Thursday, July 13, 2017

Another glass of Mexican wine

Snow-packed streets in Victorville lead to the Stewart Hotel in this undated photo. It was here where silent film actor William S. Hart convalesced in the winter of 1920 while members of his crew purloined Mexican wine from a stopped Santa Fe freight train. (Courtesy of Mohahve Historical Society and Victor Valley College)

By Matthew Cabe
Victorville Daily Press


In a late-blooming but wildly fruitful film career, William S. Hart established himself as an actor who portrayed cowboys with authenticity and integrity, both unwavering.

A Broadway actor with Shakespearean chops who first performed on stage in 1888, Hart was 49 when he starred in his first silent Western, “His Hour of Manhood,” in 1914.

Hart’s Westerns were informed by his childhood. Though born in Newburgh, New York — a still-small town on the Hudson River, 125 miles south of where the horses run track in Saratoga Springs — Hart’s formative years were spent in the rural Midwest with ranchers, Civil War vets, outlaws, gold prospectors and saloon proprietors.

And so he saw the Old West differently from what had been depicted on screen in the early dawn of motion pictures.

According to a bio on the Hart Museum website, his films are distinguished by “gritty realism,” and Hart is credited for creating the “good bad guy” role — immoral characters who find the path of “clean, honest living.”

The persona melded with the man; Hart is remembered as a philanthropic gentleman, a proponent of clean living. But a tale from Prohibition-era Victorville hidden within the pages of his memoir, “My Life East and West,” humorously challenges that notion.

In the winter of 1920, the 56-year-old Hart spent a day in an icy Sacramento River filming scenes for “White Oak,” released the following year by Paramount Pictures. The nearly frozen river proved costly.

“I should have gone to bed; instead of that we went to Victorville for our desert scenes,” Hart wrote. “The river scenes were only the start of the story, but they came mighty near finishing it, for at Victorville my sister Mary made me smoke that little glass cigarette and it registered one hundred and three.”

Poor Hart was laid up in the Stewart Hotel on D Street for three days with pneumonia. He received care from Harris Garcelon — the region’s only doctor — who introduced the actor to the Victor Valley years before, according to historian Dr. Edward Leo Lyman.

Meanwhile, Hart’s “company could not work” without their star, so they bummed around the city, loitering in Forrest Park.

This idleness led to an unexpected discovery of what Hart described as “ninety-seven million gallons of the finest Mexican wine” stowed in one of the rail cars of a stopped Santa Fe freight train.

“Where was it going, I don’t know,” Hart wrote. “I only know it never arrived there, and that through the medium of several short pieces of garden hose, enough wine was siphoned out of that oil car to irrigate the Mojave Desert.”

Alcohol was illegal and all, but illegalizing anything rarely gives pause to those in want. Hart’s boys scrambled for buckets, milk pans, garbage pails and washtubs, brimmed their receptacles and went on a two-day bender, transforming city streets into a “public dance-hall.”

“The more timid citizens telephoned to San Bernardino, forty miles away, for help,” Hart wrote. “The sheriff and twenty deputies, all armed to the teeth, arrived on a special train. They did not need guns. They needed many husky men and many stretchers.

“The merrymaking had ended. Every foot of available space outside or inside at Victorville was occupied by a sleeping cowboy. The courthouse was full — the jail was full. Nothing was sacred to those Bacchanalian inebriates.”

Hart wasn’t guiltless, though. He too partook and did so in front of Walter A. Shay, who served as San Bernardino County’s sheriff from 1918 to 1931.

“The sheriff was a real sheriff; no one had been harmed, no damage had been done,” Hart wrote. “He returned with his deputies to San Bernardino.”

I’ve been told of contraband liquor in Victorville. Of sweat-browed men pushing barreled booze through underground tunnels as unwitting citizens walked the streets above.

On Richard Thompson’s Mojave History website, I’ve read about Guy Wadsworth, a notorious Oro Grande bootlegger, who peddled “turtle juice” and “would rather make one dollar illegally than two legally.”

