Thursday, April 12, 2012

Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, Death Valley Junction

Death Valley Junction, population 4, sits at a dusty crossroads on the Nevada California border. Here you will find the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel. One look, and you will know why the place is said to be haunted and has been featured on Paranormal TV’s Ghost Adventures.

Amargosa Hotel
Amargosa Opera House
A dusty “back in half an hour” card taped to an iron gate greets the visitor. Breathing in, you are hit by the smell – a dusky mixture of mildew, dust, urine and sauerkraut. And the bouncy carpet springing underfoot as you walk from the lobby to the hallway contributes to an increasing sense of the paranormal as you approach the guest rooms.

At first, the portraits painted on the stucco wall are startling in the dim light. But as you look closer, you see the faces are friendly, familiar, even. They look like distant cousins or people you used to work with.

An unexpected breakfast nook off the long hall would be quite charming it weren’t for the pervasive odor of decay and the claustrophobic feeling that the walls are closing in.

Each of the 23 guest room appears to have its own theme. This purple queen is available for $65.00 a night, with an added charge of $12.07 for a rollaway.

The rooms open onto a veranda overlooking a stretch of sand that was once perhaps a pool or cactus garden.

At the southeast corner of the courtyard is the café and bar known for its burgers, burritos and homemade pie. The crust of the banana cream was flaky and crisp, with large chunks of very ripe banana in the creamy filling.  As we left, Teresa, the chef-hostess-waitress-proprietor from Michigan was peeling apples for her apple-raspberry-blueberry.

The hotel, opera house, café and nearby dilapidated cottages were a company town that was built in the early 1920’s by the Pacific Coast Borax Company. What is now the Opera House was a community center that served as dance hall, church and theater. By the early 1960’s, the property had been abandoned and in 1967, Marta Becket, a dancer who was on tour in California fell in love with the place. For $45.00 a month, she and her husband rented it and began fixing it up. Eventually, Marta bought the town. 

She covered the walls with characters, animals and scenes and  starred in her own, unique artistic visions unfettered by the tastes or control of others. The curtain rose at 8:15 every Friday, Saturday and Monday evening for years. On the back wall, she painted a mural of balconies packed with enthralled theatergoers so she would never perform to an empty house.  Unfortunately, the tour guide was mysteriously attending to someone in a room and was unable to show us the theater but this photo hints at the magnificence of the place. Teresa calls it “the Sistine Chapel” of the west. 

photo, mural detail: unattributed on Atlas Obscura

Marta gave her final performance February 12, 2012 at the age of 87. Today, she lives in the hotel.

Marta’s enterprise seems quixotic, eccentric, even laughable, but her energy, independence, and determination are inspirational. Buying an abandoned desert town in order to fulfill an artistic vision over a 40 year period takes courage, confidence and craziness that are enviable. Any ghosts that inhabit the place emanate from her creative spirit.

Sadly, Marta’s vision and the non-profit foundation that controls the enterprise have fallen into turmoil as legal battles rage among Marta’s protégé, business manager and the former operators of the café.  But that is a post for another blog!

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