Soon the three friends were meeting at Pat's every Saturday night, where they'd kick around ideas for different characters and skits. Over the next five years or so the trio, along with a revolving line-up of contributors, wrote, produced and filmed the show, always using NoDa as a backdrop. "We were in the middle of NoDa just as it was starting to kick into high gear," Phil says. "When we were shooting we could just run out on the sidewalk and grab people."
Indeed, in the late 90s, one of the show's regular characters, "Nick Randberg," essentially a drunken, obnoxious blowhard, would venture into the streets of NoDa armed with a bullhorn and start insulting all the hipsters. "He would down a couple of beers and just go out there and start harassing people," Phil said. "We were always worried about him getting beaten up. He was right on the edge."
It was during this time that the show's participants created some of their most memorable skits, including the "Antiques Road Show Goes to Gastonia," ("It was trailer trash meets high culture," Steve says). There was also a Titanic spoof where, instead of a cruise ship sailing the ocean, they used a canoe in a gravel parking lot. And instead of an orchestra, they had a fiddle player. "It was all about ingenuity," Steve says.
One of Wendell's favorite skits was "Godzilla Versus the Spice Girls," in which a girl from the show dressed up like a Spice Girl and hung out in the Blockbuster Amphitheatre parking lot during a Spice Girls concert.
"All these little girls started asking for her autograph," Wendell says. "We kept on until management kicked us out and escorted us to our car."
But the good times ended in 2002, when Pat's closed down to make way for new development. For a while the guys produced the show from an old cotton mill on 36th Street, but that didn't last. Since then the show's format has morphed into one in which independent producers submit their work, as opposed to the old days' group projects.
"It's all about being a broad forum that's open to a wealth of ideas," says Phil, who still oversees the show. "This is one of the few local resources that allows free-form expression."
Current contributors include artist and musician Carol Marley and her sometimes politically themed films, as well as her more impressionistic visual/soundscapes. Longtime contributor Nick Randberg and his cousin "Reverend Rick Randberg," a holier-than-thou preacher who rails against sexual perversion, drugs and other evils, are still at it. Also, artist/writer Little Shiva who, along with her wife Jenn, regularly contributes everything from Flash animation shorts to public performances by members of the local fetish community.
"It's got to be weird, colorful, or both," Shiva says. "You can get a feel for a city based on its public access content. Here it's mostly church shows, so I throw something different into the mix with glimpses into Charlotte's underground scene. Z-Axis offers filmmakers and animators a great forum in which to experiment and show their work for free. It's up to us to take advantage of it."
Z-Axis airs Saturdays at 11pm on Cable channel 21. If you have a video that reflects Charlotte's local culture — a band, editorial, comedy sketch, art film, whatever, contact Z-Axis at: email@example.com., or check out the website at: www.zaxistv.com. On Friday, April 22, the SK Net Café will host a Z-Axis viewing party. For more info, check out: www.sknetcafe.com.
If you have an idea for the Urban Explorer column, send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org.