If less is more, what is NOTHING?
Every place I revisit these days — as little as a year later — has changed to become almost unrecognizable. Every little buttcrack town has heard the sucking sound of globalization with a premium outlet mall, a Starbucks and a KFC/Taco Bell combo store.
I had not been to Death Valley since 1970. Except for a couple of luxury hotels, a motel that in any place with trees would be named “The Shady Rest,” lots of huge crows and a passel of coyotes, it could be Mars.
Nothing has changed.
But, in this age where less is more, nothing can be truly something.
AUDIO: DEARTH VALLEY
(NOTE: Since we did this report, “Wilget” has passed away and Marta Becket has retired.)
In fact, where there is nothing, the imagination wants to create something: shimmering apparitions in dry gullies, glowing green men thumbing rides on desert roads. My wife Pat and I scanned the skies for flashes of light — proof that we are not alone — as we made our way to the Amargosa Opera House, where, in February of 1968, mime, performance artist and dancer Marta Becket took nothing and made something truly marvelous.
Marta Becket and “Wiljet”
Ever since then, Marta Becket has performed three times a week, audience or no audience. After minor careers in New York in the 40s and 50s as a dancer and artist, appearing in such shows as “Showboat” and “Wonderful Town” and as a Radio City Rockette, she discovered the Amargosa hotel at Death Valley Junction while on vacation.
The nearest town is Parump, Nevada…for your reference.
The L-shaped structure had been the headquarters of the Pacific Coast Borax Company. That begs the question: What ever happened to Borax , the stuff Ronald Reagan flogged on TV in the 50s? By the 1970s, the company town deteriorated to one of those cliché desert relics with a single gas station and unhinged windows creaking in the breeze, It was undoubtedly inhabited by extraterrestrials and screaming dysfunctional families.
That was until Marta Becket arrived.
She set up a theaterin the old village hall and christened it the Amargosa Opera House. Her seats were folding chairs. She and her husband fashioned stage lights from coffee cans. You can still see the label “Folgers” on the cans above the stage. She vowed that the show would always go on.and it has.three nights a week, since 1968.
Becket, in her 70s, still has a voice, can still go on-point and bend like a Swan.
Some nights she didn’t have an audience. But the show went on anyhow. She painted her own admirers on the walls: a Renaissance audience: a King and Queen, bullfighters, monks, nuns and whores, her two cats, Rhubarb and Tuxedo. Becket’s paintings will live long after she is gone.
Her partner these days, after her husband took off to pursue “other interests” is Thomas Wilget, who , looking like an aging Deadhead, acts as ticket taker and costar, usually shuffling around the stage in drag as characters like Frau von Hooplebottom and the Rich Widow von Hootstratten. Their current show, called The “Goodtime Cabaret,” which premiered in 1997, covers the gamut of human emotions with scenes depicting Anger and Revenge, Jealosy, Greed, Grief, Death and Flirtation.
It is about an hour long which is plenty. The paintings are worth the long drive.
There aren’t a whole lot of other things going on in Death Valley for those who don’t appreciate subtlety. We stayed at the Furnace Creek Lodge, which in high season charges $238 a night or more for a rather old fashioned room with an inconvenient dated bath. Service is first class, however and it has an excellent but expensive restaurant. Its sublime pleasure is its naturally-heated pool, a giant steaming hot tub next to an outdoor fireplace to warm up, dry off and gaze at galaxies and shooting starts. It is within an hour’s drive from most attractions in Death Valley.like the sand dunes where they filmed Star Trek.
One of the most breathtaking drives on earth is through the Panamint Valley, which looks like another planet, then along the eastern Sierra Nevada Range past Mt. Whitney and Mono Lake.
There are other attractions that honor the eccentric in Death Valley. Scotty’s Castle, for example, is a Moorish mansion that one Walter “Scotty” Scott allegedly convinced a Chicago millionaire to build. Scotty claimed to be a gold miner.but was probably more of a storyteller than anything else. His grave sits at the top of ahill next to another grave that is labeled “Windy.” Whether that has to do with the weather, his stories or his horse’s diet is open to speculation.
Death Valley Scotty did leave some excellent words to live by, however:
“Don’t say anything that will hurt anybody.”
“Don’t give advice, nobody will take it anyway.”
“Don’t complain.” “Don’t explain.”