Marta Becket was born in New York City, then beginning at the age of six studied piano and art in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. Following her parents’ separation, she moved back to New York with her mother where she was trained in classical ballet and interpretive dance. During the Depression, she dropped out of high school and began a full-time dance career of necessity, to support herself and her mother. She danced in nightclubs, army and navy hospitals, theater restaurants, became a member of the corps de ballet at Radio City Music Hall and performed in theatre productions, including the revival of Showboat (1946), A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951), and in Wonderful Town with Rosalind Russell at the Wintergarden Theatre in 1953. She also modeled for fashion magazines and did freelance art work. Becket continued with her art work and illustrated Stories of the Great Ballets, by George Balanchine (Doubleday & Co., 1954) and Star Performance, by Walter Terry (Doubleday & Co., 1954).
The versatility and scope of artistic genres that Marta developed and drew on in order to survive the Depression became a palette from which she developed a repertoire of dance pantomime for solo concerts and she began touring in 1955. While dancing and performing on stage, she grew to love ballet and vaudeville, and incorporated both into an art form of her own. She said, “I knew now that dance and pantomime were universal languages in the theater, where tragedy becomes bearable, even beautiful,” she wrote later. “I knew now that this was the language I wanted to speak. I wanted to be a part of that world which had the ability to reflect life back to us so beautifully.”
In 1967, she and her husband were headed to a booking in a town near Death Valley when their camper had a flat tire. They went to Death Valley Junction for the repair. While walking around the town to kill time, Marta came across an abandoned miner’s hall with hotel and auditorium that had been built in the 1920s. Peering in, she immediately envisioned what she described as “the other half of my life.” She and her husband transformed the building into what became known as the Amargosa Opera House, where Marta performed on stage every weekend, on pointe, through 2012, when she was well into her eighties.
In the early days, she often performed for audiences consisting of only a few people, or even no one but herself and her partner. To honor and evoke the people who she envisioned frequented the old miner’s hall, and to ensure she always had a full house, she painted the walls and ceiling with murals of theatergoers. It took her six years to complete the murals.
Amargosa Opera House interior detail.
The Amargosa Opera House soon attracted larger audiences and became a cultural destination in the middle of the desert. But in the early days, Marta’s husband supplemented their income by bar-tending at a brothel just over the Nevada state line. The madam brought the women who worked for her to the show once a month “for culture”.
I won’t last forever, I know,” Becket wrote in 2005. “One day, I too will haunt this place, dancing like a dust devil in the wind.”