Photo by Samuel Scheller/KTP Media ProductionsScheller and Becket.
Sixteen years ago, Sandy Scheller’s agent called her to say: “We need a mime to come out and be part of a rock video.”
That call changed Scheller’s life.
The MTV video “Lifted,” by Lighthouse Family, introduced Scheller to the Amargosa Opera House, in Death Valley Junction, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas. There, in white face, the professional mime and dancer appeared as a character that came out of a mural on the wall. Although her appearance in the video lasted only a few seconds, it introduced her to a place that, today, is as meaningful to her as a church. “I call it the Sistine Chapel of the United States,” she says.
Every Saturday, Scheller, 56, drives to that Sistine Chapel to perform. In doing so, she’s paying homage to her colleague and mentor, Marta Becket.
Scheller worked with Becket—who acquired the opera house in 1968—to create If These Walls Could Talk. The new show has replaced Becket’s Saturday night performance, allowing the 86-year-old dancer to rest. But she remains a part of the show, thanks to video recordings of the Amargosa matriarch telling her personal history and the history of the opera house. As the video plays onstage, Scheller dances through the opera house, telling the stories of the characters in the murals and paying tribute to Becket.
Becket’s story is interesting in its own right. With husband in tow, the professional dancer had left New York to tour the country performing. Once they hit the desert, their vehicle got a flat tire. So they stopped in Death Valley Junction, a former company town owned by the Pacific Coast Borax Co., to have it fixed. Becket poked around town and discovered an empty theater. “As I looked into that hole, into this empty building, I had the distinct feeling I was looking into the other half of my life,” she says. She never left.
Becket, who is also an artist, seamstress, writer and more, spent four years painting an elaborate and whimsical audience on the opera house walls. The kings, queens, nuns and jesters that she painted were to be her audience on nights that no one else showed. But to her surprise, a real audience actually came. Week after week, the rows filled with curious people from near and far, looking to get a glimpse of this mysterious woman and her beautifully bizarre show.
Over time, dancing and desert living took a toll. A hip replacement, worn knees and, well, 86 years of life have slowed Becket down considerably. Last year, she questioned whether she would be able to finish up her season of performances. That’s where Scheller comes in.
After that fateful music video, Scheller began making annual trips to the opera house. Each time she went, she’d speak with Becket and get to know her. Before long, she found herself offering to help out—she’d notice a tear in the curtain and make a new curtain. She’d help fix elastic in shoes, sew costumes and she even created a 16-foot projector screen. During the week, Scheller would return to her family and her job, working in Zumanity’s wardrobe department. But she looked forward to the weekends in Amargosa. The more time she spent there, the more she felt a pull to return. The night that Becket questioned her own future, Scheller found her purpose.
It was 127 degrees outside, and Scheller went to the opera house to think. What could be done? “It was at that time that I realized the walls had something to say,” Scheller says. “And if they could talk … the rest is history.”
On Sunday afternoons Becket makes her in-person appearance with The Sitting Down Show, where she shares the narrative of her life and the Amargosa Opera House.
Scheller says that before every show, she gets Becket’s blessing to tell her story. And after every show, Scheller sleeps on the stage, surrounded by the murals Becket created. “To wake up to the murals is quite an experience, and the solitude has given me such strength,” she says. “I sometimes feel as though I am a gatekeeper to the murals.”
On Sundays, Scheller drives back to Las Vegas. She has dinner with her family and awaits the next weekend, when she’ll do it all over again.
“Is this something I want to do for the rest of my life? Absolutely,” she says. “I hope Marta lives to be forever and a day, but I’ll tell you one thing, I’m going to keep her legend alive for forever and a day, as long as I’m alive. I’ll do everything in my power to do that.”