I’ve seen the Mohahve Historical Society’s photograph of deputies confiscating crates of rotgut.

But the revelry of Hart’s crew forced the issue into broad daylight, proving powers that be don’t always believe in whatever asinine law they’re sworn to uphold.

Dr. Lyman called the moment “the most hilarious and unbelievable ... episode of the town’s history.”

I call it one hell of a good time.

Monday, July 3, 2017

African-American homesteaders once farmed the Mojave Desert

This advertisement ran in several Los Angeles newspapers in 1910 encouraging African-American men and their families to go to the eastern Mojave for opportunities in both mining and agriculture. It appeared May 1, 1910.

By Joe Blackstock
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin


“An Appeal to Colored Men” was the bold message of opportunity in an advertisement in a Los Angeles newspaper on May 1, 1910.

It spoke of a mining and agricultural colony planned by, and for, African-Americans in far eastern San Bernardino County by the Eldorado Gold Star Mining Co.

The chance to have their own land and leave behind some of the pains of prejudice convinced the family of young Richard W. Hodnett, along with a few dozen others, to give up the trappings of “civilization” for a hard life in the desert.

More than a century ago, they settled in the Lanfair Valley, a hardscrabble desert wilderness almost to the Nevada line. Homesteaders — both black and white — could become landowners if they were tough enough to endure that area’s hardships and improve their land for three years.

The story of this exodus of African-Americans from places such as Whittier, Los Angeles and Long Beach had mostly faded from memory until unearthed by Dennis G. Casebier, founder of the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association in the hamlet of Goffs, 15 miles south of Lanfair on old Route 66.

His research, including oral histories taken from about 900 former eastern Mojave Desert families, showed that racial problems were relatively infrequent among Lanfair’s homesteaders, who perhaps realized they had to work together to overcome the challenges the desert presented them every day.

Hodnett, who died in Riverside in 2003, was an infant when his family escaped to the Los Nietos area of Whittier from Catcher, Arkansas, a racially charged community where they and other African-Americans were very unwelcome, Casebier said. Shortly thereafter, his father visited Lanfair and sent for his family to join him on 160 acres at an elevation of about 4,000 feet.

“My father would tell me how beautiful the country was, how there was land up there that could be worked up,” recalled Hodnett, during an oral history given to Casebier in 1999. “He liked farming and getting all that land up there for homesteading.”

The idea of opportunity for the Hodnetts and other African-Americans was first described in the Los Angeles Herald of April 24, 1910, by Howard Folke, vice president of Eldorado Gold Star, a wholly African-American company with mining interests in nearby Searchlight, Nevada.

In the article, Folke outlined an ambitious plan to create a “Tuskegee Institute West” to teach African-Americans the skills of mining as well as agriculture in the spirit of “the great work of Booker T. Washington in making practical farmers of thousands of young men of his race.”

The San Bernardino Sun on Jan. 10, 1911, wrote that “a veritable agricultural empire” was being created under the direction of G.W. Harris, a Pasadena minister, and Folke. What is still unclear is the actual purpose of Folke and the mining company in encouraging black families to join the Lanfair Valley colony, which was largely on public land open to homesteading.

Hodnett said he believed it was Folke who urged his father to not only leave Arkansas but later pull up stakes in Whittier and head for the eastern Mojave.

By early 1911, six African-American families had settled in the Lanfair Valley, according to Casebier. The Sun article said one black settler, William Jones of Whittier, had already sowed 80 acres of winter wheat.

Casebier said initially the homesteaders in the Lanfair area were mostly spread into two communities.

The original site of Lanfair, the meeting place and post office for most of its white settlers, was a couple of miles west of the railroad line that ran between Goffs and Searchlight. A post office for the African-American settlers at the Lanfair railroad siding was known as Dunbar, which Casebier guesses was named for African-American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who had died in 1906.

The two settlements later merged at Dunbar, with two post offices briefly operated in the same building. The Dunbar post office, whose postmaster was Folke, closed in May 1914 after 18 months of operation.

