Dances With Wild Horses

A performer from New York finds her calling in the desert, producing her own shows

MARTA BECKETT is up every morning at 6:30 just as the sun's pink light reaches the mountains in the distance. She has nine wild horses to feed. A mottled old brown burro, several dogs, and a platoon of stray cats are waiting, too.

''Sometimes when I feed the wild horses,'' she says of her quiet mornings, ''and they go back into the desert, I want to go with them.''

Here on the edge of nowhere, in what looks like a crumbling desert town, Ms. Beckett's love of wild horses is the metaphor that helps explain why tens of thousands of people from all over the world have stopped at the Amargosa Opera House here to see her perform for the last 27 years.

Beckett's arrival was like a wild horse in search of an oasis. Ballerina, artist, musician, and loner, she was on her way across the desert those many years ago, driving with her then husband when a flat tire stopped her.

Death Valley Junction used to be the headquarters of the Pacific Coast Borax Company, then a cluster of adobe buildings including a hotel, gas station, and a community theater.

When Beckett stopped to patch a tire, the town was an enclave for a small religious organization. Most of the buildings were edging from neglect into ruin. But she took one look inside the abandoned theater and in a flash saw the rest of her life right there, on stage, performing her dances. Here was a lovely oasis for a wild horse.

Born in New York, Beckett studied ballet there and was a chorus girl on Broadway for a time. But ever the loner, she hit the road, performing mime and ballet in a one-woman show at small theaters and universities across the country.

''Solo shows were fading in popularity,'' she says, lithe and quick in movement as she approaches her 70s. ''But I didn't want to stop performing. If you have talents and gifts for doing something, you should use and polish them no matter what.''

For $45 a month, Beckett rented the theater and named it the Amargosa Opera House, borrowing the name from the Amargosa Valley. ''Dancers are usually joiners,'' she says. ''I'm not a joiner in anything.''

She swept out the cobwebs in the building, patched the roof a little, and painted the theater white. Spotlights were improvised from coffee cans. Seats were eventually added from an abandoned Nevada City movie house. Beckett began to perform shows regularly, even if no one came. ''If it was good, I knew the people would come,'' she says about the early days. ''If it wasn't good, I would do it anyway.''

Soon the word got around that a tall, striking woman was doing strange ballet dances and pantomimes on weekend nights in the old theater in Death Valley Junction. She made the costumes, wrote the script, choreographed the dances, created the sets, and selected the music.

''The dancers from Las Vegas found out I was here,'' she says, ''and they came to see my show. They were my first supporters because the local people did not understand me.''

Gradually, audiences began to increase. For awhile she gave ballet lessons to local children. ''I put out a tin can for donations,'' she says of the performances then.

Even more remarkable, she envisioned another kind of audience. In 1968, on the white walls of the interior of the opera house, she began painting figures in murals. ''I wanted to create a permanent audience on the walls,'' she says. ''The characters just tumbled out of me.''

The result, beginning at the back or entrance of the theater, is a two-level depiction of seated 16th-century Spanish royalty, clerics, gypsies, revelers, and Indian natives that encircle the three walls. Painted in rich reds, deep browns, blacks, and golden yellows, and all with stylized faces, dozens of men and women stare down, caught in an expression of elegant surprise.

On the ceiling Beckett painted a dome of 16 semiclad ladies playing antique musical instruments surrounded by dancing cherubs, the four winds, and seven doves of peace.

''It's been varnished twice,'' she says of the effort to protect the remarkable work. She points to the bottom six inches of the mural where flaking and destruction have happened. ''We had a flash flood a few years ago,'' she says, ''with water running through here, and now I need someone to do repairs.''

As audiences increased over the years, Beckett created a repertoire of plays combining the spoken word, dance, pantomime, and music. Recently she performed ''On With the Show'' to a packed house (100 seats). In a series of satirical vignettes, Beckett depicts 12 characters that either drifted through town or lived in Death Valley Junction from 1967 through the early 1980s.

With her partner, Thomas Willett, serving mostly as a foil, Beckett is a French tourist, a hippie, postmistress, local madam, a gossip, and prospector with voices to match. She and Mr. Willett dash on and off stage, changing costumes while recorded narrative and music keeps the play moving. Beckett dances with verve and discipline, her classical training shaping her movement. The performance is full of humor and deft observations about humanity, and it is unique in sweetness and character.

''When I finally spark on an idea for a stage production,'' Beckett says while signing autographs after a performance, ''and it starts to jell, and it looks and sounds good, this is happiness to me; this is my best friend.''

Now busloads of tourists arrive on Friday and Saturday nights eager to pay the $8 admission fee. Beckett has been featured in Life magazine, the National Geographic, and other publications. ''I found this place where I could try my wings whether anybody approved or not,'' she says, ''and now the world comes to me.''

Beckett owns the town now, including the Amargosa Hotel, but she is concerned about the future of the opera house and would like to turn it over to a foundation or organization. ''This is a valuable piece of property,'' she says. ''People have tried to get it from me because we have a lot of water here, and that's like gold in the desert. But I'll fight tooth and nail to keep it.''

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