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A hundred miles of lonely desert lies between the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas and the Amargosa Opera House.
It seems like more.
I don’t believe in ghosts, and as far as I know, the opera house and attached Amargosa Hotel don’t purport to be haunted. But there’s definitely an otherworldly, mesmerizing feeling connected to the eerily quiet, windswept crossroads called Death Valley Junction.
The Spanish Colonial-style building, including the hotel and what was a social hall for a borax mining company, was salvaged from ruin in 1968 by Marta Becket, a ballet dancer who was driving through, saw the place and became transfixed.
Becket devoted the rest of her life to what she dubbed the Amargosa Opera House, leasing the old, decrepit venue, pouring in love and money (much more of the former than the latter), and covering the walls herself with colorful murals depicting an audience of 16th century Spanish royal courtiers.
Becket used the space for her own interpretive dance pieces, which she performed most weekends for more than 40 years. She seldom played to a packed house. Occasionally the Amargosa audience totaled zero, the only spectators the characters in her murals. But the show always went on, until her retirement in 2012.
Becket also painted murals in the quaint hotel, which still offers rooms to travelers visiting the opera house or passing through on the way to Death Valley National Park.
Becket died last year, but I couldn’t help but feel her presence all around.
And, delightfully, the show goes on once again. Young dancer Hilda Vazquez, who came to Death Valley Junction two years ago specifically to meet Becket, received the older dancer’s permission to continue the performances. The talented and energetic Vazquez now performs shows at the opera house of Becket’s dances as well as her own newly created interpretations.
Like Becket, Vazquez performs every role herself, sometimes simultaneously, with a hat or false mustache denoting a change of character. Less than a dozen people were at the recent performance I attended, but the atmosphere and performance were still magical, perhaps even haunting.
The opera house and hotel are now operated by a nonprofit organization trying to preserve and restore Becket’s dream.
A weekend of events celebrating the 50th anniversary of Becket’s arrival at Death Valley Junction will be held at the opera house Feb. 9-10. And Vazquez will continue her tribute performances every Friday and Saturday night through May, when the un-air-conditioned desert opera house becomes too stifling for dance.
What happens after that is anyone’s guess. But I hope that future visitors to the Amargosa Opera House will continue to find more than ghosts.
For more information about the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, call 760-852-4441 or visit amargosa-opera-house.com.
— Steve Stephens can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.