It was hardly easy living for the settlers, some of whom probably had little in the way of farming experience. They regularly faced the extremes of winter cold and summer heat, not to mention the isolation of an area reached only by railroad and many miles of dirt roads.

To educate the children of the area, the county formed the Lanfair School District on Jan. 13, 1913, later building a school there.

One white woman who was a student at the Lanfair School told Casebier she really never recalled any discrimination against the black children there. “They were kids to me,” she said. “I didn’t care whether they were pink, red or white.”

It wasn’t all perfect, though, as oral histories indicated that an informal white “social club” created for parties and dances did exclude their African-American neighbors.

In their first full year, the new homesteaders of the Lanfair Valley were welcomed by a winter of abundant rainfall, a godsend that proved to be the exception rather than the rule.

“It rained a lot of up there in Lanfair in that year, and in the spring, as far as you could see, was golden poppies all over the valley,” recalled Hodnett. “It rained so much up there (my father) could grow a good crop of grass and barley, oats and corn.”

That first year, ranchers, most without wells, produced a relative abundance of crops, part of which was shipped by train and sold in Searchlight and at neighboring mines.

The Hodnetts, living a couple of miles east of the Lanfair station, also had cows, horses, mules and chickens. Followers of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, family members were largely vegetarians, growing much of their food in a large garden. Occasionally, they would kill a cow or turkey to supplement their diet.

“We weren’t too pressed for money. There wasn’t much in the way of necessities to buy up there,” said Hodnett, who as an adult would operate a nursery for many years in Riverside. To help out the family, his mother worked several days a week at a hotel south of them in Goffs.

But after that first wet winter, nature returned things to normal in the east Mojave. Rainfall was an all-too-infrequent visitor for the homesteaders.

The Hodnetts set out many rain gutters, barrels and troughs to collect everything from each storm when it did arrive. They quickly learned never to waste a drop of water — even laundry water was collected and later poured on plants in the garden.

When things got especially dry, Hodnett said his family took their wagon out to remote watering sites to fill barrels to supplement their supply.

But despite all the challenges, many succeeded. Casebier has documented 24 African-American families, including the Hodnetts, who made it through the required three-year period and “proved up their land” to gain ownership. It is “remarkable for what it says about their persistence and their success in this difficult land,” he wrote in an article for the National Parks Service.

But it also appears that few truly wanted to make the rugged Lanfair Valley a permanent home and soon starting moving out. As an example, 64 voters participated in the 1916 presidential election in the Lanfair precinct, but by the 1924 election, there were only 27 registered voters. Seven residents cast ballots there in 1932, all for Franklin Roosevelt.

Hodnett said his father later moved the family to a farm near Needles (“The first time I experienced prejudice”) and later to Blythe.

“After he proved up the land, it was his,” Hodnett said. “But most people left there because it didn’t rain well. It was too arid up there.”

Hodnett told Casebier his family held onto the Lanfair land for many years after his father’s death, but eventually a decision was made to stop paying property taxes and give up ownership.

As the homesteaders gradually moved out, the area mostly reverted to desert rangeland for cattle. Today’s Lanfair Valley, now in the Mojave National Preserve, is not much different from the way it looked when African-American families first arrived to make a go at desert farming.

Casebier said one of the most interesting experiences he had while living in Goffs was to meet up with a very elderly Hodnett and his family in December 2000. During their interview a year before, Casebier had offered to take him to Lanfair.

“His family had gone to ‘grandpa’ and asked what he wanted for Christmas,” said Casebier, now a resident of Bullhead City, Arizona. “He said he wanted them to take up my offer” and have him guide them to the desert area of his youth.

A large group arrived in Goffs just after Christmas, and Casebier directed them to the long-abandoned site of Lanfair and Dunbar along the still-unpaved Lanfair Road. About all that remained was pieces of the school foundation — and a lot of memories.

“Seeing him on the steps of the Lanfair School, where he was a student in the late teens, was so culturally uplifting for me,” Casebier said.

