Death Valley's Opera House

An 87-year-old ballerina heads this surprising theater in Death Valley Junction, Calif.

Amargosa Opera House, Death Valley Junction, Calif., image

Marta Becket's trompe l'oeil balconies echo with the applause of an imagined crowd.

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A grand old opera house is the last thing you’d expect to find in Death Valley Junction, Calif., population three. But just south of the Funeral Mountains, about 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, stands the whitewashed adobe Amargosa Opera House, where Marta Becket, an 87-year-old ballerina, has been performing original works since 1968.

For decades the 114-seat theater has filled on weekends with curious travelers who squeeze in among the room’s resident audience: a packed gallery of bullfighters, nuns, court jesters, and bemused royalty that Becket dreamed up and painted on her theater’s walls over four years—so she’d never have to play to an empty house.

Slowed by dance injuries and age, Becket no longer ties on her toe shoes. Las Vegas performer Sandy Scheller has taken up residence and on Saturdays keeps her eccentric mentor’s moves alive in If These Walls Could Talk, a tribute set to recorded music. On Sunday afternoons Becket herself performs The Sitting Down Show, an autobiographical storytelling session.

This winter-spring season, which runs through May 1, may be her last, although her plans aren’t set. “I’m tired,” Becket says, “but my stage is waiting for me.” Admission is $15 for adults, $12 for children. A 16-room hotel adjoins the opera house; rooms from $60. (760) 852-4441, amargosa-opera-house.com.

Photography by Bert Gildart

This article was first published in January 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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