Banjo Billy's Mystery Machine
In the course of 80 minutes we encounter three suicides, one lynching, one especially brutal murder-rape and one pathological Boy Scout who is creepier than your average troop leader on a camping trip. Toss in a ride to the cemetery and a cruise past the old morgue and it would seem a busy night on the mean streets of the People's Republic. But for Banjo Billy it's just another October Thursday in Boulder.
But Banjo Billy's not a cop, a coroner or even one of those hip forensic investigators that are all the rage on primetime television.
"I'm just a guy who likes to tell stories," he says.
Since June, Banjo Billy has been shuttling locals and visitors alike on Banjo Billy's Bus Tours, a guided, interactive sightseeing trek of Boulder's historic downtown, University Hill and Chautauqua Park areas.
"A lot of my stories are a little morose," says Billy, who is better known as John Georgis away from the bus. "Ninety percent of my tours start out with three suicides. You're not going to get that on a Gray Line tour. Maybe that's our Generation X thing coming out."
The regular Banjo Billy tour includes colorful stories and interesting facts about some of Boulder's most infamous residents and locales, but since autumn, armed with two volumes of Haunted Boulder and the realization that his passengers love a good spook tale, Georgis has complemented his daylight excursion with Banjo Billy's Boulder Ghost Stories, a full-moon descent into Boulder's Twilight Zone.
Boulder Ghost Stories begins at the Hotel Boulderado, where Georgis tells of the reputed ghosts that still linger on the third floor. We cruise past Tom's Tavern, the one-time morgue now one of Boulder's most famous hamburger joints.
"Either way, they've been serving up slabs of dead meat for a long time," quips Georgis.
From there we travel to Boulder Creek, where nocturnal joggers and bicyclists have reported seeing a transparent man in a black duster; the park where a mysterious woman in white is said to prowl rows of ancient cottages; and, of course, Macky Auditorium, where a gruesome sexual assault occurred in the organ room of the west tower. We also swing by upscale downtown venues like the Boulder Theater and the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art—places known more for their hip events than for their haunts.
But for all the local color explored on the tour, nothing can match the uniqueness of the Banjo Billy bus. As funky and outrageous as Boulder itself, this hillbillied-out school bus (which Georgis purchased off of eBay) is easily recognizable around town with its funky wood siding, pitched roof and the unmistakable twang of banjo music blasting from its speakers. What appears to be a shack on wheels from the outside is more like a rave on the inside. Tapestries adorn the high, peaked ceiling, showcasing a spinning disco ball. The interior lining is denim; the floor of the 11-year-old school bus is covered with Astroturf. The original seats have been fancily reupholstered and seem more like comfortable love seats than the hard-backed, cheap vinyl benches I sat on when riding to school. Where the original seats have been removed, they have been replaced with thrift-store easy chairs, saddles mounted on sawhorses and a full-sized couch in the back, which Georgis acquired for the tour about a year before he became Banjo Billy.
"My then-girlfriend said, 'What the hell are you doing with this couch?'" he says. "I said, 'It's for the bus.' She said, 'What bus?' I said, 'It's coming later.'"
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Banjo Billy bus has nothing to do with the adornment but rather the newfound tradition surrounding the tour. Along the route, locals have taken to hollering out "Banjo Billy" as the bus passes. In response, Georgis instructs us to holler "Yee-haw" with our best hillbilly twang when this occurs. We don't have to wait long to try out our redneck greeting. Approaching a stop sign on the east end of University Hill, a longhaired young man smoking a cigarette on his front porch jumps to his feet. He opens the front door and hollers to his buddies, who race to the porch hollering, "Banjo Billy." We respond appropriately.
Georgis says that this household is particularly enthusiastic about the tour and once dropped their drawers to offer tourists a view of the Harvest Moon. Georgis responded by giving them free tickets.
"You've got to encourage that type of behavior," he laughs.
As the tour concludes, we return to the Hotel Boulderado and park alongside the curb with Catacombs to our right and traffic passing by on our left. It's a warm October night, so we chat outside the bus for a while. The Boulder Cruzer Club rides past us on their tricked-out one-speed cruiser bicycles, sporting outrageous costumes, wacky noisemakers and shouting, "Happy Thursday" to all within earshot. Many riders dress up in drag; at least one dons what appears to be a bear costume. Another has rigged his bike frame to hold a boom box, which blasts classic rock to downtown patio dwellers. At one point the light at 13th and Spruce turns red, forcing a group of about 20 riders to stop beside us. We are frozen for a moment, them staring at the Banjo Billy bus, us staring back at the Cruzers. It is a moment that is pure Boulder, a mirror image of two of the city's most interesting traditions come together on one street. It's a reminder that perhaps the only thing more colorful than Boulder's past is its present.
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