Last Song in Death Valley Junction
by Maude Standish
It’s a Sunday afternoon and I’m hungover in Death Valley Junction, CA, waiting to see 87-year-old Marta Becket’s final performance at the famed Amargosa Opera House. For 44 straight years, it’s been the site of her one-woman show, which she’s performed three nights a week at 8:15 p.m. sharp — even if her only audience was the one she’d painted on the walls.
Today the theater is packed for her farewell. Women in Spanish-opera-singer costumes, men wearing tank tops and cowboy hats, and retired couples in matching Hawaiian shirts are all reminiscing about the last time they saw Marta perform, and thanking various deities that she didn’t decide to have her final show in the heat of the summer. I was lucky enough to get a standing-room-only ticket at the last minute, and upon arrival I’m ushered to the back corner by a large goateed man who I later learn is Rich Regnell, the town’s sheriff, mayor, and — as blogs would have it — “resident badass.” Crammed next to a group of Swedish TV producers, I sweat out last night’s booze mingled with this morning’s coffee, and from the smell of it, I’m not the only one detoxing. Marta appears on stage, escorted by Rich, who helps her settle into what can only be described as a throne. The audience quiets as Marta begins to speak.
“I’ve never had an audience like this before,” she tells us. And she means it. At its heyday in the early 1900s, Death Valley Junction had about 300 residents, and roughly the same amount are currently packed into the tiny theater.
For her final show, Marta decides not to perform a single opera, as she would have on a typical night, and opts instead to perform her favorite songs from the ones she’s written while in Death Valley. Wearing a velvet gown and fake mustache, she leads off with her crackle-whisper of a voice — both deadly feminine and wizard-like — singing, “If I could be a Hollywood producer, I would find a budding star and seduce her.” Somehow, when I hear these lyrics, my hangover dissipates, and my New-Year’s-resolution-relapse weight is momentarily forgotten — everything is going to be a-okay from here on out. I come to learn she has that effect on a lot of people.
Marta is a painter and singer, and was a dancer in her younger days. She started out performing in New York City nightclubs to help support herself and her mother, and later appeared on Broadway, danced with the Rockettes, modeled, illustrated books, and showed her paintings in New York galleries. Despite consistently getting work in the city she loved, she could never quite rise above the pack of all the other struggling artists.
Marta eventually tired of New York, and at the age of 44 embarked on a cross-country road trip with her husband. A fateful flat tire in Death Valley Junction led her to find the Amargosa, which was then a dilapidated building called Corkhill Hall. While her husband labored to replace the flat, Marta wandered the nearly ghost town and became hypnotized by the abandoned theater. “I could almost hear it saying, ‘I offer you life,” she wrote in a pamphlet that visitors can purchase for $10 at the gift shop. She decided then that she’d found her new home.
A common misconception about Death Valley is that it’s an arid desert filled with death and littered with the skeletons of forlorn travelers. And sure, there are scorpions and rattlesnakes, and the landscape probably most closely resembles the moon, but really, according to Marta, “It has nothing to do with death. It’s big open spaces and the freedom to be free.”
She initially rented the theater for $45 a month to hone her then-nebulous one-woman show. She tells the final audience that when she first took up residence in the theater, a local woman told her, “Marta, I don’t know how you’re gonna make it out here, you don’t do anything necessary! You just sing and you paint!” Marta ignored her, and gave her first performance in 1968 to an audience of 12. In the early days, when she often found herself performing to an empty theater, she painted her audience into existence.
It took her four and half years to complete the wall murals. She wanted it to look as if a Renaissance audience were watching her shows, complete with a king, queen, whispering nobility, monks, American Indians, and “women of the night.” Once she finished the walls, she spent another two and half years painting the ceiling. To this day, the theater gives visitors an ethereal sense of stepping into something not in line with our natural space-time continuum.
And she didn’t just create her audience. Marta used her artistic skills to paint all the backdrops, sew the costumes, and make any/all necessary props. In this final show, the well-loved props sit next to her on a table, and she uses them to switch characters — in one instance, that just means swapping out a red feather boa for a pink one. She takes her time arranging the new boa, and jokes that her characters like to dress slowly because they’re “very vain and enjoy everyone watching them.”
“This theater fulfills my life dream,” she says at the show’s end, and a sunburned man wearing a cowboy hat jumps up. “How many people can say that?!” he shouts. The room goes wild. Marta waits for it to die down before saying, “The past is fragile. It has no one to protect it. I want to devote this theater to preserving the past.” Soon, the Amargosa will be converted into a museum.
After the show ends, the crowd filters over to the adjacent motel lobby to eat homemade pink cupcakes and meet the star. (Rich and a few helpful audience members fold up the extra chairs that delightfully but inexplicably have the word “PERV” printed on them.) In the lobby, Marta sits in a motorized wheelchair as fans line up one by one to offer thanks and congratulations. They approach her with bags of tangerines, red roses, photos of themselves with her from years ago, and an almost religious devotion to this Death Valley institution that she’s created.
Shortly before she left New York, a psychic apparently told Marta she was destined to live in a rural area. “At the time I was a dyed-in-the wool New Yorker who believed any artist who left what was considered the center of the art world was either mad, considering retirement, or subconsciously acting out a death wish,” she’s written. She now plans to spend her retirement painting in the desert.
I used to date a guy who said, “There are no bad choices. There are only good and strong choices.” At the time, I thought this was just his way of justifying poor behavior, but I think now I understand what he meant. People like Marta remind me that there are still many strong choices to be made. Every new place I visit, be it a forest in Northern California or small town in Texas that serves two-dollar beers, I ask myself the question, “What If?” What if I said goodbye to urbanity, tethered myself to this remote location, and got lost within myself? But, unlike Marta, I don’t have the guts or that small spark of insanity that causes us make “strong” choices. At least not yet.
Marta’s advice to young artists trying to make it? “Go to the hinterlands and find a building.”
Maude Standish is a trend forecaster by day and a freelance writer by night. She haphazardly blogs at jerkbabies.tumblr.com.
Jennie Ross is a freelance photographer who documents adventures when and wherever possible. She received her BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and currently resides in Los Angeles, CA. .