Continuing research into the African-American homesteaders in the Mojave is being undertaken in a three-year study by a team under the direction of David R. Nichols, park archaeologist of the Mojave National Preserve.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Signs of the past to help make Kingman historical today

The “Entering El Trovatore” sign has reappeared on Route 66 in Kingman. (Photo: SCOTT DUNTON)

By Hubble Ray Smith
Kingman Daily Miner


KINGMAN – For the first time since the 1940s, the “Entering El Trovatore” sign is casting a bluish glow on Route 66, one of several sign restoration projects funded by Route 66 Association of Kingman to give visitors a sense of the town’s place in history.

It once stood on Chadwick Drive, which carried traffic on the National Old Trails Highway from 1921 to 1926. The new roadway was cut through El Trovatore Hill and the sign was installed around 1936.

It’s now displayed on Andy Devine Avenue, just east of the city’s famous water tanks.

Route 66 Association of Kingman accepted the sign as a donation from the Mohave Museum of History and Arts.

It also acquired the mid-1950s Brandin’ Iron Motel sign, an old Conoco gas station sign and a Desert Drug sign from around 1935, which are next on the installation list.

The signs have been refurbished in partnership with Legacy Signs.

The Route 66 group assists local businesses with sign restoration, art projects, facade renovations and graffiti removal.

“We have done these in conjunction with property owners, the museum, the city,” said Scott Dunton, local businessman and president of Route 66 Association of Kingman. “They pay part, we pay part personally.

“The museum and city pitched in all in an effort to make Kingman beautiful and something we will all be proud of.”

Established in 1994, Route 66 Association of Kingman has more than 130 members who are passionate about leading a revitalization effort in the downtown business district and along the famous highway.

“We need a historic city, all of Kingman, not just downtown, that people want to come to weekly,” Dunton said. “And come to stay and see the wonderful things you can (see) driving to and from Kingman.”

Recent projects include refurbishment of signage and murals at Mohave Museum of History and Arts, restoration of symbols and lettering on the historic Masonic Lodge, and restoration of a circa 1914 street lamp at the 1903 Elks Lodge.

A sign designed by Scott McCoy, listing the cities noted in the song, “Get Your Kicks on Route 66,” was created and donated to the City of Kingman with assistance from Laron Engineering.

Route 66 Association of Kingman hosts a monthly mixer at member businesses in partnership with the Promote Kingman initiative.

It also sets up receptions and special events for tours led by Japanese, German, Dutch, Brazilian, Canadian and Czech Route 66 associations.

Dunton is playing up Kingman’s ties to the historic highway. His father, Roy, began working at Gold Road garage on Route 66 in 1938.

Roy Dunton’s uncle, N.R. Dunton, owned the garage and built Cool Springs in late 1926. The family established Dunton Motors, now a classic vehicle dealership and restoration business, in 1946. Roy is the “D” in Mr. D’z Route 66 Diner.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Snake Oil Salesman of Zzyzx

Lake Tuendae at the Cal State University Desert Studies Center at Zzyzx.

Commentary by Linda Castro
SCVNews.com


The sign for exit 239 on Interstate 15, six miles southwest of Baker, says “Zzyzx Road.” Have you ever gotten off at that exit to explore? Have you wondered what is down that road?

First, you might be wondering how to pronounce this strange word. Zzyzx is pronounced “Zī – zĭx,” with the emphasis on the first syllable. Zzyzx is a made-up word.

The Zzyzx area has had human inhabitants since prehistoric times due to the spring (Soda Springs) and Soda Lake, now a dry lake bed. Projectile points and rock art have been found in the area.

The Mojave Road runs near Zzyzx. The road began as a trail used by Native Americans, Spanish missionaries, explorers and settlers in the 18th and 19th centuries. The land passed into U.S. hands in 1848, and in early 1858 what had become known as the Mohave Trail became the Mojave Road, a wagon road that connected with other significant trails such as the Santa Fe Trail.

In 1859, the Mojave Road came under the purview of the U.S. military. Army posts were established along the route to protect settlers and travelers from the attacks of the resident Paiute, Mojave and Chemehuevi peoples until 1871. This also opened the way for large mining development in the Mojave Desert region of San Bernardino County. The Tonopah and Tidewater Railroad, built in the early 1900s to carry ore from the California deserts to ports in the Los Angeles area, also had a station in the area named Soda Springs.

