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Amargosa Opera House

Step inside a painted wonderland to see a desert icon’s dances

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While some ballet dancers may dream of performing in front of adoring throngs in New York or Paris, others are drawn to settings with decidedly lower wattage. Or downright off the grid. Such was the case with Marta Becket. In 1967, the New York dancer, who had performed on Broadway and at Radio City Music Hall, dreamed of having her own place to create and perform her works.

“I went to visit this fortuneteller in New York, and she said, ‘You will be leaving New York for a very rural place, and you will be doing the best work of your life in this place,’” recounted Marta. Soon thereafter, needing a break from touring the country, she and her husband decided to go camping in Death Valley.

“The building seemed to be saying, ‘Take me. Do something with me.’” — Marta Becket, dancer and artist

While exploring abandoned adobe buildings in an area now known as Death Valley Junction, near the southeast boundary of the park, Marta came upon what appeared to be a performance space. “The building seemed to be saying, ‘Take me—do something with me.’” The next day, she and her husband did, renting the space for $45 a month. Renaming it the Amargosa Opera House, she presented her first performance there in 1968 in front of 12 adults and a smattering of kids and grandkids. “There were many performances I gave when no audience came at all,” she recalled, “but I proceeded to perform anyway.” Her solution—cover the blank walls with people. Six years later, she had finished painting her eternal audience. To stage her own works over the years, Marta created scenery, masks, and costumes, putting on productions until she was 87 years old. Becket died on January 30, 2017—at the age of 92.

One particular night, a six-year-old girl from the San Francisco Bay Area attended a show with her family. Inspired by Marta’s performance, the girl grew up to be Jenna McClintock, a former prima ballerina with the Oakland Ballet and other renowned companies. But something drew Jenna back to the desert, just like Marta was drawn years before. “It’s very strange—I really felt like I was coming home,” says Jenna, who now carries on Marta’s legacy, dancing her works at the Amargosa Opera House every weekend between November and May. (You can also take a tour to see the building and Marta’s painted walls and ceilings.) “It’s very important to preserve what Marta has done, and I also want to give it lifeI want it to live on. And hopefully people will go on and make art themselves,” adds Jenna.

Can’t get enough of this quirky destination? Book a night in the adjacent hotel; some rooms are decorated with Marta’s original murals.

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