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Thomas J. Willett
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Birth: Feb. 6, 1928
Warren County
Mississippi, USA
Death: Apr. 15, 2005
Las Vegas
Clark County
Nevada, USA


Thomas Willett

Funeral services for Thomas Joseph Willett, 77, who passed away April 15 in Las Vegas, will be held at 11 a.m. Monday in the Neptune Society Chapel. Graveside services will follow in Death Valley Junction, Calif.

He was born Feb. 6, 1928 in Warren County, Miss., and served in the U.S. Army. He moved to Death Valley Junction 23 years ago from Trona, Calif.

While in Death Valley he worked as an actor and comedian at the Amargosa Opera House. He loved trains and his time on and off the stage with his constant companion for the last 22 years, Marta Beckett.

His companion, Marta of Death Valley Junction; daughters Adair M. Most and Gaila J. Hunt of Pahrump; sons Michael T. and Craig J., both of Arizona; grandchildren Becky, Tina, Regina, Christina, Michael, Brandon, Paul and Jaime; and 15 great grandchildren survive him.

In lieu of flowers donations may be made to the Amargosa Opera House.

Neptune Society of Nye County handled the arrangements. (4/15/05)

Thomas "Wiglet" Willet
By ROBIN FLINCHUM

For the past 23 years elegant, graceful dancer Marta Becket and gruff, portly jack-of-all trades Tom Willett worked side by side at Death Valley's famed Amargosa Opera House in the creation and maintenance of a dream.

The creation was Becket's, the maintenance was Willett's, but after a while who did what became less important than the fact that they did it together. On stage Becket, trained in classical ballet, danced on pointe, while Willett, 77, clowned in a tutu.

Becket sewed costumes and designed sets while Willett made sure the electrical connections worked and the lights were operating properly. On the rare occasion that Becket became too ill to perform, Willett went on without her and entertained the audience with his natural talent for slapstick comedy. If he were too ill, Becket could always dance and charm her way through a show or two without him.

But Saturday night neither Becket nor Willett took the Opera House stage. Instead Becket addressed her audience from the auditorium floor and explained in a voice grown small with sorrow that she would not perform that night and that her friend, companion, and partner of 23 years had made his last bow. Tom Willett, better known as Wilget to fans around the world, died last Friday morning at Valley Hospital in Las Vegas after suffering a stroke at home on Thursday.

For Becket, whose legendary dedication to her artistic vision was the subject of an Academy-award nominated documentary, learning to adjust to the sudden loss of a partner who was able to share that vision won't be easy. "I wake up in the morning and at first everything seems the same. The sun rises, the wind blows, the cats meow, but Wilget's gone," Becket said on Monday. "It happened so sudden, it's like he was snatched away and I don't know where he is."

Becket and Willett maintained separate residences at Death Valley Junction, each inhabiting homes built for workers and administrative staff in the early 1920s when Pacific Coast Borax constructed a company town around their ore mill. Every morning, Becket said, she woke Willett by phoning his place and imitating one of the many animals that share the open desert land around the Opera House, including peacocks, burros, wild horses, geese, chickens and cats. But on Thursday morning he didn't answer, she said, "I just felt a black emptiness on the other end and I was terrified."

Becket rushed over to Willett's house only yards away and tried to rouse him but couldn't. He was subsequently life-flighted to Valley Hospital, where he died the following morning. He did regain consciousness on Thursday, Becket said, and the two were able to exchange their special greeting in which each made a barking seal noise at the other. Then Willett, whose many jobs at Death Valley Junction included retrieving supplies from Pahrump, insisted that he needed to get out of the hospital and go to Ace Hardware.

Practical Willett made a perfect counterpoint to artistic Becket and the two were instant kindred spirits from the day Willett first arrived in Death Valley Junction in 1981. He had always loved the desert, and had even visited the Junction with his children years before Becket's arrival, when the place had outlived the glory days of the Borax Company and had fallen into near ruin.

Willett was a natural adventurer, said his younger brother Mick Willett, 75. Born in Vicksburg, Miss., on Feb. 6, 1928, Thomas J. Willett was a small boy when his father, who had grown up in the coal-smoke blackened mountains of the South, decided to move his family to the clean, healthy shores of California. They settled in Long Beach where Willett grew up. Even back then, Mick Willett remembered, Tom was a breed apart. "He always danced to his own drummer," Mick said.

Mick remembered Tom leading him on one of many adventures while they were small boys. With Tom on a bicycle and Mick on a tricycle, the two peddled more than 10 miles to an amusement park called The Pike. There, they charmed some high school girls into treating them to ice cream and candy and even a few rides. When that largesse ran out, Mick remembered, Tom knew how to sneak into the Fun House through a trap door underneath.

As a teenager Tom often set out on adventures alone, hitchhiking to places like San Francisco just to see what they were like. "He always worked and made sure he had money in his pocket and he'd come home eventually and we'd ask where he'd been," Mick said. "Things were different then."

Tom left high school around his junior year and eventually joined the Army, serving three years in the Signal Corps in Japan. After he returned home he married and had four children, supporting his family by working as a maintenance man in several different California towns. Even then, remembered his son Mike, Tom's personality was larger than life and he had a talent for making people laugh.

Eventually, Tom's first marriage ended in divorce, as did a second marriage several years later and by the late 1970s Willett was working as a company trained engineer at a Kerr-McGhee power plant in Trona, Calif. When the company laid him off in 1981, he was invited by an old friend named Tom Williams to come to Death Valley Junction and work for Williams and his wife, a dancer named Marta Becket.

By 1981 Becket had achieved a certain amount of fame for her decision to take over the abandoned Borax complex in 1967 and transform the old auditorium into a performance hall for her own particular kind of show's rollicking Vaudevillian-style mixture of comic pantomime and classical dance. The murals she painted on the walls depicting the auditorium seats filled with an audience of historical characters became as famous as her determination to draw a real audience into the middle of a nearly empty desert to see her dance.

But as the Opera House legend grew, husband Tom Williams' interest in the project waned and Becket relied more and more on Tom Willett to help with the every day chores that needed doing. Becket and Williams divorced in 1983, but by then Willett had found a home in Death Valley Junction and when Williams left, Willett stayed on.

As Becket and Willett went shopping and ran errands together, she noticed his natural ability to engage perfect strangers in conversation and make them laugh. "I thought, if he could do that on stage, that would be something. But first I had to train him to do the basics, the lights and curtain." Though he had never performed in his life or had anything to do with the theater, Willett was a natural at all of it, Becket said, off stage and on. Eventually, feeling he was ready to help emcee the show, she bought him his first black velvet suit and sent away for what would become his signature sparkle derby hat.



 
 
Burial:
Death Valley Junction Cemetery
Death Valley Junction
Inyo County
California, USA
 
Created by: Mark's Mark
Record added: Jan 22, 2007
Find A Grave Memorial# 17639898
Thomas J. Willett
Added by: Mark's Mark
 
Thomas J. Willett
Added by: Mark's Mark
 
Thomas J. Willett
Added by: Mark's Mark
 
 
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- Mark's Mark
 Added: Jul. 18, 2014

- Sharon
 Added: Aug. 13, 2011
I came upon this cemetery today, and immediatly stopped and took pictures. Of course, Reno Friend beat me to it, and this biography is one of the most touching I have read. I am pleased and honored to be a member of this society. RIP Mr. Willett
- David Ballard
 Added: Apr. 18, 2011
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