Orange County

Chapel Hill group organizing to save the Chelsea Theater

Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill is now run by a nonprofit organization and has seen a surplus for 2018.
Chelsea Theater in Chapel Hill is now run by a nonprofit organization and has seen a surplus for 2018.

The Chelsea Theater could be saved after all.

A Chapel Hill group – made up of around 10 people – has begun organizing to buy the independent theater. The theater announced in Novemeber that it could close its doors permanently in March after its current owner, Bruce Stone, retires.

The group is calling itself “Save the Chelsea” and is being spearheaded by Tom Henkel, a founding member of the political action committee Chapel Hill Alliance for a Livable Town (CHALT).

“We think that the Chelsea Theater has shown for years unique films, foreign films and first-run films,” Henkel said. “We think there is a need in this community for this to continue.”

Henkel estimates that it will take around $100,000 to purchase the three-screen theater and operate it for a year. The theater doesn’t own its property at the Timberlyne shopping center. Its current five-year lease is up for renewal in March.

The group is looking for financial backers, and it released a survey in December to test community interest. The survey results will determine how much effort the group puts into keeping the theater open, Henkel said.

He added that he has talked with Stone about the Chelsea, but no price has been settled upon.

Attempts to reach Stone for comment were not successful.

Stone opened the Chelsea Theater in 1990 in the Timberlyne shopping center. He previously owned the Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill on Franklin Street as well, before selling it in 2009.

Portrait of Chelsea Theater owner Bruce Stone in his theater's projection room, Friday evening, August 23, 2013. HARRY LYNCH

In 2013, he invested heavily in modernizing the theater’s projection equipment, replacing old 35 mm projectors with digital projection systems. At that time, Stone said the expense of the projectors almost put the theater out of business, saying he had put half of his retirement fund into the upgrades.

Stone has also considered selling the Chelsea before.

“There were rumors back when I sold the Varsity that I was going to sell the Chelsea, too,” he said in a 2013 interview. “For a brief while I’d offered them both for sale, but it wasn’t really a serious offer. At least, no one took it seriously. But people heard the rumor, and they’d come in and say, ‘Don’t leave. Don’t go.’”

If the “Save the Chelsea” group is able to take over the Chelsea, it would lead to some changes for the 27-year-old theater.

Henkel said if his group were to buy the theater, it would create a not-for-profit to run the theater – a financial maneuver that has been used to run arthouse theaters in other cities, such as the A/perture in Winston-Salem. The not-for-profit would form a board of directors, create new memberships for the theater and apply for art grants to keep the theater running.

In addition, the theater would focus more on foreign and avant-garde films.

“We are not going to run first-run American movies,” Henkel said.

Henkel says concentrating on those types of films would help continue to differentiate the Chelsea from other Chapel Hill theaters, such as the Silverspot, a relatively new theater at University Place that offers dining in the theater along with indie flicks, and the Varsity Theater on Franklin Street, which recently announced it would begin showing first-run films again.

“We would not want to compete with the Silverspot,” Henkel said. “There will be some competition with the Varsity, but parking is better at Timberlyne. Students go to the Varsity, but we are going to be targeting the older residents of Chapel Hill – probably those 55 and older.”

The group can be reached at

Zachery Eanes: 919-419-6684, @zeanes