All of this history is similar to that of many other places in California’s desert. However, in 1944, this area was used for a rather unusual purpose: a health spa.

Curtis Howe Springer opened the Zzyzx Mineral Springs and Healing Center in 1944 at this location, which was federal land, after filing dubious mining claims for about 12,000 acres surrounding the springs. He gave the area the made-up name of Zzyzx, claiming it to be the last word in the English language.
Springer was a self-professed medical doctor and Methodist minister, but he did not hold a license to be either. He was a radio evangelist in Pennsylvania in the 1930s, and he used that platform to convince his faithful followers to move to Zzyzx so they could begin a utopian way of living with an abundance of miracle cures.

Once Springer decided upon the location of his utopian desert healing center, he began to recruit laborers to carry out his dream. He would drive a bus to Skid Row in Los Angeles to find recruits and promise them food and shelter in exchange for work. Some of the workers quit upon learning of the policy prohibiting alcohol, but many stayed for years.Springer promoted his healing center on his syndicated religious radio show and asked listeners for donations for his miracle cures. The miracle elixirs were marketed as the cure for everything from hemorrhoids to cancer. Springer’s most popular potion was one that he claimed cured baldness: Mo-Hair. After users rubbed Mo-Hair onto their scalps, they were instructed to bend over and hold their breath for as long as possible. When the blood rushed to their head from lack of oxygen, Springer would claim that their red faces proved his miracle potion was working.

For the next 30 years, hundreds of visitors came to Springer’s spa in search of a healthier lifestyle. But Springer’s scheming business practices would eventually catch up to him.

Springer attempted to sell land adjacent to Zzyzx, despite the fact he did not own the land. This, along with lawsuits brought against him by disgruntled users of Mo-Hair, eventually brought government attention to him and to Zzyzx. The Bureau of Land Management evicted Springer and his followers and reclaimed the land in 1974.

Since 1976, the BLM has allowed the California State University to operate its Desert Studies Center at the site of the old spa. A consortium of CSU campuses uses the area for their study of the desert. The buildings and pond developed by Springer are still there today.

Zzyzx is open to the public. Exit at Zzyzx Road and travel on the road for about five miles along the western shore of Soda Dry Lake until the road ends at a parking lot. You can stroll around Lake Tuendae and along the shore of Soda Dry Lake. If classes are in session, please be courteous and do not disturb participants.

Zzyzx is now also included in the Mojave National Preserve, established in 1994.

Zzyzx is a short detour off of Interstate 15 and is a quirky part of California’s desert history.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Man caught selling thousands of dollars' worth of stolen Nevada Museum Antiques on Ebay

Beatty Museum, Beatty, Nevada.
by Faith Jessie
KSNV news3lv.com


LAS VEGAS — Beatty, NV, also known as the gateway to Death Valley, sits about a 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

The history of the town is told through the items that sit in its museum.

One piece of that history is glass bottles from the Friends of Rhyolite collection. It dates back to the early 1900's when Rhyolite, NV once thrived from the mining industry.

Diane McGinnis presides over the museum's Board of Directors and was surprised when a thief stole some of the antique bottles from the museum to make a profit.

"One of the other community members noticed that they had some stolen products on Ebay," said McGinnis
The Nye County Sheriff's department says the man behind the online sale of the stolen items from the community was 57-year-old Johnny Salisbury.

"They looked at his postings saw that he has the glass bottles and figured you know, we know where those came from," said McGinnis.

Salisbury was arrested by Sheriffs on Monday for stealing the bottles and other property valued at over $2,500.
Mark Hall-Patton, who spends a fair amount of his time with historic objects, says these pieces are valuable to collectors.

"Bottle collectors especially in the old west, what they are looking for are bottles from ghost towns, bottles from places where people are no longer living in, there are no businesses anymore," said Mark Hall-Patton, Administrator Clark County Museum System. "Rhyolight [sic] died fairly early, but the town site is still there and it's one of those towns that really has an image in Western History.

