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Amargosa Opera House celebrates its shared history

It’s been over seventy years since Duffy Chisholm played with his brother and sisters in the dusty desert around their small house in Death Valley Junction and watched the T and T Railroad engines pass by, but he still thinks of this place as home.

He’s not alone in this sentiment, said Bobbi Fabian, manager of Amargosa Opera House, Inc. In her day-to-day duties managing not only the world-famous Opera House but also the Amargosa Hotel and Café, she has been impressed by the enduring love and nostalgia expressed by former residents. To capture that and bring those who love this place—for its past, its present and even its future—together for a weekend “in celebration of our shared history,” she organized the Death Valley Junction Homecoming, happening this weekend.

All proceeds from the two-day event will go toward repairing or rebuilding the Amargosa Opera House roof. Restoration work on the famous murals painted by Marta Becket on the inside adobe walls of the Opera House can not take place until the roof is secured, Fabian said, and time is of the essence.

Along with much-needed fundraising, the goal of the Homecoming weekend, said Fabian, is to capture and record the invaluable memories of former residents and to learn more about the town’s history. The focus is on its entire lifespan, including the nearly half a century it was owned by legendary dancer Marta Becket, and the years before that, all the way back to when the first tent saloon was erected here in 1906.

The event evolved from the idea of a traditional history conference into something, in true Amargosa Opera House style, that includes not only the cherished memories of former residents but also talks by local historians, walking tours, delicious food and even a full-scale ragtime orchestra on Saturday night.

Fabian said her goal was to create a celebration for anyone who loves the Junction, to capture and share that feeling of homecoming that so many have when they return here, or even when they first arrive. And in the process, she hopes to build a successful fundraising tradition.

The Homecoming weekend begins on Saturday, Nov. 9, with a talk and walking tour of his old homesite by Duffy Chisholm, who lived in the Junction from 1936 until 1942. Chisholm is followed by Death Valley historian Henry Golas talking about the preservation efforts at Ryan Camp, which was once connected to the Junction by a railroad spur.

The day continues with talks about Bess Davis, the first schoolteacher in Death Valley Junction in 1915, Ettie Lee, who sold the Junction to Marta Becket, and a presentation by Drew and Judy Wickman, who operated a pottery shop adjacent to the Opera House from 1974 to 1978.

Saturday night the Paragon Ragtime Orchestra out of Pennsylvania, appearing in part through a National Endowment for the Arts grant, recreates a 1920s tradition playing the syncopated dance rhythms popular back when the Opera House was called Corkhill Hall. They’ll round out the evening by playing accompaniment to the Buster Keaton silent film “One Week.”

The event finishes on Sunday with a walking tour of the old railyard.

“There is so much history here,” Fabian said. “I want to document as much of that as possible and one of the very best ways is by hearing these stories. These memories are invaluable.”

Ticket prices for the event vary, said Fabian. An all-weekend pass includes three meals at the Amargosa Café, the Saturday night show and all talks for $160. (Early-bird price of $135 for all-access available until 5 p.m. Friday.)

Visitors can choose to attend only one or two segments or the take advantage of all the offerings on the schedule. Tickets to attend a single talk are $20, for only the ragtime orchestra show $35, or dinner and the show for $50. Advance reservations are recommended. Call the Amargosa Hotel for more information and to make reservations or purchase tickets 760-852-4441 or visit the Amargosa Opera House website: amargosaoperahouse.org

To learn more about the history of Death Valley Junction, go to dvjunction.org

Robin Flinchum is a freelance writer and editor living in Tecopa, California.

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