TJ Davis ’04 admits there are times during the process of writing new songs and humorous dialogue for a new theater production that part of his “workday” might include watching old Saturday Night Live sketches or clips on YouTube.
Or maybe a rerun of The Office or Friends or perhaps even a favorite movie. Anything that might make him laugh or put a smile on his face.
“It feels kind of wrong,” Davis concedes with a smile, “because as an adult and a dad, you’re like, I owe it to my family to be working right now, so go work hard. But that’s part of the work. …
“And while it is kind of a struggle to say, ‘I’m working, even though I’m watching this show,’ it is with a plan.”
But let’s be honest, even with a plan, it’s not always easy to be funny and innovative on cue, especially when creating productions from scratch. But Davis has his methods, and thus far, has found success as a driving force behind the growth of the Pickleville Playhouse in Garden City.
The oldest son of Ted and Andrea Davis, TJ grew up admiring and performing on the stage of the small theater located near the southwestern shores of Bear Lake. Andrea’s parents, LaGrande and Betty Larsen, founded Pierre’s Playhouse in Teton Valley, Idaho, and when they relocated to Cache Valley, they saw a similar opportunity to present melodramas in the Bear Lake Valley. Built by the Larsens and their seven kids, the log-cabin theater, located in an area originally known as Pickleville, opened in 1977, four years before TJ was born.
From then on, spending time at Bear Lake meant a lot more hitting their marks than hitting the beach, but young TJ couldn’t have been happier.
“I was always the kid that sat in the front row from Day 1 of rehearsals,” Davis recalls. “They tell stories of me as a little kid saying the lines of the actors before they said them, and then prompting them when they forgot their lines.”
Back then, Pickleville would present well-known melodramas like The Faithful Footman on the weekends, usually below the full 310-seat capacity of the theater. But that just gave young TJ an opportunity to sit in a house seat and watch “the same show, night after night, and kind of observe.”
“I kind of like to attribute whatever talent I have to being able to understand what makes an audience laugh, and I think the ingredients there came from just so many nights of sitting in the audience and watching that interaction between the actors and the audience and piano, and how it all worked together to make something funny.”
Davis says he came to realize that even something that wasn’t the funniest joke, if it was delivered in the right way, with the right setup and the right cadence, could “still get a big laugh every night.”
By the time he was 9 or 10 years old, Davis was up on the stage every night, performing short song-and-dance numbers with his Larsen cousins. Even then, he can’t “ever really remember being nervous about being on stage,” and fortunately that continued when he took on more significant roles as a teenager—on the stage, as well as on the court. The 6-foot-5 student body president was also a standout basketball player at Sky View High School in Smithfield, making him the rare combination athlete/drama aficionado.
“I kind of like to attribute whatever talent I have to being able to understand what makes an audience laugh, and I think the ingredients there came from just so many nights of sitting in the audience and watching that interaction between the actors and the audience and piano, and how it all worked together to make something funny.” – TJ Davis
“At first, it was hard to cross between those two worlds; Zac Efron wasn’t around yet, so it wasn’t cool to be on the basketball team and in a school play,” Davis cracks. “But a friend convinced me to try out for a play at Sky View my junior year, and from then on, it was cool. Like I can do both and have friends from both areas of the school, it’s not like you have to either be a jock or a drama person, you can be both. And I loved it a lot.”
Soon, Davis was mixing in attending summer basketball camps with performing shows at Pickleville. And during his senior year of high school, Davis was a big part of a Bobcats team that was at the top spot in the state for nearly the entire season and also helped Sky View win a state drama championship in pantomime with a skit entitled, Beauty and the Mechanical Beast.
While at Utah State University, a friend urged Davis to join the Sunburst Singers, a six-woman, six-man performance group directed by Derek Furch. Davis also performed in the annual Glenn Miller patriotic program during his freshman year, then left to serve a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Davis had planned to return to the Sunburst Singers after getting home from Guatemala, but the group had unfortunately been disbanded while he was gone, leaving him to focus primarily on his studies as a pre-med student. Before graduation with a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, Davis married Erin Cartwright, a future USU Athletics Hall of Fame volleyball player, something Davis has described as: “Hands down the best move ever made by any person in the history of ever.”
But while he planned on following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a medical doctor, it was about that time that Davis recalled some advice his father had given him: “Make sure that you really love being a doctor, and if you don’t, then maybe you should be a dentist because they work four days a week and they don’t have quite as much malpractice stress.”