It's a part of history that everyone will be able to see. The bottles are now back where they belong and will be on display this summer at the Beatty Museum.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Mojave Desert Archives — Virtual Tour —

The Mojave Desert Archives is housed in the Dennis G. Casebier Library, a state-of-the-art archival repository built in the image of the historic Goffs Santa Fe Railway Depot (1902-1956). This 6,000 square-foot building was made possible by a grant from the California Cultural and Historical Endowment and the membership of the Mojave Desert Heritage and Cultural Association (MDHCA).

The entrance to the Library is through the green door, just to the right of the old baggage cart and platform (below) in the two-story part of the building.


Upon entering the Library Reading Room, visiting researchers are greeted by staff and provided with an orientation on Archives rules and procedures. The large library table (below) is is where the researcher will set up, receive requested materials, and conduct their study. (Click on image to see full-size)


This wide view of the Reading Room (below) shows the location of the staff station on the right side of the room. The microfilm reader station is located in between the library table (center) and the staff station. Bookcases containing oral history transcripts and reference books line the walls.


Between the microfilm reader and staff stations is the Archives Citation bookcase. There are more than 130 titles assembled on the shelves in which the Mojave Desert Archives are referenced. The types of publications making up this collection are scholarly theses, historical monographs, government reports, and the in-house publications of the MDHCA. This output is the most visible representation of how the Mojave Desert Archives gives back to our community.


Inside the low and long one-story portion of the Library building, called the Freight House, is where the stacks of the repository are stored. The Freight House is divided into two equally sized rooms. Below is the north room. The file cabinets contain our Subject Files, processed manuscript collections, microfilm, pamphlets, and periodicals, such as a full set of Desert Magazine.


The north room has a scanning station for photographic and microform materials (below). This equipment is typically used to fulfill reference requests for long-distance researchers.


The north Freight House also houses the server rack for the Archives (below). This system runs ArchivesSpace, a web-based archives information management system, used to organize the collections of the Mojave Desert Archives and to develop collection guides for upload to the Online Archive of California. The digital assets of the collections are also preserved and backed up here. [Systems gifted by Smile Brands, Inc., Irvine, California.]


The north Freight House is also home to a small exhibit of framed photographic enlargements from the O. A. Russell Photograph Collection and vintage World War I and II war bond posters.


Interpretive graphic for the O. A. Russell photo exhibit (below).


The south Freight House contains both processed and unprocessed collections. The record storage racks (below) contain accessioned materials that are awaiting arrangement and description. The major collections stored here are those of desert writers Harold and Lucile Weight, San Bernardino County researcher Germaine Moon, and desert land activist Hildamae Voght.


The long tables in the lower right portion of the image below provide an excellent work space for handling oversized materials or for beginning the process of organizing materials from the record storage boxes.


The south Freight House is also home to flat files containing the 7,000 historical maps of the Mojave Desert Archives.


We hope you have enjoyed this virtual tour of the Mojave Desert Archives. In-person tours are typically led by the Archivist at the annual Mojave Road Rendezvous, held at the Goffs Cultural Center in early fall. Thank you!

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Marta Becket, who made Amargosa Opera House famous, dies at 92

Marta Becket on February 8, 1993 in the Amargosa Opera House, Death Valley Junction. (Mary Walter Scodwell)

By HENRY BREAN
LAS VEGAS REVIEW-JOURNAL

A flat tire brought classically trained dancer Marta Becket to Death Valley Junction, California, in 1967.

Nothing could ever make her leave.

For decades, the artist and performer put on one-woman shows inside the Pacific Coast Borax Co.’s old community hall, which she transformed with her paint brush and her passion into the weird and world-famous Amargosa Opera House.

Becket died Monday at her home in the near-ghost town of Death Valley Junction, according to Inyo County deputy coroner Jeff Mullenhour. She was 92.

Susan Sorrells, who owns the nearby town of Shoshone, California, and knew Becket throughout her time in the desert, said she will remember Marta for her talent and generosity, her sense of humor and her deep love of animals — from her small army of pet cats to the herds of wild horses and burros she fed and ferociously protected near her home.

