By MARK WAITE
DEATH VALLEY JUNCTION, Calif. — The real life drama playing out in this isolated, desert outpost is certainly nothing Marta Becket, 86, creator of the Amargosa Opera House, would have ever envisioned.
A legal battle is underway between the former operators of the Amargosa Cafe and opera house director of operations Rich Regnell. Ex-performer Sandra Scheller waged accusations over the Internet that Becket, a local cultural icon who has danced at the Opera House since 1968, was being abused. The plot includes a failed algae farm and two boards fighting for control of the opera house and hotel.
While Regnell has been blamed as the real villain, accused of taking control, Regnell said people have twisted the truth.
Becket said it was difficult for her to put together her solo show again after the death of her long time confidante Tom Willett in 2005.
Then infighting by board members began two years ago, she said.
“These people were my friends once. When I went into the hospital for hip surgery I was in for two and a half months. That’s when they did their dirty work, trying to push me off the board. These were once my friends. Can you imagine how that made me feel?” Becket said. “It was horrible. I thought I was going to lose my opera house and everything I worked for.”
Regnell said the people who claim to be on the opera house board were never officially voted on the board. Becket has the corporate records, he said.
Regnell said he used a Bakersfield, Calif. law firm to help reconstitute a board. He said Becket created Amargosa Opera House Inc. in 1973, a non-profit foundation.
Dennis Bostwick, one of five members on the Amargosa Valley Opera House board of directors, said he was appointed by Becket herself about three years ago and approved in a vote by the board. He said board members will file a legal challenge to being replaced. Bostwick emphasized none of the five board members make any money off the operation.
The board took action out of concern after Becket’s hip surgery in October 2009, Bostwick said. Prior to that, Becket pretty much ran the business, he said.
“The board realized Marta’s no longer able to even take a look at the books. There’s no way she could physically do that and Regnell had complete power there. The board realized hey, we’d better do that because we want to insure the assets of the corporation,” Bostwick said.
The board wanted financial information from the last few months and didn’t want Regnell to enter into contracts without their approval, he said.
There’s been differing opinions on what would work at the opera house.
Photographer Peter Lik, who has a television reality show, was granted permission to build a display with a huge photograph as people make the turn from Death Valley to Las Vegas. Contrary to his critics, Regnell said the proper building permits were obtained, Lik doesn’t want to build it yet because of the wet conditions.
Then there was the algae farm, a three-acre, closed loop, photo bio-reactor planned by BioCentric Energy that was going to produce anything from biofuel to nutrient drinks. The tubing and infrastructure litter the ground across Highway 127 from the opera house and motel.
“The original company that was doing it went under. They did leave us hanging with the possibility of a lien being filed on us. Fortunately, because of my relationship with the contractor he’s not filing a lien on the property and there’s another company that’s picked up where this one left off,” Regnell said.
While Becket has been confined to giving shows from a chair, Sandra Scheller came up with a show “If These Walls Could Talk,” a tribute to Becket. She debuted Oct. 26, 2009.
Scheller said as time went on, Regnell was taking more control of the show, yelling at board members, taking full control of Becket and moving her into a room at the Amargosa Hotel.
“I noticed that people were getting pushed away. Marta was getting very alienated for someone who had a lot of friends,” Scheller said.
Regnell and Becket said Scheller started demanding more money. Scheller was paid a percentage of the house receipts, if attendance was enough, along with a stipend for gas and food.
“She wants money and when she gets money, she wants more money. She comes in the front door demanding money before she even goes to the theater to get ready for her show and she has a way of wanting to inject herself into my performances. She wanted to coach me and I said, ‘look I don’t need coaching. I’ve been doing this for 43 years.’ I said, ‘you have your show and I have my show,’ ” Becket said.
Regnell accused Scheller of hijacking the opera house corporate Facebook page for six weeks after her show was cancelled to spread accusations Becket was being abused. Adult protective services and social services were called.
“We are already checked by them on a regular basis because we have caregivers that are mandated by the state. They look out after Marta as well as we do,” Regnell said.
Becket denied she was being mistreated by Regnell or his girlfriend, Mary Lee Chavez.
“Absolutely not. I want you to know that Rich and Mary Lee Chavez are the best friends I’ve ever had. If it wasn’t for them I would probably be dead or put in a home,” Becket said.
Becket said she moved into the hotel because it was difficult to maneuver around her house with her bad knee. But she expects to move back into the house in a couple weeks when the weather gets warmer.
“It got to a point where I didn’t want contact with my friends,” Becket said. “When you’re hurt that much psychologically you don’t want anything to do with people.”
From time to time, someone opened a cafe at the hotel. Larry and Theresa Cantwell opened up the Amargosa Cafe in May 2009. Larry Cantwell said he could never get Regnell to sign a lease.
“I said sign it or I’ll pull my equipment out and move to the Longstreet Casino . Face to face he knew I was serious and he finally signed it,” Larry Cantwell said.
Regnell charged Larry Cantwell forged the lease. He also charged Theresa Cantwell, who was an employee at the opera house and hotel, embezzled funds from the cafe from Dec. 13 to Dec. 30.
“She created a bank account for a business in Nevada. That’s where all the funds and credit card slips went from the 13th through the 30th. Well, last time I checked and you were an employee and you did that, it’s felony theft,” Regnell said. “All the finances for that cafe, everything that’s been done since 2009, have been run through Amargosa Opera House Inc.”
Larry Cantwell said his wife Theresa told Chavez they were setting up their own merchant account. They couldn’t get a good phone line into the cafe so credit cards were imprinted in the cafe and inserted manually in a data machine.
The Cantwells filed a complaint requesting a restraining order and injunction against Regnell for taking possession of the cafe Dec. 30. But it was Regnell who walked out of Inyo County Superior Court in Independence, Calif. Monday with a three-year restraining order against the Cantwells. Regnell said the Cantwells couldn’t show evidence of anything, the opera house board has to approve leases.
Regnell said the Inyo County district attorney’s office has been presented the files four days ago. He plans to press charges against the Cantwells.
Larry Cantwell said his attorney plans to press civil charges against Regnell once he evaluates the replacement cost of his equipment. He claims Regnell owes him $62,000.
Being true to the show biz slogan “the show must go on,” a frail Becket, confined to a motorized wheelchair, continues to put on a 2 p.m. sit down show on Sundays with a series of props where she acts out characters from her shows. She’s planning a new show, “Life is a Three Ring Circus.”
French-trained ballerina Christine Fossemalle, director of the Santa Ynez, Calif. Performing Arts Company, is training dancers to perform, Becket said.
When she can’t perform at all, Becket outlined what she’d like to see at her venue, a former social center for the Pacific Coast Borax Company, which built the Spanish-style, adobe complex in the early 20th century.
“I’d like the opera house to be used by other artists who are inspired by the classical world of art: musicians, singers, pantomime artists. I don’t want anything represented here after 1950. I want to preserve the past in art,” she said.
But Becket added, “People tried to get the property from me. I won’t say who they are. I finally took them by the collar and I said, ‘look I intend to stick around for quite a long time to protect what I have created here.’ I said, ‘did you hear that?’ The vultures are all waiting outside for me to die.”