Desert dancer Marta Becket remembered by those she inspired

DEATH VALLEY JUNCTION, California — Artists aren’t the only ones who found inspiration in desert dancer Marta Becket.

California Highway Patrolman Robert Daharsh said a chance encounter at Becket’s Amargosa Opera House a decade ago completely changed his outlook on life.

Daharsh was one of about 200 people who gathered Friday in this near ghost town 95 miles west of Las Vegas to remember Becket, who died Jan. 30 at age 92.

The officer said he’d been patrolling the area for a couple of years but didn’t know much about the opera house until he responded to a late-night report of a car crashing into the building.

When he got there, he found the wrecked car empty in the middle of the street and a door smashed in on the side of the opera house.

Daharsh said he went inside the dark theater to investigate and was startled, then awestruck as his flashlight lit the faces of the Renaissance audience Becket had painted on the walls.

“I had no idea that, inside this white building I had driven past so many times, there was something so amazing just 20 feet away from me,” Daharsh said.

He said the experience opened him up to the world. It taught him to notice the people and the places around him more, and to wonder about the amazing things they might have inside of them, he said.

Becket staged her first show at the Amargosa Opera House on Feb. 10, 1968, about a year after she and her then-husband discovered the abandoned theater when they stopped to have a flat tire fixed.

Through the decades that followed, she regularly performed her own original productions, dancing and pantomiming in front of her hand-painted audience using the costumes and sets she made herself.

So many people turned out to celebrate her life on Friday that they couldn’t all fit inside the opera house. They crowded around the open doors to watch as Becket was saluted with speeches, stories and songs. Near the end of the almost two-hour ceremony, a light, windblown drizzle began to fall from the overcast sky.

Afterward, those in attendance filed through a small museum that just opened on the property to showcase some of Becket’s costumes and sketches.

Donna Lamm has been teaching dance classes in Pahrump for the past 40 years. She said she first met Marta in 1978 when the already-well-known dancer showed up at a recital by some of Lamm’s elementary-school-age students in nearby Amargosa Valley.

“I was just star struck,” Lamm recalled as she waited outside the opera house before Friday’s remembrance. “Somebody famous watching me? I couldn’t even talk.”

She had no reason to be nervous. Lamm said Becket was nothing but gracious and kind that day, and the two became fast friends, bound together by their love of the arts.

“I used to bring my dancers out here for performances,” Lamm said. “Whenever I came, I always brought her flowers.”

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