The world will remember Marta for what she created, Sorrells said. “Her art really came first. She was extremely dedicated to her art to the point where she could become something of a hermit.”

Becket was born Aug. 9, 1924, in New York City, where she grew up studying dance, piano and art. As a young woman, she performed on Broadway and at Radio City Music Hall.

Becket was camping with her husband in Death Valley in the spring of 1967 when a flat tire sent them to the junction for a repair.

While there, she discovered an abandoned theater in the then-booming mining town just across the border from Nevada, 95 miles west of Las Vegas.

They rented the old building the next day for $45 a month.

PAINTED ‘AUDIENCE’

The curtains parted every Monday, Friday and Saturday for years after that, though some nights no one showed up to buy a ticket.


So she would never have to perform in front of an empty house, Becket decided to paint herself a permanent audience. Over the course of several years in the early 1970s, she decorated the walls and ceiling with elaborate murals depicting a Renaissance theater.

Her marriage dissolved in 1983, but she soon took on a performing partner named Thomas J. Willett, “Wilget” for short, who served as stage manager, emcee, comic relief and companion for Becket until his death in 2005.

Amy Noel, an artist and business owner in Tecopa, California, said she caught her first Marta Becket performance about 30 years ago, and she returned to the opera house countless times.

First-time audience members didn’t always know what to make of the theater and its star, Noel said. “Then the lights would go off, and it was magic.”

The curiosity of Becket’s creation gradually drew attention from around the globe, as the famed dancer in the desert was profiled by dozens of magazines, newspapers and television programs. “Amargosa,” a 2000 documentary about her life, won an Emmy and was a finalist for an Academy Award. Her memoir, “To Dance on Sands,” was published in 2006.

Film crews and so-called “paranormal investigators” also showed up periodically to hunt ghosts in her theater and adjacent motel, but the spirit Sorrells remembers best is the one Becket painted on canvas and in one of her murals: a ghostly ballerina twirling through the opera house’s colonnade.

“That pretty much let everyone know what her wishes were,” Sorrells said.

‘THE SITTING DOWN SHOW’

Becket was still dancing — and still rising onto her toes to stand “en pointe” — well into her 70s. When a fall left her injured and unable to dance, she began staging what she called “The Sitting Down Show.”

“She’s an inspiration to us all,” Noel said. “She was so dedicated and so sharp. She had such a sharp mind, even when her body started to fail.”

Becket gave her farewell performance on Feb. 12, 2012, at age 87, before relinquishing the stage to a series of visiting dancers and placing the property in the hands of a nonprofit board.

Noel was there for the final show.

“It was packed to the gills,” she said. “Before Marta said a word, she got a standing ovation. She said, ‘That was a first,’ and then she went right into (her performance). It was beautiful.”

No funeral arrangements had been announced on Tuesday, but those who knew Becket expect her to be buried in Death Valley Junction’s tiny cemetery, near the graves of her mother and her beloved “Wilget.”

“She never wanted to leave Death Valley Junction,” Sorrells said.

As long as the Amargosa Opera House still stands, Marta Becket’s presence will be felt there, Noel said. “She promised to haunt it, so I expect she’ll be around.”

According to a biography on the opera house’s website, Becket gave her first performance in the theater on Feb. 10, 1968, before an audience of about a dozen people. She made all her own sets and costumes, and she wrote and choreographed the entire production, just as she would for all her original shows — each a mix of ballet and old-fashioned Broadway theatrics, often autobiographical.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The 'Desert Magazine' that covered deserts around the world

Desert Magazine building postcard by Burton Frasher (Photo: Historical Society of Palm Desert/Special to the Desert Sun)

Sid Burks
Special to The Desert Sun


The first “Desert Magazine” was published from 1937 to 1985 and is not to be confused with those of the same name that came later. It was a regional publication that covered the deserts of the Southwestern United States and Northwest Mexico.

