5:00am

Wed June 26, 2013
Arts & Life

Banjo Billy’s Funky, Rambling Ride Through Boulder

Normally a place tourists associate with hiking and the outdoors, Boulder comes alive thanks to one popular tour guide who digs into the town’s past.

Listen to highlights from the tour.

Banjo Billy’s Bus Tours is a ride that is equal parts history, crime story and comedy. It’s all woven together in a playful “choose your own adventure style” by John Georgis—the titular Banjo Billy.

Part of the comedy comes from rambling along Boulder’s affluent downtown streets in Banjo Billy’s remodeled school bus. Sure to attract stares not only for its log cabin looks, but also for the noise it makes. A specially designed horn whinnies like a horse, quacks like a duck and barks like a dog.

The rest of the comedy comes from the person at the head of tour. If you’re lucky enough on the day you take the tour it will be Banjo Billy himself.

Banjo Billy woos the crowd with tales of forgotten pioneers, obscure legends and historic haunts.
Credit Vince Darcangelo

How did he get the name Banjo Billy? In 2005, John Georgis quit his job as a data analyst and bought a school bus on eBay. He flew to Moline, Ill., drove it back to Colorado and started to remodel it, raising the roof and removing the windows.

“…so when we took those out it started looking like a shack on wheels and my friends started laughing at me,” said Georgis. They said he looked like a hillbilly, and with that they started calling him Banjo.

“Banjo John doesn’t sound very good. So we went with the alliteration: Banjo Billy’s Bus Tours,” said Georgis.

Not a Regular Old Tour

“This is part of the tour: You can either choose a PG tour, a PG-13 tour or an R rated tour,” explained Banjo Billy during a recent trip around Boulder.

Typically audiences vote for an R-rated tour, one that will bring stories of historic brothels and crime. It’s always light hearted though, never mean spirited. For that reason, Georgis will never visit the JonBenet Ramsey house; he says the story is just too sad.

Instead tourists are taken through three key areas in Boulder where the stories range from wacky to naughty to only-in-Boulder.

Surprisingly, Boulder’s first bank robbery didn’t happen until June 23, 1955. The site was Boulder’s National State Bank (currently the Wells Fargo Bank downtown). A 71-year-old man took a bus from Denver and used a water bottle as a weapon, claiming it was nitroglycerin. The man took off with about $2,660 in cash [.pdf].

He didn’t make it very far. Within five minutes police caught the bandit.

Scan of the Boulder Daily Camera from June 23, 1955

It took almost 100 years for the first bank in Boulder to be robbed,” quipped Banjo. “So much for the Wild West.”

The University of Colorado is a Boulder landmark, and it also provides another installment of crime drama. Macky Auditorium on campus is the site to a grisly 1966 murder of CU student Elaura Jaquette. The murder happened in what was then an organ recital room. Banjo says people still hear snippets of organ music inside Macky Auditorium.

The Rocky Mountain Paranormal Research Society attempted to set the record straight with a report investigating paranormal activity [.pdf]. The report includes a hefty dose of skepticism on many of the claims.

Oh, and those ‘only-in-Boulder moments?’ One of those happens at Chautauqua Park.

Lots of people enjoy their day in the park hiking. Banjo explains that there’s a contest for the super-fit every fall called the Tour de Flatirons. The race is only for the most athletic of Boulder’s elite athletes.

And it starts from a dumpster in the visitor parking lot.

Banjo Billy guides the bus through Chautauqua Park, which is also home to the Colorado Chautauqua (one of the few remaining sites from the late-19th, early-20th century education movement), and mischievous tales of rock climbers gone wild.
Credit Grace Hood / KUNC

From there it goes to the base of the Third Flatiron. In 2008, the time record was broken by Dave Mackey: 33 minutes and 17 seconds.

The tour starts and ends at Hotel Boulderado. We’ll leave that one for Banjo Billy to tell. Other stops include Settler’s Park, the Montgomery House (741 Pearl St.), the Boulder Theater, Flatirons Theatre and the Boulder History Museum.

“It’s a rambling, funky ride through town you get to hear stories along the way that you might not know,” said Banjo. “People that have lived here years and years, they come on bus and I hear repeatedly ‘I learned a lot about stuff I didn’t even know about my hometown.’ I love to hear stuff like that.”