A Vicarious Education: The Chelsea Theater Professor

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A Vicarious Education

The Chelsea Theater Professor

By Tom Griffen


Through the box office window he motioned for me to enter, then greeted me with wise eyes. His shock of long, white hair and wiry muttonchops were kept in check by a faded orange hat—the brand Reese’s embroidered in brown and yellow italics across its front panel. He shook my hand, told me to take a seat at the concession booth—his “office” as he called it. Then he stood behind the candy case and leaned his weight on an elbow. I considered popcorn.

The Chelsea Theater sits on the far end of the Timberlyne Shopping Center on Weaver Dairy Road. When Bruce Stone took occupancy more than a quarter century ago, the far end of the mall was empty, surrounded by grass and weeds. He still refers to it as “the outback.”

Originally from Pennsylvania, Bruce spent his childhood years in Florida and Ohio. In graduate school he joined a film club and enjoyed frequenting small movie houses that showed less-mainstream films.

“I discovered little theaters doing strange things. Arty things,” he said. “I would always try to locate these theaters and their weird little movies. Like Anthony Hopkins in The Trial.”

After dabbling for a year in law school, Bruce started his career as a writer and English teacher. In the 70s he took a teaching position on North Haven Island in Maine where he also ran their summer film program.   

During a creative surge in the 80s, he moved to North Carolina, taught at Chapel Hill High, and published his first novel Half Nelson, Full Nelson—a nostalgic trip through mid-century Florida wherein one of the main characters is an alligator wrestler.

“Even when I was in Maine,” Bruce said, “kids always talked about wrestling—Andre the Giant, the Russian Bear. It was a big deal. Performance art.”

One book led to another book, and eventually Bruce took a leave of absence from teaching to focus on a third. It was then he considered opening up a strange little theater of his own. His return to the classroom was short-lived.

“I just didn’t have it in me to teach anymore. I couldn’t muster up the energy or enthusiasm,” he said. “I got tired of hearing myself, so I decided to roll the dice and try to get this thing started.”

This thing was The Chelsea. It opened in 1990. He chose the name because of the reverberations with New York and London. Gave the place an avant-garde feel.

“Plus,” he said, “It’s reasonably short—so I didn’t have to pay a lot for the sign.”

The first films shown were Trop Belle Pour Toi (Too Beautiful for You) and Berkeley in the 60s

“We opened with two screens. Later added a third,” Bruce said. “We’ve been able to survive from the get-go—but it’s not like we’re printing money or anything.”

Originally, all movies were distributed on 35mm film. When the industry went digital, everything changed.

“We did fund-raising to go from this Rube Goldberg-type machinery to digital production,” he said. “Go digital or go home.”

With the community’s support, The Chelsea evolved into modernity. Bruce took all his old film equipment to an iron recycler in Durham where he was given less than $.25 per pound. He walked away with a cool $110.00 in his pocket.

Another drastic shift he has witnessed is in the audience demographic.

“Young people don’t go to art films that much any more,” he said. “It used to be hip and cool and edgy for them to come, but that seems to be gone.”

Unless The Chelsea happens to be showing something more conventional, he doesn’t see many college-aged folks come through the doors.

“They download stuff mostly, pay for Netflix,” he said. “They go see Wolverine and other comic book movies, I guess.”

Though Bruce expects to like everything The Chelsea shows, he mostly enjoys sneaky films that fly under the radar. A few of his favorites: 35 Shots of Rum (“kind of amazing”), The Comfort of Strangers (“creepy and terrific”), and anything by Stanley Kubrick.

Film, according to Bruce, allows people to live their lives vicariously. Maybe even achieve a deeper understanding of the world around them. Cinema is a conduit for new and otherwise elusive experiences.

“What we do here is like teaching,” Bruce said. “We’re presenting people with new ways to think.”

Bruce may run a theater, but there’s no doubt he’s still an educator at heart.