Eagle Mountain #2


By: Joseph Young


Southern California was in the throes of a severe drought. The last trace of rain was observed in early December. Put something happened the first week of February: a deluge began. And Death Valley, known for its dry, parched, scorched land, was not exempt. Despite the rain seventeen climbers showed up in Death Valley Junction, all with expectations of bagging Eagle #2.

After a pleasant, relaxed breakfast we caravaned south to a point on the paved road where we could safely park. We crossed the swollen Amargosa river and began the climb up Eagle, but we were two chutes north of the proper one. We climbed as far as the going would permit, then scouted and headed for the correct chute, and entered it where it was quite wide. From this point the climb to the summit was uneventful. (We were climbing in sporadic driving rain.) After a cold and unpleasant rest up top, we descended the rocky ridge where about six persons requested a rope for belay. The clouds enfolded us and visibility was limited to at times 100-200 feet. The leader groped for the route down, and, after locating some reassuring ducks, the group descended without event.

Because of the washed out condition of all dirt roads in the area, the climb of Smith was cancelled the following day.

The highlight of the weekend was a performance of mime-dance at the Amargosa Opera House. Most of our group attended. Two reporters (one from Channel 11 in LA, the other from Newsweek Magazine) filmed the Performance. I have attached the Newsweek article which resulted; hopefully the Sage editor will reprint it here. Note the reference to "Sierra Club Climbers." Death Valley Ballerina In a desolate square of Death Valley junction, Calif.. near a couple of rusty water towers and a mound of ancient mine debris, squats a peeling whitewashed adobe structure with a sign that seems at first like a mirage: AMARGOSA OPERA HOUSE. Below it a notice declares a seating capacity of 105, and another says NEXT PERFORMANCE 8:15. Across a blurry photograph of a long-limbed ballerina in a white tutu is a banner reading, SOLD OUT TONIGHT. The ballerina, who performs as often as five times a week from September to May in this near ghost town situated 108 miles west of Las Vegas and 280 miles northeast of Los Angeles, is a 51-year-old dancer named Marta Becket.

Last week, Becket marked her eighth anniversary as the Mojave Desert's answer to the New York City Ballet. To the accompaniment of stereo-recorded music and the warmth of a potbellied stove, she presented her usual schmaltzy but entertaining one-woman show: an eclectic mixture of "ballet pantomimes" ranging from classical solos done on pointe to more modern character dances in which she plays all the roles. And when it was all over she received an ovation worthy of Suzanne Farrell from her SRO weekend audience of Sierra Club climbers, vacationing college students, retired couples on camping trips and tourist groups, each of whom had been asked to "donate" $2 to the cause.

Becket has fought hard for her art. Reared in a poor and broken home in New York City and Pennsylvania, she had only three years of formal dance training. At 16 she began dancing in nightclubs and restaurants. She did two stints with the Radio City Music Hall corps de ballet, moved on to Broadway chorus lines, then organized a ballet evening at Carnegie Hall, only to be fleeced by the promoter. Undaunted, she put together her own act and spent twelve years touring across the U.S.

Clowns: Midway in her career. Becket met and married Tom Williams, who gave up his advertising-agency job and became her manager. In 1967 they visited Death Valley and, intrigued by its vacant theater, decided to settle down. "We realized it was crazy." says Williams, "but we had had it with touring." In the early days, when audiences of one or two might be outnumbered by the coffee cans set to catch rain drips from the roof, Becket decided to liven up the place by painting a larger audience on the theater's walls. What evolved were richly colored murals depicting an audience that includes an El Greco-ish king and queen, assorted clowns, Indian jugglers and monks, and the dance critic of The New York Times, Clive Barnes-in Shakespearean white ruff. "I was getting desperate," recalls Becket. "I told Tom, 'Why not? This way I'll always have an audience'."

Today the murals are as big a drawing card as Becket's dancing, and the roof has been repaired, paid for by cashed-in trading stamps donated by dance patrons. The couple has moved from a trailer into a two-bedroom apartment, shared with several cats, and to keep expenses down Becket designs all her own costumes and choreography, while Williams serves as program commentator, reservation-taker and stagehand.

Becket would like to see more dancers strike out independently. "You get a job in a ballet company or in a musical or in Las Vegas," she says. "But what about doing something yourself? Through a lot of hard knocks I've discovered the world is not tailored to me. I've tailored myself to the world." Though she misses seeing other dancers and is hurt that she is ignored by the critics, Becket intends to stay on. "I know my stage is small," she says, "but I can do anything I want on it. The desert is an empty canvas on which I can fill in my dreams." Few dancers ever find such freedom. KATRINE AMES with MARTIN KASINDORF in Death Valley Junction

Newsweek, February 23, 1976

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