The rambling, funky ride called Banjo Billy’s Bus Tours, in Boulder, Colo., is equal parts history, crime stories and comedy. It’s all woven together by John Georgis — better known as Banjo Billy — in a playful, “choose your own adventure” style.
“You can either choose a PG tour, or a PG-13 tour, or an R-rated tour,” he tells one group of riders. The crowd chooses the R-rated version, but they have to work for it.
“If you want the R-rated tour, you gotta say it like a pirate,” Banjo says, drawing a bunch of “arrrrghs” from tour-goers. “R it is!”
Overall, the experience is less Pirates of the Caribbean than Beverly Hillbillies. As we ride through Boulder’s affluent downtown streets, Banjo Billy’s remodeled school bus attracts plenty of stares. And what’s better than cruising in a log cabin on wheels that occasionally makes barnyard sounds at pedestrians?
“All right, crime or history?” asks the tour guide. The group wants crime, so he points to a bank on the left — Boulder’s oldest continuous bank. “It opened up in 1899. It’s also the very first bank in Boulder to be robbed.”
Banjo Billy explains that a 71-year-old man took a bus from Denver and used a water bottle as a weapon, claiming it was nitroglycerin.
“I like this story for two reasons,” he says. “No. 1, it took almost 100 years for the first bank in Boulder to be robbed. When it is robbed, it’s robbed in Boulder style. Robs it with a bottle of water.
“If he would have had a prairie dog in his pocket, it would have been the Boulder trifecta.”
One common question on the tour has to do with Georgis himself. How did he get the name Banjo Billy? In 2005, he quit his job as a data analyst and bought a school bus on eBay. Then he remodeled 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,” he says, adding that his friends said he looked like a hillbilly. “And they started calling me Banjo. But Banjo John doesn’t sound very good. So we went with the alliteration. Banjo Billy’s Bus Tours.”
So far, there’s only one place Banjo Billy won’t visit in Boulder.
“Talking about unsolved cases, we never have done and never will do the JonBenet Ramsey case. It is not on the tour,” he says, explaining to tour-goers that it’s “just too darn sad.”
Banjo Billy approaches a parking lot next to a green meadow framed by mountains and three towering rock formations called Flatirons. This is Chautauqua Park, where everyone brings out their cameras. But they’re not here for the views — they’re here for a story about a dumpster.
“So every fall there’s a race from that trash can to the base of that third flatiron,” Banjo Billy. “The record was broken in 2008 by a guy named Dave Mackey.”
How fast, you wonder?
“Dave did that round trip, from trash can to trash can, in 33 minutes, 17 seconds,” Banjo says.
That’s news to Carolyn Molitor who lives outside of Boulder. She signed up for the tour because she had family visiting from out of town, and says she learned a few things.
“A little bit of history, a little bit of mystery, a little bit of bad jokes,” she says.
Molitor says she hopes to return with her friends for another tour because Banjo Billy excels at juggling mundane settler history with funny anecdotes.
“OK, that’s the worst joke I know, and that’s how I’m going to end the tour. Thanks for coming onto Banjo Billy’s. Cheers,” he says.
Most of the passengers don’t mind some groaners along the way.