The diva of Death Valley

It happens to all of us, sooner or later. You’re stuck in a traffic jam that’s gonna hold you up for at least five minutes, you’ve got a throbbing hangnail, the cell phone battery is low so you can’t call anyone, your underpants are scrunched up in a hellish position, the commercial on the radio is extremely annoying, and that bottle of warm frappucino in your cup holder just ain’t makin’ it. That’s when you start daydreaming about leaving it all behind to run off and become a crazy person in the desert.

OK, so maybe it happens to just a few of us.

But once in a while, somebody will shriek “Nuts to this!” and really mean it. That’s what happened in 1967 to a New York dancer and painter named Marta Becket. She and her husband had a flat tire in a forlorn weed trap called Death Valley Junction, the site of a long-gone mining outpost. Something happened that day to this fancy girl from The Big City; maybe something mysterious, maybe something reasonable, but whatever it was, it wasn’t long before she had convinced hubby, Tom, that they ought to stay. Forever. And if you’ve never seen DVJ, rest assured, that’s a fairly radical proposition.

But 37 years have passed, and in that time Marta has become a true legend of the desert and an inspiration to the oddball in us all. She and Tom slowly converted that ramshackle ruin into the Amargosa Motel and Opera House, and while the motel is unique and quirky (all the headboards are painted on the walls by Marta, for example), it’s the theater itself that is truly Marta’s masterpiece. See, she always wanted to be sure an audience would be there for her every show, so she painted an entire Renaissance-era society onto the very walls of the place (and a complex bunch it is, what with kings, queens, clergy, concubines, merchants, hooligans and natives all gathered together for a night of theater fun). The giant mural, which covers the entire ceiling, greatly pleases the eyeball with its symmetrical parade of doves and cherubs. As you sit there and behold it all, waiting for Marta and her hambone partner Wilget to begin the show, it slowly dawns on you this theater may well be the largest single work of art in the American West, and that when you get into it and really look, the thing is breathtaking.

The lights go down at 8:15 p.m., the music of Verdi comes on the tape deck, and suddenly, there she is, 79-year-old Marta, looking very much like the Norma Desmond of Death Valley, all dolled up and ready to perform her latest songs. And after the one-hour show, as the 100-person audience rises to give her a rousing ovation, you realize that Marta is anything but crazy. In fact, she could be one of the sanest people to ever walk the Earth.

(Marta’s last show of spring is May 8. She’ll be back on stage in her Magic Theater in October … probably.)