Chelsea and Emily Kass

Emily Kass, executive director at the Chelsea Theater, stands in one of the renovated movie theaters.


In cinema, with few exceptions, the sequel is almost never better than the first; the remake is almost never better than the original. Since it reopened weeks ago after the pandemic restrictions on gatherings eased, the Chelsea Theater is proving to be one of the exceptions to the rule.

“Probably about a month into the pandemic,” said Emily Kass, executive director of the Chelsea, “we realized we’re going to be closed for a long time. We knew it was time to do something bold.”

The Chapel Hill theater, which operates as a member-supported 501(c3) nonprofit, tried to keep revenue flowing by transitioning to selling “tickets” to stream movies. The physical location underwent a complete overhaul: the lobby, concession area, bathrooms, theaters — and even the movie screens — are completely new.

Kass said the staff knew the Chelsea had needed updates for some time, and was planning to take on some of those changes prior to the Covid-19 outbreak. But that would have been done on a project-by-project basis and would have required closing sections of the theater over time. 

“There was no way we would have been able to close long enough to renovate the entire theater, and we knew it was badly in need,” Kass said. “What’s the point of making changes to the lobby if still have the same bad seats?”

The end result is a masterpiece arthouse venue, perfectly positioned for the “new normal.” And almost entirely paid for through member donations. New carpeting throughout the lobby; new counters and concession area, hand sanitizer stations throughout; bathrooms with touchless fixtures, new floors, tile, new partitions; new movie screens, and, of course, new leatherette seats. It also replaced the HVAC system to improve air circulation.

The Chelsea Theater might be the safest place to see a movie on the big screen. “I think that’s really the important part going forward is having a staff that’s trained, and how frequently we clean the theater. The staff wears masks and gloves. Especially as a small theater we have to try harder be better,” Kass said. “Do your best, because we can’t afford to have people have any worries about coming here.”

Kass said when the theater reopened at 50 percent capacity, there were folks who couldn’t wait to come back. But even though the capacity levels have since been raised, the Chelsea is still operating below what’s allowed.

“That’s more stringent than other theaters where all restrictions are lifted,” Kass said. “We have a different relationship with our patrons.”

Despite relaxed Covid-related restrictions, some people are still hesitant to venture out into places with crowds, like large movie theaters. This could be an opportunity for smaller, independent theaters, like the Chelsea, to re-emerge with an advantage.

“I think if we are smart about how we proceed we will be we will be OK,” Kass added. “I think our location is important, too, because being in Orange County, which has a very low infection rate, so I think there’s more confidence. The films we show are not replicated in many other places nearby, so we can become a destination because Orange County is safer, and what we’ve done at our theater will allow people to also feel safer.”

Kass said crowds are gradually increasing, and the Chelsea hopes to be able to add to its staff. The theater is open Wednesday through Sunday, but it hopes to soon add Tuesday hours.

The theater also made technology updates, including upgrades to the theater sound systems. Flat-screen TVs have been installed in the lobby to rotate through movie posters, where previously only three posters could be displayed at a time.

Kass said her favorite improvement is a mural that was painted behind the concessions area by a local artist. “We commissioned a mural by an artist named Micah Mullen. We had a selection committee and he was the unanimous choice. What he’s done is paint five images that are kind of film stills of films that we’ve shown. He put them on canvases that can actually be removed, so if at some point down the road, we want to update them we can. I think having that kind of touch was so much about the Chelsea and about the experience — kind of fun and a little bit surrealistic — is one thing that sets us apart.”

The Chelsea Theater is at 1129 Weaver Dairy Road, Suite AB in Chapel Hill.