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A Desert Flower Still Blooms on Her Stage

Times Staff Writer

Marta Becket, the ballerina, glanced toward stage left, where a red sequined dress and boa drooped from hangers. The clown who wore them was gone.

Thomas J. Willett, Becket’s stage partner for two decades, died last month after suffering a stroke. The burly man with Einstein hair, who clomped on stage in an oversized tutu he called a “four-four,” was 76.

Becket, a spindly woman who once pirouetted in the Radio City Music Hall corps, has decided to keep dancing. She seeks solace in her desert opera house under stage lights that beam from coffee cans.

Becket will glide through this season’s last performance of “Masquerade” tonight at her Amargosa Opera House, a lonesome town center for Becket and Willett, who were the Junction’s only residents. Its closest neighbors, seven miles away in Nevada, are a casino, grocery store and gas station where the pumps sometimes run dry.

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The little adobe opera house sits 80 miles north of Baker, Calif., on a plot of scorched earth where coyotes roam. A handful of crumbling buildings line a windy two-lane road, which thousands of Death Valley and Las Vegas tourists have driven to see the curiosity for themselves.

The performance season runs from October to May; the building lacks air conditioning and the opera goes dark when temperatures reach triple digits.

On Saturdays, Becket and Willett had put on their vaudeville-style show to packed houses who had read about the kitschy pair, or saw the film documentary about Becket, “Amargosa.” Amargosa, derived from the Spanish word for “bitter,” had once been the name of the town.

Since Willett’s death, Becket has asked audiences to pretend the clown is performing when she is silent or the stage is empty. She intends to retool her act this summer and continue performing, ending this chapter of her career as it began: one woman on a desert stage.

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“We think this is almost the end of an era. He was so much a part of her,” said Colleen Anglin, who drove from Monrovia with a bouquet of pink and white tea roses for Becket.

“She said she’ll do this until the day she dies, but for him to pass away and her to keep going ...” Anglin’s voice trailed off, her eyes tearing. Becket, 80, transformed the opera house nearly four decades ago, after a flat tire left her and her husband stranded in the tiny desert hamlet.

In the harsh noon sun, Becket became enraptured with the U-shaped white colonnade hall built for Pacific Coast Borax Co. workers in view of the Charleston Mountains. The opera house, called Corkill Hall, was the town’s social center until the 1940s, when it was abandoned to dust and ghosts.

“I had found my place in the sun,” Becket writes in her show program.

At first, she creaked open the doors three nights a week, and occasionally locals wandered into the one-story structure whose white paint peels like sunburned skin. Sometimes she danced only for the empty wooden benches.

So Becket covered the ceiling and walls with a mural of an appreciative audience: A somber-faced king and queen holding court under cherubs. A maiden tossing a kerchief. Jesters romping as two cats stare past scuffed hardwood floors to a tiny stage.

This speck of culture that rose from dust gradually lured an audience. Many checked in to Becket’s adjacent 14-room hotel, whose showers are lighted with skylights, leftovers from an era before electricity. Locals would chitchat about the one-time big city ballerina, who dreamed up her own characters, lyrics, costumes and choreography.

Tom Willett had heard of the desert dancer and was intrigued. He flew his two-seater plane from Trona, Calif., another dot in the desert, to meet her.

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Willett, born in Mississippi and reared on Artesia Boulevard in north Long Beach, was both hitchhiking rabble-rouser and girl-shy introvert as a kid, said his younger brother, John “Mick” Willett.

As a teen, Willett would thumb rides to San Francisco, just to explore. He joined the Army and returned to Southern California, laboring at maintenance jobs, said his brother, who still lives in Long Beach.

Tom Willett married and divorced twice, and helped raise four children, whom he caravaned to Yosemite to camp and to the desert to romp in old mines. “He was a desert guy,” his brother said. “In a way, he’s a loner. He wants to be able to live his own life his own way.”

Willett the clown befriended Becket the ballerina and her husband, and the couple hired him as a handyman after he was laid off from a chemical plant in Trona. He lived in mining house No. 7, one of the adobe buildings near the colonnade.

Willett loved to plow through the brush on his three-wheeler, barking like a seal. While sweeping the bumpy cement in front of the hotel, he’d twirl his broom like a dance partner.

Meanwhile, Becket’s marriage had soured, and her husband, fed up with the Junction’s isolation, left. Willett filled the void as her stage manager, confidante and good friend.

“It’s almost like he was sent here. He came at the right time, when I had nobody,” Becket said.

Willett, whom Becket warmly called Wilget, debuted on Jan. 14, 1983, in a show called “The Second Mortgage” that dramatized Becket’s struggle to hang onto the opera house and hotel, which she had bought.

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Willett reclined in a chair onstage, perusing a Daily Variety. Before the show, he collected tickets in a black velvet suit and gold-sequined derby hat, a task that made him more nervous than sitting under stage lights.

Several shows later, he had matured from supporting player to leading man. The pair sent out birth announcements with a picture of Willett donning a ruffled bonnet to play Victoria Hoops in “Looking For Mr. Right.”

“He was doing dance stuff and twirling. We had visions of him falling on his face. He had gotten a little, well, stout, but in his tutu it was really funny,” said John Willett’s wife, Regina.

On the morning of April 14, Becket who lives in mining house No. 9, called Willett just like she did every day. She usually would squawk and bray into the phone to wake him so they could feed 14 cats, two burros, seven wild horses, two geese, a rooster and a dozen or so peacocks, including one named Vladimir.

The phone rang and rang.

Willett’s daughter Gaila Hunt, who works at the hotel, rushed with Becket to his bed and called paramedics. He was airlifted to a Las Vegas hospital, where he asked when he could leave to shop at Ace Hardware. The next day, at 11 a.m., doctors said Willett had died from complications after the stroke.

The first inkling of Death Valley Junction is a tiny, fenced-off plot with some graves, wooden crosses and a workman’s glove that rises from dirt. Willett’s resting place, until his headstone arrives, is a lump with stones that spell T-O-M.

As daylight dimmed last weekend, one of Becket’s friends told a crowd in khakis and button-downs that the season’s penultimate show would continue without the ballerina’s “soul mate.” The man unlocked the doors and collected $15 tickets. The audience packed into the theater, each of its 114 seats bolted down by Willett, still listed on the program with Becket.

“She reminds me of a peacock,” whispered Gloria Peterson, who flew from Cleveland after catching “Amargosa” on cable. “She’s colorful. A peacock doesn’t belong here. What’s here? Nothing except this shining building.”

The houselights went black.

Becket kicked and posed with grace, though her hands sometimes trembled. Her dark hair was pinned back, her eyes rimmed with black, her lips reddened, and when Becket stretched onto her tiptoes in point shoes, the audience gasped. She danced for an hour as a country girl, a ladies’ man and Esmeralda, who warbles in a thin voice:

I fell in love at the masquerade

Afterward, she curled on the stage, gripping a cup of black coffee, which Willett used to bring her after shows. She looked to stage left, his side. “I’d see him struggling to get in the [Cupid] wings. I worked so hard on them so he would stand out,” she said.

The ballerina blinked back tears.


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