Though the Chelsea Theater is a Chapel Hill institution, it has never made a big deal about itself. Tucked away in the
strip mall, almost literally in the shadow of the Regal multiplex, the little-art-house-that-could has discreetly held its ground in a volatile cinema market for almost thirty years.
So it’s no surprise that the Chelsea recently slipped a major announcement onto the “News and Notes” page of its ancient website, where no one would ever think to look. Unless a buyer comes through, the theater’s long legacy looks likely to end when the calendar rolls over to 2018.
The post, titled “The Chelsea’s Future,” states that the theater is in the final year of its current five-year lease. “With only a handful of months to go,” it says, “we must make some serious choices about the future of the Chelsea Theater.”
Citing the advancing age of current owner Bruce Stone, a local art-house hero who formerly owned the Varsity on Franklin as well, the post says it “might be difficult” to commit to another lease. But the post also raises the prospect of finding a buyer to carry on the “quality, personalized, intimate movie-going experience that has been the hallmark of the Chelsea Theater.”
Such a move has a recent precedent in the Triangle: Durham’s even older Regulator Bookshop just announced that it was purchased by two employees, Elliot Berger and Wander Lorentz de Haas, who will take over in March when founders Tom Campbell and John Valentine retire.
Reached by the INDY, Stone declined to elaborate at this time. While the Chelsea has surely felt the pinch of new luxury cinemas such as Silverspot, which carry some of the same art-house fare but in a plush, modern setting, something would be irrevocably lost were the Chelsea to close. It’s tiny and a tad dingy, with small screens and rickety chairs in bare-bones theaters, cheap wine and real buttered popcorn at the concession stand, and a great coffee shop next door. In other words, it’s everything an old-school art house should be, unadorned by all the fripperies that pure cinephiles don’t need.
We’re rooting for a buyer (paging Ambassador Cinemas). If the Regulator can do it, why not the Chelsea?