The Chelsea Theater, a Chapel Hill cinema that shows independent and documentary films, reopened its doors for the first time in over a year on April 16.
It originally closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19, and the time was used to completely renovate the theater, which has been part of the Chapel Hill community for over 30 years. Since closing, the Chelsea Theater has added more comfortable seating, new screens, sound dampening and new digital surround-sound speaker systems. It also completely remodeled its lobby and bathrooms.
“The theater has been renovated from top to bottom," Operations Manager Matt Brown said in an email.
A renovation has been in the works for a long time now, Emily Kass, the theater's executive director, said. Since the theater's team had the time when the pandemic hit, all it needed was the money.
Thankfully, the community stepped up. Brown said the community support was reminiscent of when the community came together in 2018 to help save the Chelsea and turn it into a nonprofit after the theater's original owners, the Stone family, decided to sell it.
"They then paid in full via generous donations for the complete renovation of the theater in the middle of a pandemic year that shuttered many theaters across the country," Brown said in the email.
Kass said the new seating is more comfortable, and the overall design was made to be look more artistic. Additionally, the space above the concessions counter in the lobby features a mural designed by an artist from Knightdale.
"It has some film stills of some of our favorite films that we’ve shown over the last couple of years," Kass said. "Everything is a little bit funky.”
In addition to these cosmetic changes, the Chelsea has also implemented safety renovations. Kass said the theater has installed new devices in the HVAC systems that purify the air and kill viruses, bacteria and mold. She said it added touch-free faucets in the restrooms as well.
“Really what changed was because of the pandemic," Kass said. "We added in features that we wouldn’t have done before that."
Kass said the theater has always been less about commercial profit and more about film as an art form.
“One thing that sets our theater apart from commercial movie theaters is that it has a sense of community because we are smaller in scale," she said. "People come to us because they feel comfortable. It’s a neighborhood theater — they know the staff — and we know most of the patrons. We have the best popcorn in town. It’s a very friendly space. We are looking forward to getting back to that environment.”
Zach Vig, a dedicated film-watcher and filmmaker, said the Chelsea Theater offers a selection not found in an average movie theater — making it great place for anyone interested in watching or making films.
But there are limited showtimes. Kass said the Chelsea will only be open from Wednesday through Sunday each week. There will also be fewer film showings due to a serious cleaning protocol.
“Though the look and feel of the Chelsea have changed, our mission remains the same," Brown said in the email. "We strive to provide a dynamic mix of first-run independent and documentary films, with an emphasis on films by international, diverse, and underrepresented filmmakers as well as special series, repertory, and classic cinema.”
His hope for the future of the theater is to facilitate conversations that move the community and lead to change.
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