About the time that Davis was writing his first original musical, Finding the Fickle Fortune, for Pickleville, he switched gears and was accepted to dental school at Ohio State University. By that time, the first of TJ and Erin’s five sons, Carter, was born, and after eight months of dental school, Davis had another epiphany—he decided to leave his pursuit of a career in the family business behind for, well, the family business.
“I think I wanted to be a dentist for all of the right reasons, like a stable income and time with my family,” Davis says. “But after getting to Ohio State and hearing other students talk about how excited they were to work on crowns and learn all of these different things, I was like, I have zero passion for any of this right.
“It was a hard decision to make, but Erin was awesome. As you might imagine, you think you’re marrying a doctor, and then he drops out of dental school,” Davis adds with a laugh. “But she’s always been really supportive.”
With the exception of a stint working and learning more about the business side of entertainment industry at the Desert Star Theater in Murray, Davis has been firmly entrenched with Pickleville ever since returning from Columbus in 2006. However, much had changed during that period, most notably Ted Davis died in 2010 at the age of 54 after battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis for seven years. Pickleville Playhouse grew from doing about two dozen performances in the summer to around 125 per season and adding a Broadway production.
Another component of the growth of the Pickleville brand was the creation of a Christmas show, and starting in 2007, Davis has written and performed on an almost annual basis in venues in Cache Valley and Salt Lake City. He also created the character of Juanito Bandito, famous locally for his fine mustache, and has written 17 different summer and Christmas shows starring the irreverent but lovable outlaw.
“The first ingredient for me when it comes to writing is having space, meaning time,” says Davis of his prolific writing efforts. “I have to set aside a day or time on the calendar where I am going work and turn off my phone and not be distracted.
“I actually like to go up the USU campus and find a place like in the business building because it takes me away from my family and my home office and gets me in a new setting. It’s got just enough people walking by that it doesn’t feel stagnant—there are still people around—but it’s not enough to demand my attention.”
Davis says he’s now found his happy place, and that’s with the creation of a new production company called Happy Mustache Entertainment. While still under the Pickleville umbrella, Happy Mustache will focus more on producing traveling shows, as well as short comedy videos designed to be consumed online.
“The idea is that years ago we did quite a bit of innovation with the traditional melodramas that were fun, but not necessarily cool. And now it’s time to innovate again,” Davis says. “We want to figure out what the next iteration of what we call the Pickleville brand of entertainment is.”
While Davis co-wrote Pickleville’s 2020 original production, Finding the Fickle Fortune, with his brother, Derek, this upcoming season’s Becoming a Bona Fide Bad Guy is being written just by Derek. TJ says he has always worked well with his younger sibling, though, because they both have different strengths.
“Derek’s brain works a little bit better than mine as far as piecing everything together; he sees the whole picture as a story,” Davis explains. “My talent is like in the moments. I can write bits and make ‘em funny, and I can make the rhythms work right. … So, working with Derek has been awesome. Every single show that we’ve written in the last five or six years, he’s been right there to kind of talk me through it.”
But some of those bits and jokes, though? Erin deserves at least partial credit for those.
“I have learned that comedy and laughter aren’t the opposite of difficulties and trials. So often we think its comedy vs. tragedy or laughter vs. sorrow, but they’re not the opposite. Rather, I think it’s a remedy that can help you through some of the most difficult times that you have. – TJ Davis
“Erin always likes to joke—and it’s completely true—that she makes the jokes, and I make them funny,” Davis admits.
“I’ll always joke with her, ‘How you said it wasn’t funny. If you deliver it in the right way, you’ll get the laughs,’” he adds with a big grin.
Fortunately for the Davis family, after some schedule and social-distancing adjustments, they were able to put on one show last summer, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. And that was important to a lot of people, just because of the tradition that Pickleville Playhouse has become when they go to visit Bear Lake.
It’s certainly that way for TJ Davis, who has worked alongside and shared the stage with not only his mother and siblings, but some of his boys have also “caught the bug,” and have embraced musical theater much like he did as a child. But then there are those extra special moments, such as the first performances the summer after his father died, as well as a difficult show in 2016 the night the family found out that his 5-year-old nephew, Miles, had passed way suddenly in his sleep.
“I think I was the only family member in that show, and I can remember thinking, Oh, this is probably wrong to go out and try and have fun and create laughter and let myself have fun while all of this tragedy is going on,” Davis recalls. “But from that and my Dad passing away, I have learned that comedy and laughter aren’t the opposite of difficulties and trials. So often we think its comedy vs. tragedy or laughter vs. sorrow, but they’re not the opposite. Rather, I think it’s a remedy that can help you through some of the most difficult times that you have.”