The Chelsea Theater has been a staple of the local community for over 25 years — now, the public is taking action to save it.
The Chelsea’s lease expires in March, and while owner Bruce Stone has not told the staff what will happen to the theater, it is most likely to be sold and closed.
“The owner is well into his 70s and has been doing this as his second career for just shy of 30 years. With the lease running up, he’s ready to enjoy his golden years,” said Will Davies, manager and projectionist at the Chelsea.
Faced with the prospect of losing an art-house theater, multiple Chapel Hill residents, such as Tom Henkel, co-founder of the Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town, have decided to take action to try to save the Chelsea.
“Well, my wife put me up to this," Henkel said. "Once she heard that the movie theater was for sale and could close, she said, ‘Well, we have to do something to not let it close.'"
He reached out to some of his friends and began organizing a movement: “Save the Chelsea.” If the campaign is successful, the theater will turn into a nonprofit. Julie McClintock, a member of CHALT and a regular customer at the Chelsea, decided to join in the effort.
“It was sad to think that an institution and community resource like the Chelsea was not going to be there anymore,” McClintock said. “The Chelsea is revered by a certain group of people who enjoy maybe not the most modern theater, but in general, high-quality films.”
Henkel and McClintock, along with the other members of Save the Chelsea, put out a survey to gauge community interest to see if saving the theater was something the people of Chapel HIll supported. The response was gratifying, McClintock said, with 1,500 responses.
"Of this 1,500, about 160 are interested in making a fairly substantial contribution so that we can raise the money to buy the theater," Henkel said. "So we’re optimistic that we’ll be able to move forward and purchase it."
Purchasing the Chelsea is no small matter as they would have to purchase both the physical location as well as the equipment, which cost the original owner upwards of $130,000.
Yet, the Save the Chelsea movement is determined to buy the theater and wants the community to be a part of the process.
“We’re organizing a community meeting and that meeting is for people who would like to help us save the Chelsea,” McClintock said.
The meeting will take place in the Flyleaf Books from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Jan. 21.
“What we want to do is carry on the tradition of the Chelsea, but expand it,” McClintock said.
Plans include expanding the kind of films shown in the theater to include documentaries and local films, as well as live-streaming opera from London.
Henkel and others have studied other art-house theaters and are confident that they can mimic the business model successfully.
“This type of theater is found in many college towns — the Chelsea has a good reputation. In fact, I talked to one gentleman from Brooklyn, who is moving to Chapel Hill, and one of the reasons is the Chelsea Theater,” he said.
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