world.  In 1981, the entire town of Death Valley Junction was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

My one regret is that I did not make it here sooner.  Miss Marta, as the locals lovingly call her, is now in her late eighties and is no longer dancing.  My travel buddy and I spent a delightful evening, however, in the theatre with royalty, listening to a band play a selection of songs from the 1920's through the 1980's.  I was happy.  (And papa, it was real!)
"I think you just like eccentric old ladies," my travel buddy said.

"Old ladies who dance and paint," I qualified.

"And who travel and write.  You know, I think I'm finally beginning to figure you out."

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