A cultural oasis in the desert.
In a remote corner of California’s Mojave desert on the edge of Death Valley National Park, a remarkable solo act featuring the ballerina Marta Becket has played out for over four decades.
In 1907 Pacific Coast Borax Company completed a narrow-guage branch line that connected its Lila C. Mine and the company town of Ryan with the Tonopah & Tidewater Railroad, about seven miles to the northeast. Although the two railroads met in the Amargosa Desert, the spot was named Death Valley Junction. Most of the men working at the Lila C. lived in Ryan, but on their days off, they often visited Death Valley Junction’s combination store, saloon, and brothel.
The Lila C. was played out by 1915, but the discovery of rich borax ore deposits at the head of Furnace Creek breathed new life into Death Valley Junction…[and]…spurred the borax company to build a modern Spanish-style Civic Center in 1924, complete with a movie theater called Corkill Hall. The U-shaped adobe building also housed sleeping quarters for a crew of 200, along with a gymnasium, swimming pool, kitchen, dining hall, billiard parlor, library, barber-shop, butcher shop, bakery, ice-cream parlor, store, post office, company offices and hospital – a veritable town under one roof. The new Civic Center fell into disuse just a few years later when the Pacific Borax Company shifted its mining operations from Furnace Creek to Boron….
…The facility collected dust until 1967, when New York ballerina Marta Becket and her husband came to Death Valley Junction to have a flat tire repaired. Becket had a break in her West Coast touring schedule, so the couple decided to vacation in Death Valley. While waiting for the tire, Becket wandered across the street to the old Corkill Hall and peered through a hole in the door. In the dim light she could make out the stage and realized the building had been a theater. Suddenly the idea dawned on her that she was looking through a hole into her future. Later she wrote of the moment, “The building seemed to be saying, ‘Take me…do something with me…I offer you life.’ ” She and her husband answered the call just a few months later when they returned to lease the building for $45 a month.
Becket began the slow process of restoring Corkill Hall and renamed it Amargosa Opera House. She started giving dance lessons to local children and presenting concerts herself on the creaky stage. Each evening a performance was scheduled, she would dance, audience or not. One day, while cleaning out the theater after a flash flood, she got the idea of painting herself an audience. For the next four years she covered the walls with opulent gentlemen and ladies from the Renaissance. She even painted the ceiling.
These days the Opera House is rarely empty on performance nights. Becket has become internationally known from articles in such magazines as National Geographic and Life.