TAMPA — As if wedding planning isn't crazy enough, imagine buying and restoring the 88-year-old Rialto Theater just six months before the big day.
Hope Donnelly and George Carter II saw professional dance competitions, photography exhibitions and charity fundraisers among the endless possibilities for the aging building they bought in October on the northern end of Franklin Street in downtown Tampa.
At one time or another since opening in 1926, the Rialto has been a performance hall, movie theater, auto repair shop and equipment garage.
"Everyone's mouth drops open when they see the original proscenium arch and the old brick stage wall," said Hope, 33. An art teacher at Jefferson High School in Tampa, she searched for four years for a place to capitalize her artistic abilities. The Eckerd College grad devoted 10 years to cheerleading and dancing for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Storm, Orlando Magic and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She was the entertainment manager at the Tampa Bay Times Forum from 2005 to 2009.
The search party doubled after she met George, 31, a professional dancer and information technologist who shares her creative ambitions, on Match.com in April 2012. Together they bought the Rialto for $515,000 to launch a dance studio, art gallery and event venue.
"Our plan is to live in the mezzanine someday," George said.
The Gaither High grad joined the U.S. Navy at age 17 and studied IT and network security, when he wasn't picking up new dance styles "in every port, from funk to hip hop and jazz ... from Chicago to Malta," he said. After his discharge, he trained to be a certified ballroom dance instructor in Panama City, coincidently where Hope grew up and learned to dance.
Hope didn't hold high expectations for Internet dating, but George's "very energetic way of writing got my attention," she said. She let him know that she wasn't ignoring him when he responded to her profile.
"I told him I was leaving for the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C." That weekend, he texted all sorts of tourist tips, having lived in nearby Maryland until moving to Tampa in 1995.
Hope flew home so eager for their first date that she asked him out for a drink the night before.
"When I met him, I was in flip-flops, no makeup. I just figured if he liked me like this, the real me, we might have a shot," she said.
Talking for hours and discovering they knew many of the same dancers made the blind date easy. The next day they drove to a "dance battle" in Orlando, where George surprised her with a freestyle "popping and tutting" performance between rounds.
"I had never been exposed to that," Hope said. "I was enthralled."
Her focused creativity and George's outgoing groove jibed on and off the dance floor. Within a month, they were living in her Temple Terrace home. He proposed a year later at a sendoff for friends driving cross-country in a Volkswagen bus.
"We were all arranging ourselves so he could take a photo, and I kept getting pushed out of the picture," Hope said. "All of a sudden George was on one knee and everyone whipped out a cellphone to capture the moment."
Between engagement and vows, the Rialto got a new roof, new drywall, fresh paint and 10 new bathroom stalls.
On April 12, wedding guests might not have guessed that weeks earlier, there was no working plumbing, few lights and no front door.
The wedding party dressed a few blocks away at the Floridan Hotel, another design by the Rialto's architect, F.J. Kennard. Hope made fabric and paper cherry blossoms for her bouquet and veil and the table centerpieces. George's uncle, head chef at Saint Leo University, catered the dinner buffet. The wedding cake was red velvet, the groom's cake an edible Darth Vader.
Then they danced — a waltz, a rumba and funk style — at home on their very own stage.
Amy Scherzer can be reached at [email protected] or call (813) 226-3332