ZACH HANNER IS WORKING A KIDS BIRTHDAY PARTY in downtown Wilmington. In a bright Hawaiian shirt, on a wide front porch overlooking raised herb beds, miniature soccer goals and skateboards, Zach plays a ukulele version of the Pixies 1989 song “Here Comes Your Man”. Cars roll by with their windows down and their thumbs up. Around Zach, holding their wine glasses, sitting knees-up in twos and threes, cradling babies in organic cotton slings, the parents bob their heads and smile wistfully, sing along.
Zach runs the uke through a little digital effects pedal that loops his strumming. He lays down a beautiful Bossa rhythm, then plays some groovy solo lines over the top, a duet with himself. Next, he beat-boxes Biz Markie style in his deep voice, sets that looping as the drum and bass behind a song whose words—about the bubbly seven year old birthday girl, this beautiful, languid Southern day—he makes up on the spot. Here comes your man.
Kids of every age are at this party. Babies to teenagers. Young parents in neck tattoos and vintage dresses, grandparents, neighbors. Zach knows us all. He already works with many of the kids at TheatreNOW, where he’s the theater director. Later tonight he’ll be the MC for Cucalorus, Wilmington’s independent film festival, which attracts thousands of attendees from all over each year. Tomorrow morning, he hosts his Super Saturday Fun Time, a variety show where he screens short films, puts on an episodic live mystery show about Wilmington called The Dock Street Kids, plays eclectic music. At the last Fun Time we attended, he showed a film reel about surfing on inflatable rafts, demoed and let the audience try playing a theremin, did a Dock Street episode on the possibly-haunted 18th century Burgwin-Wright house on Market Street. This coming week he’ll volunteer at local schools, as usual; put on a mystery dinner theater show, teach at his film and acting program, Superstar Academy; and play one or two gigs with his bands Da Howlies and the Noseriders, who specialize in surf music of different flavors. He may teach a surf lesson or two next weekend, or donate more Zach Hanner solo show gift certificates to the charities he’s closely involved with.
Kids scramble onto Zach’s lap to get themselves onto the live mic, into the looper, to make scary noises or fart noises, to bray Happy Birthday, yell their own names. Zach is unflappable, helping them to chop their contributions into loops, into new pieces of the puzzle, figuring out something else that will go here, or here. Making sure every kid who wants to can contribute.
WHAT IS CAPE FEAR? Is it a beach town, with Wings sunscreen shops and Confederate beach towels? Is it a coastal outskirt of the Triangle? An environmental sanctuary, an SUP and dragon-boating mecca? Is it mainly an antebellum Southern city with ghost walks? Is it a pirate bar crawl, a music scene? A key historic site of the Civil War? Tech hub? A film epicenter—”Hollywood East”, as it was called for many years, when Dennis Hopper, Dino DeLarentis and others fell in love with it and made for years literally the second busiest film production area in the US?
All of these are right in some respect. There are many more right answers besides. And that’s good! The Cape Fear area is so many things to so many people. But what about when you want it to become more of one thing or another, or when it grows very quickly, as this region has, and you want it to stay some way? Grow in what direction? What is our region’s guiding identity? Our vision? For that matter, what is Durham’s, and what does Savannah have that we do not? How do we tell our story here?
I think one good answer about who we are and might be is in the figure of Zach Hanner. People have talked for decades about the “New South,” its food and music, literature, its sophistication, civility. They mean cities like Charleston. The New South trope has really helped cities like Charleston establish themselves—perhaps by quelling the fears of northerners and other outsiders for whom the “Old South” was something to be passed over. Zach is more like…the Old, New Coastal Southeast. A model of how it all might fit together, of how wayward forces might be reconciled. It isn’t just that Zach does so many different, good things in town—theater, music, surf, film, education, charity. It’s that he loves these things first and foremost, and pursues them with heart. In doing so he’s made them real, and for many, many others, he’s made them a part of what our region is.
ZACH’S PROFESSIONAL BLUEGRASS-PLAYING UNCLE, his mother’s career as an art teacher, the film work, his being singled out at twelve as a singer and diving into high school chorus, then opera. All these Zach sees as “arrows in a quiver” of experiences and aptitudes. He sees himself as a self-promoter, which sounds like ego but is really its opposite: Hanner is completely self-deprecating, a booster for the things he loves. And he’s lucky, as he says. He describes the success of Da Howlies as almost accidental, for example, says that his long-time musical collaborator Seth Moody is “the lynchpin” of their musical projects, the real prodigy. In typical modest fashion, Zach paints a picture of the almost accidental way in which this Hawaiian music band, a “sunset” band of older dudes (Hanner was 32 when he co-founded) started playing at what was then the “Center Pier” in Carolina Beach and is now the Ocean Grill and Tiki Bar, run by Dave Sinclair, former lead singer of Rural Swine. Zach admiringly describes the musical framework that Moody created, the expertise that allowed the band to be whimsical while still being entirely groovy and tight, musical. It’s become a thing. On Friday nights in summer, couples and families bring their beach chairs and blankets to sit in the cool sand as Da Howlies play at the end of the lighted, rickety pier overhead.
Another bit of good fortune, Hanner says, was landing a speaking part in the movie Forrest Gump after graduating from Performance Studies and Improv from UNC in 1991. Less Ibsen and more Stanislavsky, Hanner says. Applied theater. This lead to work in the film industry, in television ads. Hanner was also a journalism major and, for a while, a technologist at the firm Citysearch in Raleigh. That was before the economic bust forced him and many others to find different work. Zach became a bartender at Wilmington’s rooftop bar Level 5, next door to City Stage, and was soon performing there, helping organize events and productions, getting the word out and connecting things.
What our region needs more than any new thing is to find its voice, to come into itself. We need Zach’s brand of synthesizing and “self-promotion” and, before that, a dose of his understanding, self-actualization, and energy. Was post-punk ukelele a thing before Zach Hanner decided he wanted to do it? Is a surf-soaked beach band doing Snoop Dogg’s “Gin and Juice” alongside Nat King Cole tunes part of a committee’s “vision” for this area? What would it look like to actually bring the present and the past together, as Zach does, or the beach and the downtown, kid and adult fun, Monkey Junction and Mayfaire? Is there anything more winningly “cultural” or “educational” than the film schools and acting troupes and music lessons and antic variety shows that Zach puts on for love, that he does to add to the place he calls home?
THE BIRTHDAY PARTY IS WINDING DOWN. Kids are inside now. Moustachioed dads are mulching their rinds in the yard and washing their own wine glasses. Zach bundles up his orange amplifier and his gear for the next gig, calls his wife Dagmar to see if she’ll meet him for a late lunch at Flaming Amy’s before the next event.
As someone who works a bit in economic development, I think the quirky projects that people like Zach Hanner and Cucalorus Film Festival “Chief Instigating Officer” Dan Brawley have started as forms of self-expression and outlets for their own creativity have done more than twenty commissions or long-term plans for the Cape Fear. They help you see your home and find your own place within.