Marta Beckett, from THE LAST GRAND ADVENTURE
It took us three days to climb up out of Death Valley, cross over the Funeral Range on Route 190, and descend to the ghost town of Death Valley Junction. I hadn’t been slack in our work but it had taken us three days to do twenty-nine miles.
We arrived at Death Valley Junction on the eve of my forty-fifth birthday, and were greeted by Marta Beckett, dancer, artist, musician, and owner of the town, who made us welcome and provided a shower for our use. Marta insisted that we remain until her weekly ballet performance on Saturday evening.
Even though we had only traveled for three days, we were ready to rest for two days. It was not to be an uneventful time of rest however; that very night I was jolted suddenly to wakefulness as ‘something huge’ reached into our wagon and took a bite of our bed! It was a black night and it took me some minutes to determine that the intruder was also black. It was a “wild,” black stallion leading a herd of five mares and four foals, who now crowded up to get their share. Those supposedly wild horses weren’t a bit afraid of me, and I thumped on their noses and yelled at them in vain as they eagerly ate great gaping holes in our bed!
The next morning Marta and Tom Willett (her opera-house co-star) took us on a walking tour of Death Valley Junction. (Death Valley Junction had four full-time residents when we were there; Marta Beckett, Tom Willett, and a young couple who worked for them running the Death Valley Junction Hotel.)
As we walked through the property Marta explained how the town has been abandoned for several years when she accidentally found it in 1967. She had been on a cross-country dance tour when a tire on the car she was riding in went flat. While the tire was being fixed Marta went to explore an old movie house, standing right there near the highway. The old building caught her fancy, and she bought it from the absent owners with the idea of using it as a permanent place to perform her ballet.
As she was telling us about her discovery and subsequent purchase we were entering the old movie house that Marta called “The Amargosa Opera House.” Inside, it had a gilt ceiling studded with cherubs, and the walls were a showcase for Marta’s largest painting, a mural of two hundred and sixty persons from 16th century Spain for her crowd . Marta admitted that she had spent most of her time, for six years, painting the walls, and ceiling of the old movie house.
Leaving those very life-like persons behind we walked next door to Marta’s Death Valley Junction Hotel where very realistic murals and frescoes of trees and vines, a hanging shawl, and a guitar on a chair, graced the lobby area. In the tiny hotel rooms we saw head- boards and bureaus painted on the walls and they looked usable! “They never have to be dusted.” Marta remarked as walked back down the hall to the lobby. We laughed at her humor trying to encourage more of the same.
As we came back out through the hotel lobby though, Marta suddenly became very somber and explained a self-portrait of herself displayed there. In the painting she was depicted as a ghost in a white tutu dancing in the courtyard of a deserted and ruined Death Valley Junction sometime in the future. The painting was done, Marta told us, because she feels that her ghost town will someday fall to ruins again, inhabited only by her ghost and surrounded by the bleached bones of the wild horses that live in the area.
By the time Marta had explained her fears for the future we had climbed the stairs leading to her art studio. North-light was falling across a half-finished canvas propped on an easel in front of us? On the canvas six young Catholic girls, dressed in white dresses, were holding hands with each other, and dancing in a circle on a street in New York City. Marta gestured toward the painting and told us that the girls were celebrating their confirmation day, and that the tenement buildings in the background stood “waiting to reclaim the girls.”
Carol watched Marta standing with her hands clasped in front of her, explaining the art on the canvas and describing how it would look when finished. Petite, with short curly, dark hair and large liquid brown eyes, Marta observed that carol was studying her rather than the painting and she laughed up at Carol, and said with an embarrassed smile, “I remember that when I was about seven or eight my favorite activity was to play art class. I would take some blocks of wood – oh, about twelve of them, and arrange them around a statue of Venus that my mother had. I would pin some hair on every block and lay a small pad of paper and a pencil by each one. Then lying on the carpet by each block of wood, I’d draw the statue from their different vantage points and not only draw the pictures but act out each ‘pupil’ differently as I drew.
“My first oil painting came later, it was of two women, interposed on each other. I used somber colors and called the painting Withered Belles. (The two women in the painting were my mother (the perfect stage mom) and I. We sold it to one of my mother’s friends and I don’t know its whereabouts.) I’d like to have it back….it was in blues and reds. I painted it when I was eighteen and it was sold while I was doing a Broadway show.”
Even though I felt like our tour of the ghost town was getting too dark and damp for my liking, what with Marta painting herself as a ghost, dead people from the sixteenth century, slum life, and now the two withered belles, I smiled back at Marta and slowly shook my head at her, wondering how she could see herself withered at eighteen when she was still energetic so many years later. (Marta was 74 at the time!)
I don’t know if she understood my gesture, she just turned to look out of the window and said, “I chose to live in this area, not only for its beauty but because as an artist I need solitude – and plenty of it.” I didn’t say anything but I was beginning to understand that when a person has too much solitude in the midst of a ghost town their life is not apt to be a happy one.
We all took some time for solitude between our tour of Death Valley Junction and Marta’s performance on Saturday night. And in all that time nothing happened to give be a good excuse to miss the show, so I dusted off my blue jeans, washed my shirt, and combed my beard, thinking of how uncomfortable I would be at a ballet performance. I expected that it would be as somber as our tour.
Then the curtains opened at 7 P.M. and we were treated to an hour of brightly colored costumes, lively music, and comedy as Marta, and her sidekick Tom, acted out humorous sketches of real happenings in the life of Death Valley Junction. I was amazed at the change in Marta and very relieved to see that it was a comical presentation. I didn’t understand what all the leg lifting and body spinning was about, but I enjoyed the humor!
I guess that Tom must be a very good natured fellow to allow Marta to dress him up in skirts and petticoats, like a little girl would dress up her pet cat; and then to cheerfully cavort with Marta over the stage in awkward dance steps in the likeness of a bobbing cork on a turbid pond, with a great many curtsies fore and aft. I felt the back of my neck and my ears redden in embarrassment for him in his long curly wigs, but he sure hid his chagrin well.
Marta came onto the stage after the show to sort of sew things up. She curtsied and stood demurely with her hands clasped in front of her tutu as she answered questions from the audience. She kept her head turned down and slightly to the left, fluttered her eyelashes and flirted coquettishly, while I squirmed!
Some folks would say that I haven’t any spit and polish because I admit to being uncomfortable at the ballet performed there in the Amargosa Opera House. They would say that I haven’t any class and am socially inferior, but I’d not be in Tom’s boots, um … slippers, for anything!