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Death Valley’s Opera House
by John Smith
Jan 09, 2011 | 1372 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
A sagebrush Shake-speare would have penned sonnets or even a play about Death Valley diva Marta Becket.

This amazing woman, born in 1924, first set eyes on the care-worn buildings of Death Valley Junction in 1967 and somehow was inspired by the artistic possibilities. Such was the beginning of the incredible true story of the Amargosa Opera House.

Through the years, Becket was the subject of feature stories in national newspapers and magazines as lofty as the National Geographic and was captured by an endless stream of television news crews. More recently, her autobiography, “To Dance on Sands,” was published, and a documentary by Todd Robinson based on her life was produced to wide acclaim and an Academy Award nomination.

But Shakespeare knew the stuff of life is comedy and romance mixed with tragedy, and so too it is that we find Becket suffering after taking yet another fall at her home. When I interviewed her last year, she was nursing a broken hip and other injuries. This year, it’s an arm and shoulder. She is 86.

Equally troubling are the stories beginning to emerge from Death Valley Junction, located a few miles from the Nevada state line, about the status of the opera house and the quality of care Becket has been receiving.

My attempts to contact Rich Regnell, the administrator of the town and the opera house and a man who has told me how much he admires Becket, were unsuccessful this week. My interviews with Regnell and others last year gave me the distinct impression everyone had Becket’s best interests at heart. For his part, Regnell appeared hard-working and dedicated. It’s important that Regnell step forward to clarify some of the confusion that now stirs around the operation.

At least for the present time, the opera house has lost one of its most energetic spirits, Sandy Scheller. Her show, “If These Walls Could Talk,” paid tribute to Becket’s grand legacy and highlighted the diva whenever she was feeling up to performing. Scheller has called herself Becket’s kindred spirit.

But now?

“ ‘If These Walls Could Talk’ has been canceled,” Scheller said, tearfully. “It’s been canceled because working with Mr. Regnell has become a nightmare. He’s trying to take artistic control of something that I have created.”

Was it canceled over a pay dispute, or something darker?

Scheller said she’s extremely concerned that Becket isn’t receiving the care she needs. Inyo County, Calif. social service officials were recently called to Death Valley Junction to check on Becket’s well-being.

“I couldn’t stand the abuse that I personally saw,” Scheller said. “And it was a crime to perform knowing that people come to see ‘If These Walls Could Talk,’ but they didn’t know what my eyes could see.”

Regnell may count Amargosa Café proprietors Larry and Theresa Cantwell on his list of former allies. The Cantwells called Inyo County Sheriff’s Department officials after they discovered the locks had been changed on the café they’ve operated since May 2009. Their business files were missing — the cabinet lock was broken — along with nearly $1,000 from the cash drawer.

On its most innocent face, the dispute has the makings of a lease disagreement gone very wrong. Whether it proves to be more than that remains to be seen.

“He changed the locks,” Cantwell said. “He said, ‘You are no longer allowed on the property until you see me. You’re no longer allowed in the cafe. The cafe no longer belongs to you.’”

The trouble is, Cantwell added, “We own the business.”

Sadder still, it appears this strange human drama playing out in Death Valley Junction is only in its first act.

John L. Smith writes a weekly column on rural Nevada. He also writes a daily column for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702 383-0295 or at
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