By all indications and quick glances, the place seemed to be a quintessential “ghost town.” The houses were long deteriorating, a truck could be seen with flat tires, and the nearby businesses were shuttered. Yet, there was still a spark of life among the white walls of the old hotel beneath the glaring sun.
The Mojave Desert is a peculiar place to find an opera house.
Death Valley has several ghost towns you can visit and tour along with abandoned mines and camps scattered throughout the grounds of the continental United States’ largest national park. On a recent stop, we debated going to check out one of them, something that would surely be an interesting addition to over ten years of exploring abandoned places.
However, with time limited by driving distance, other plans, and a flight to catch, we opted to just make a brief stop back at the seemingly forgotten town we had passed on the way in.
When one thinks of an Opera House, architectural marvels such as the performing arts center in Sydney or the Palais Garnier in Paris come to mind. The Amargosa Opera House probably isn’t one of the better known examples, located far from any large population center. When we pulled up to the place, I hopped out of the car to photograph the rows of abandoned houses sitting amongst vegetation. I rounded the corner of the nearby, long white building and was surprised to see an opera house advertised.
A faded note on the door stated that a tour was happening, but the padlock and yellowed paper seemed to indicate otherwise. The parking lot was a mix of sand, gravel, and decaying asphalt with no one coming to or from the doors. A few cars sat in the parking lot while ours moved up to the nearby cafe as I shot photos. The only other noises were from birds in the trees, a few voices I could hear in the distance, and cars zooming by on California State Route 127.
The building’s windows were dark aside from an electric “open” sign blinking in the window. Laura and her Dad went ahead to scope out the restaurant/coffee/bathroom situation. As I got near, a pair of Australian tourists came out, quipping to each other about their plans for the day. The surrounding landscape and their accents immediately brought to mind the scene in the original Mad Max film when the family stops for gas and provisions in an ever worsening post-apocalyptic landscape.
Laura came out of the cafe with coffee, reporting back that it was actually quite nice, surprisingly indicative of the coffee shops you’d find in urban settings. Featuring eclectic food options and varieties of espresso, it wasn’t the forlorn roadside diner that it looked like form the outside. Nearby, an abandoned building stood with a pool of water in front of it and a truck kicked up dust, pulling up to the closed service garage across the street. The driver got out to check his tires and continued on.
So did we.
The city limits sign for Death Valley Junction apparently lists the population as only 4 people. A small wooden plaque near the town indicated that we had been in the Death Valley Historic Junction, a designation laid out by the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1980. The town traces its routes back to 1914, when it was known as Amargosa. Born out of the junction of two railroad lines hauling out of nearby mines, the long white building we had seen was constructed by the Pacific Coast Borax Company. Built in the Spanish Colonial Revival aesthetic, the building housed corporate offices, a hotel, and a theatre catering to mine workers. A few homes and an auto repair garage/gas station were also constructed nearby, but the town began to dry up in the mid 20th Century as local industry declined.
Marta Becket had been a classically trained and renown ballerina. She hailed from New York City and performed on Broadway and at Radio Music Hall. In 1967, she was touring across the country performing a one woman show she had produced. Some sources say it was a flat tire, others simply state an “auto repair,” but whatever it was that went wrong with Marta’s vehicle, the incident brought her to Death Valley Junction seeking mechanical remedy. While there, she discovered Corkill Hall, the abandoned theatre once used to show films and provide entertainment to workers and the once thriving borax mining community.
She and her husband decided to stay.
Marta was able to rent the theatre and set about on renovations and restorations. She renamed it “The Amargosa Opera House” and began performing shows, often to no one seated in the hall or the few locals who would occasionally stop by. As time went on, she began painting murals in both the theatre and rooms of the adjoining hotel, her artistic talent not solely limited to dance. Becket’s shows and maintaining of the theatre began to draw audiences from all over after she was profiled in Time, LIFE, People, and National Geographic. Soon, the Amargosa Opera House and Marta’s work became an oasis of culture in the Mojave Desert. Even as she aged and her ballet performances became sit-down shows, Marta had a following and audience who’d come from all over the world. After fifty years performing in Death Valley, she passed away from natural causes at the age of 92 in 2017. A memorial adorned with flowers and mementoes from fans and friends acknowledges her life at the center of the complex.
Even after passing, Marta Becket’s memory keeps Death Valley Junction from becoming a true ghost town. The opera house can still be visited, rooms at the hotel are still available, and the cafe is a roadside respite from a rather bleak highway. A flyer in the window indicated that shows honoring her life would soon be performed at the opera house.
There’s another hint of life at Death Valley Junction in another seemingly abandoned structure. I shot a quick photo of the place, assuming it was empty and not noticing the logo on the front reading “lik.” Looking on Google Maps, the building doesn’t appear in a 2008 street view, but is listed as being a Peter Lik gallery. Lik is a renown fine art photographer with galleries in New York, Houston, Australia, Hawaii, Miami, and several in Las Vegas. The Death Valley gallery noted on Google Maps doesn’t appear on his site, because as it turns out it’s not like his others.
You can’t go inside, the building isn’t staffed, and there’s nothing to purchase. Rather, at night, the windows light up and reveal large prints of his work. The building isn’t so much a gallery as it’s a work of art itself.
The story of Marta Becket and the gallery across the street were both things I didn’t pick up on in the few minutes spent at Death Valley Junction.
Reading about them in the days since, I wish I had.