Marta Becket, a ballerina who drew audiences from around the world to an abandoned Mojave Desert stage she adopted after being stranded near the ghost town by a flat tire in 1967, died earlier this week at her home in Death Valley Junction, Calif. She was 92.
Jeff Mullenhour, deputy coroner of Inyo County, Calif., said the cause had not been determined.
Ms. Becket, a New York native, was a dancer who had performed in Broadway musicals and in the Radio City Music Hall’s corps de ballet in the 1940s and 1950s. She became frustrated by what she once told The Washington Post were too many artistic compromises and greedy producers, so she created a one-woman show and went on the road.
As an itinerant dancer, she played community centers and college campuses. She said she was on her way with her husband and manager, Tom Williams, to an engagement when their trailer suffered a flat tire near Death Valley Junction, about 95 miles west of Las Vegas.
While Williams fixed the tire, and Ms. Becket walked around the town, an borax mining complex built in the 1920s. She was riveted by the dilapidated social hall.
“It was a theater! I couldn’t believe it,” she wrote in a biographical pamphlet. “I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at the other half of myself. The building seemed to be saying, ‘Take me, do something with me, I offer you life.’ ”
Ms. Becket and her husband rented the building, and Marta Becket made her debut in 1968 at the renamed Amargosa Opera House. The town had once been called Amargosa, a variation of the Spanish word for “bitter,” and the opera house (once called Corkill Hall) had been the social epicenter of the town before it was abandoned in the 1940s.
In the beginning, her only patrons were the three Mormon families who lived in the isolated town. The nearest town is 23 miles away from the opera house, but audiences filled its 114 theater seats so many times over the years that extra chairs sometimes had to be brought in.
Ms. Becket wrote songs, dialogue, sewed costumes and painted sets. She danced every Monday, Friday and Saturday whether the house was full or empty — as if thousands were watching.
She spent six years drawing and painted imaginary fans on the opera house’s walls and painted the ceiling with a blue sky, dancing cherubs, clouds and doves.
“I love dance. I love ballet. It’s the world I want,” she told the Associated Press 2001. “It’s mystifying. I feel as if this is what I was intended to do.”
Her husband left in 1983, leaving Ms. Becket and her longtime friend, emcee, stagehand, stage manager and silent sidekick Tom Willett as the town’s only residents. Willett died in 2005.
Louis Kavouras, chairman of the University of Nevada at Las Vegas dance department, described Ms. Becket’s shows as vaudevillian, an assemblage of brief dramatic and comedic pieces, but always with a strange and contemporary twist.
Kavouras said he was mystified when he saw Ms. Becket in 1992, then in her late 60s, rise to her toes and float across the stage in a difficult, shuffling ballet move known as a pas de bourrée. “It was magic,” he said, “like the hot desert wind flowing across the desert sand.”
Ms. Becket was born in New York’s Greenwich Village on Aug. 9, 1924. According to the Times, she left high school and began performing in nightclubs. She danced in a 1946 Broadway revival of the musical “Show Boat” as well as the original Broadway staging of the musical comedy “Wonderful Town” (1953). She also worked at times as a book illustrator.
She told the Times that she never returned to New York after her father died in 1970. “In New York it was like door after door was closing in my face,” she said. “When I came here, there was no door to close. All along I knew all I needed was a space, a place where I could say, ‘If people come, good, but if they don’t, I’m going to do my work anyway.’ The first three years I danced whether anyone was here or not. The effort is the joy.”
Ms. Becket continued flitting across the stage in her performances well into her 80s, although health problems slowed her in later years. She gave a final performance in February 2012, before turning the theater over to a nonprofit group to serve as an artistic sanctuary.
Todd Robinson, who made the 2000 documentary film about Ms. Becket, “Amargosa,” once told the New York Times: “There’s something really wonderful about the fact that she picked the most desolate spot in America to do this. It says you can have your life on your own terms, but you’ll have to sacrifice. It says the process is the point. And people come away from there inspired.”
Ms. Becket’s autobiography, “To Dance on Sands,” was published in 2006.
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