The Amargosa Opera House: New Life and Old Ghosts in Death Valley

Photo by Osie Turner

Photo by Osie Turner

The Amargosa Opera House is one of those strange places where you just can’t put your finger on what exactly makes it so odd. The edge of Death Valley is an unusual place to find an opera house, yet it fits in quite well. To call Death Valley Junction a small town would be a stretch, besides the opera house and adjoining hotel there isn’t really much else there.

With a population of less than 20, Death Valley Junction is really more of a ghost town. Most of the buildings are now vacant, and have been for some time. The town grew out of the borax mining industry in the area, first as a stop along the Death Valley Railroad around 1914. In the 1920s, the Pacific Coast Borax Company built most of the town. Borax was processed and shipped from there until the borax industry declined in the 1960s. Originally named Corkhill Hall, the building that is now the Opera House was constructed in 1923 as a hotel, theater, and a dormitory and office building for railroad employees.

A view of the historic district behind the opera house.Photo by Osie Turner
A view of the historic district behind the opera house.
Photo by Osie Turner

The story of how the opera house got to be here is fairly well known. An actress and ballet dancer named Marta Becket got a flat tire in 1967 and had to stop in Death Valley Junction to fix it. She was so taken by the old railroad whistle-stop building that she and her husband decided to stay and buy it. Over the next few years she renovated the old building and hand-painted the murals inside. By chance, journalists from the National Geographic passed through town in 1970 and discovered Becket’s new opera house. They featured her in the magazine and the story of the opera in the desert spread. The Amargosa Opera House has been open and active ever since.

Some of the remains of a borax processing mill site on the edge of town.Photo by Osie Turner
Some of the remains of a borax processing mill site on the edge of town.
Photo by Osie Turner

It should come as no surprise that the opera house and hotel especially are believed to be haunted. The location has been featured on a variety of ghost hunting cable shows, such as Ghost Adventures and The Dead Files, and troves of amateur paranormal investigators have visited the hotel as well. A ghostly cat is known to interrupt Marta’s performances from time to time, impish children play pranks on hotel guests, and the usual fare of voices, orbs, and cold spots can be encountered throughout the building. An unused and non-renovated section of the hotel is said to be the most active. Known as “Spooky Hollow,” the section was once boarding rooms for railway workers, later a makeshift hospital, and briefly as a morgue. The opera house itself was used for funerals from time to time prior to Becket’s transformation, so it possible that some creepiness became attached to the buildings.

"The whips are still being cracked; the pyramids are still being built. Slaves 2 Owners." Photo by Osie Turner
“The whips are still being cracked; the pyramids are still being built. Slaves 2 Owners.”
Photo by Osie Turner

The historic district of the town is located behind the opera house. The area consists of a few rows of houses built during the borax days and is off limits to visitors. The buildings seem to be in a good state of preservation and it is probably for the best that they are protected by a fence from intruders.

It would be unfair to say that some of the abandoned buildings in the area surrounding Death Valley Junction have been spray painted with graffiti. Interesting quotes—both deep and bizarre-and imaginative creatures decorate the interior and exteriors of some of these forgotten relics of the town’s mining past. Whoever the unnamed artist is that created these possibly illegal murals, they are quite talented.

Marta, now 91 years old, hung up her ballet shoes in 2012, but has passed the torch to a new dancer. Jenna McClintock is the new star of Amargosa. As a child, Jenna saw one of Becket’s performances at the opera house when her family drove through town and was inspired to pursue ballet as a result. Performances at the opera house are currently held every Friday and Saturday night at 7:00 p.m., and Sundays at 2:00 p.m. McClintock is booked to perform until May 2016.

Inside one of the abandoned houses along the road leading out of town.Photo by Osie Turner
Inside one of the abandoned houses along the road leading out of town.
Photo by Osie Turner

For more about the Amargosa Opera House, go to RoadTripAmerica.com, or to schedule a stay at the hotel go to their official website. Megan Edwards’ past article “Marta Becket: Still Dancing in the Middle of Nowhere” will also be of interest for more background on Becket and the opera house. It is also just about time for the flowers to bloom in Death Valley, so plan your trip soon!

Caveat Emptor: hot water for showers and washing is more or less a rare commodity at the hotel and we generally don’t recommend staying at the hotel unless you have a ken for adventuresome lodging options.

Comments

3 responses on “The Amargosa Opera House: New Life and Old Ghosts in Death Valley

  1. I didn’t know that there were even that many people living at Death Valley Junction. I just drove by the place last Sunday on the way to see the Superbloom in the park. I’ve not explored the houses in the “off-limits” section before. Pretty cool to see.

  2. So glad to know that there’s a new tutu in action at the Amatgosa. I saw Marta Brcket perform back in the ’80s and then again when she was doing The Sitting Down Show.” Unique and memorable.

  3. I do wonder how many less than 20 there are as well, haha. I’m guessing just hotel staff, although there are a lot of structures none of them look to be inhabited anymore.

    I was happy to see that the opera house is still open after Marta retired. I never got to see her perform, but it is definitely good to find that the building is still hosting shows and isn’t slipping into disrepair again.

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