A Dancer, An Empty Opera House, Home


The world is a big, wide, scary, mysterious, and beautiful place.

As the seasons shift in New York City—green leaves turning to gold; bare arms progressively sheathed in wool; and toes, ankles, and calves hidden inch-by-inch from view—our thoughts turn to dark and eerie evenings, dripping candles, and somewhat sultry romance. It’s a time when clean, beachy fun turns to wonder. When we want to be lured by intoxicating, warm beverages and heady romance.

On Monday’s show, we’ll be kicking off our Other World series by welcoming Ella Morton, the co-author of the recently-released ATLAS OBSCURA: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders, “an immersive cabinet of curiosities sharing the world’s most astonishing off-the-beating path destinations.” In our minds, it’s the ultimate road-trip guide, especially if you’re wanting to challenge the longevity of a romantic connection.

On Monday, Ella will share an Atlas Obscura story about love, a story about food, and a story about wanderlust on the show.  But if you’re as fascinated and enthralled by this idea as we are, here’s a sneak peak at a story we found particularly romantic, in a painfully sad, heart-dripping kind of way.

Amargosa Opera House, California. Outside of Death Valley.
Amargosa Opera House, photo Robert Postma

Amargosa Opera House and Hotel

Death Valley Junction

According to its city limits sign, Death Valley Junction has a population of four. A former borax mining settlement, its bleached and barren landscape looks almost lunar. Summer days are scorching. Winter nights are eerily quiet. But sometimes the silence is broken by singing and applause coming from the town’s opera house.

In 1967, New York dancer and artist Marta Becket was camping in Death Valley with her husband when their trailer got a flat tire. The duo headed to Death Valley Junction to get it fixed.

While she waited, Becket wandered through the ghost town. A flat white adobe building from the mid-’20s mining days drew her eye. She peered through a hole in the door and saw a rundown theater, strewn with debris and long abandoned. In that moment she was swept up in an utterly impractical but exciting thought: This is my new home.

The next day, Becket tracked down the town manager and arranged to rent the theater month by month. In February 1968, she gave the first performance at the newly christened Amargosa Opera House. Twelve people watched the then forty-three-year-old dance en pointe.

From that night on, Becket performed at the opera house three nights a week at 8:15 sharp. Sometimes there were only two people in the audience. Sometimes no one came at all. One day Becket thought of a way to ensure she’d have a packed house for every performance: She would paint an audience onto the theater walls.

Becket spent four years working on the opera house wall murals and another two years painting cherubs on the ceiling. She also painted murals on the walls of the Amargosa Hotel, which provides accommodation akin to the basement of an eccentric aunt’s home.

It wasn’t until 2012, when Becket was 87, that she retired from the Amargosa stage. In her final performance she sang songs, told stories, and switched between wearing a false moustache, a pink boa, and a glittery silver top hat. At the end of the show, the packed crowd gave her a standing ovation.

HR-C 608, Death Valley Junction. The opera house is a 2-hour drive from Las Vegas. Shows, performed by guest artists, are sporadic.
You can stay at the attached hotel, but keep your expectations low.
N 36.302194 W 116.414644

Posted with permission by Atlas Obscura.

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