If you live in Cache Valley, Juanito Bandito, a singing, rapping character — billed as the most infamous semi-fictional Spanish villain in the history of the world, is familiar. However, many locals still find it amazing that this bandit, trademarked by his mustache, stretchy pants, and shifting accent, is played by a basketball-playing, blond-haired, blue-eyed father of five from Smithfield.
T.J. Davis created the Juanito character in 2008 as part of the summer Chuck Wagon’s Wild West Showdown at Pickleville Playhouse, and he has been playing the part ever since.
“I wasn’t even around when it all really started, though,” T.J. said. “Grandma and Grandpa Larsen [LeGrande and Betty Larsen] moved from Teton Valley, Idaho to Cache Valley in 1977, with a vision to have a place where their family could work together.”
Bear Lake didn’t have the traffic it has now, 40 years later, but they built a theatre anyway. They had run a small melodrama theatre, Pierre’s Playhouse, in Victor, Idaho, and used that experience to build a dream. The playhouse was named for the city it was built in, Pickleville, which was later annexed into Garden City, Utah.
“For years it was just a couple of shows a week, during the summer,” T.J. said. “There were 300 seats in theatre, which felt like high hopes to fill. Their vision was big, but not even close to what they created over time.”
Eventually Andrea Davis, T.J.’s mother, and the Larsens’ only daughter, took over operations of the theatre, which has grown to play both melodramas and Broadway-style musicals (up to 10 shows a week) in the summers, and Christmas shows on location in Logan and Salt Lake City in December.
T.J. grew up working and performing at the theatre, but actually planned to become a doctor professionally. “Erin [T.J.’s wife and partner in producing, marketing, and costuming Juanito Bandito] thought she was marrying a doctor,” T.J. laughed. “I tricked her bad.”After shadowing his father, Ted Davis, a respected Cache Valley physician, T.J. decided that wasn’t what he wanted to do, and opted to go to dental school, instead. He and Erin moved to Ohio where T.J. studied at Ohio State University School of Dentistry for eight months, but T.J. said it was clearly not the right thing for him.
“I could not get excited about anything I was doing,” T.J. said. “So, we came home to try to do something else.”
That winter they started the Christmas show. “Pickleville hadn’t collected any emails for their customers, there was no Instagram, and we didn’t have a Facebook page,” T.J. said. “But I knew I could go door to door to businesses and sell an experience. I sold pretty much every ticket individually that year. We made some, not very big, amount of money, but we were excited about it, and used it to jump start some good choices and growth.”
The next summer, Juanito Bandito was born, as part of a melodrama T.J. had written in an effort to put a “cool” spin on the traditional melodrama he’d grown up with.
Eleven years later, T.J. says it is still genuinely fun playing Juanito. “There is nothing like being in front of an audience and feeling like you have control of the situation,” he said. “It is a really neat experience that you can’t get any other way.”
T.J. stars in, directs, and writes (both the script and the original music) for all Juanito shows, which he says can be a long process. “I think my best writing talent is being able to visualize what I’m writing being played out on stage,” he said. “It’s fun.”
What does T.J. say he enjoys most about what he does? “I love when I hear about families integrating Bandito into their family culture,” he said. “They have inside jokes that are Bandito-centered. It makes me so happy — and still amazes me.”
“Our success is a testament to the community valuing family tradition. We want to provide them with an experience they can all enjoy together. The fact that they have supported us over the years has made this out-of-the-box career possible.“
Juanito Bandito Quick Facts:
How long does it take you transform into Juanito?
“All I need is an eyebrow pencil, some mascara, and some Spirit Gum to put on the mustache and wig, and we’re off.”
Is it hard to keep the accent going?
“It comes naturally as soon as I put the mustache on.”
What is your favorite Juanito quote?
“What does that supposed to mean?”
How much of the show is scripted?
“It is all scripted, but we have points where we leave room for improv. That’s the beauty of it, and how we can do it 95 times in a summer. Each audience is like a different person, and has different preferences; we follow their lead.”
Want to see the Christmas show?
Written and directed by T.J. Davis, Juanito Bandito’s Christmas Carol features a cast of zany characters, toe-tapping holiday tunes, and the improv and musical comedy audiences have come to expect and endear from El Bandito.
Juanito Bandito’s Christmas Carol will play December 7, 8, 10, and 11 at Ellen Eccles Theatre in Logan and December 14, 15, 17, 21, and 22 at the Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City.
Tickets are available now at picklevilleplayhouse.com