It reported on a myriad of desert-related subjects. It was aimed at the “Desert Rat” but appealed to anyone interested in the desert. It featured stories about desert destinations that usually required a four-wheel drive vehicle, and desert activities like gold prospecting and rock hounding. “Desert Magazine”’s classifieds included ads for metal detectors, desert gear of all types and land.

“Desert Magazine” was published monthly and usually had fewer than fifty pages. In the first year, only two issues were published, November and December. Several years had combined monthly issues, with ten or eleven making it to subscribers. From 1982 to 1985, the magazine wound down with five or fewer issues each year. After the 1985 run, the magazine ceased publication and went into bankruptcy. Several attempts were made to resurrect the venerable publication but none succeeded for long. An index and back issues are available online. The provider states that the magazine is an “orphan” publication and making digital copies available is not a copyright violation. Back issues are available to read or purchase at the Historical Society of Palm Desert. They can also be found on eBay.

May 1963 cover of Desert Magazine
showing glider flying over Palm Springs.
“Desert Magazine” began in El Centro, California, in 1937. Its founding publisher, Randall Henderson, used his knowledge and love of the desert to change the mindset of many about it. When Henderson came back from the war, he began looking around for a new home for the magazine. He needed a site large enough that he could do all of his printing work in-house and provide housing for his employees.

“Desert Magazine” began in El Centro, California, in 1937. Its founding publisher, Randall Henderson, used his knowledge and love of the desert to change the mindset of many about it. When Henderson came back from the war, he began looking around for a new home for the magazine. He needed a site large enough that he could do all of his printing work in-house and provide housing for his employees.

He had some enticing offers from interests in Tucson but settled on a stretch of the California Desert he and business partner, J. Wilson McKenney, had originally selected for the magazine. It was a desert cove protected by the Santa Rosa Mountains. He purchased twenty acres for the magazine and two parcels for himself. His brother — Cliff Henderson, who was still in the service — had asked him to look around for possible locations for a post-war community that he wanted to build. Randall recommended the area where his building was. Cliff came out to take a look and went on to become the founding father of Palm Desert.

Henderson felt strongly about the “Desert Magazine” building. He wanted it built in the Pueblo Revival Style. In the 1947 issue of “Desert Magazine”, he stated that, “Pueblo design is one of the desert’s most important contributions to the cultural life of the Southwest.” He felt that the Pueblo style was the only type of architecture that was purely North American and not subject to European influence. Pueblo architecture features projecting roof beams (vigas), rounded corners and irregular parapets. He built just such a building in 1948 as designed by noted Palm Springs architects Williams, William & Williams.

Desert Magazine building. (Photo: Historical Society of Palm Desert/Special to the Desert Sun)

The building was 17,000 square-feet and housed not only the “Desert Magazine” but several other publishing and artistic enterprises, including the Smoketree School of Desert Art. The building was the site of many art shows and other community activities. The “Desert Magazine” site would be the home to many Palm Desert “firsts.” It was the first commercial building constructed on the first developed block of Palm Desert. It housed the city’s first printing company, bank, art gallery and post office.

The magazine ceased publishing in 1985, but the building survived relatively unchanged for years. It was eventually re-purposed to accommodate restaurants. The restaurants moved on to other sites and the “Desert Magazine” building sat empty. In 2012, the building’s then owner, Sam Rasmussen, a San Diego developer, applied to the city for permits to make architectural changes he felt would make the building more “leasable.” As reported by The Desert Sun, “Rasmussen wants to add a second patio dining area, stone-clad columns and stairs, and handrails to the front and east entrances, as well as add some windows and replace the wooden front doors with glass. The design also removes the dark wood post, or vigas, adorning the front of the building.”

The Palm Springs Preservation Foundation protested the proposed changes. The Foundation argued that the “Desert Magazine” building was “the most historically important commercial building in all of Palm Desert” and would soon qualify as a historically significant building, protecting it from any architectural changes like those proposed by Rasmussen. The Mayor of Palm Desert delayed the vote to consider the Foundation’s recommendations, but the city council sided with the owner. The plans were approved and the changes were made. Today, the historic building once again houses restaurants.