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Newlyweds renovate historic Rialto Theater as art and event space


Some couples buy a small starter house and save for their dream home. Hope Donnelly and George Carter II are aiming for bigger and bolder.

They bought the 88-year-old Rialto Theater with a plan to renovate and run creative arts businesses in the historic movie palace on the north end of Franklin Street in downtown Tampa. Dance classes start this month and the ambitious newlyweds expect to host competitions, art and photography exhibitions and rent space for weddings, fashion shows and charity events.

Eventually, they want to turn the mezzanine into their living quarters.

"I don't expect to get rich, but I expect to be happy," said Donnelly, 33, who will continue to teach art at Jefferson High School. She and Carter, incorporated as 8-Count Productions, paid $515,000 for the Rialto on Oct. 15.

Vacant for more than a decade, its neighbors between Interstate 275 and Palm Avenue include a Salvation Army facility, billiards manufacturer, custom wood furniture maker and Asian grocer.

"Inspection showed big things needed to be done," Donnelly said, "but no deal breakers. I don't scare easily."

The front doors had been sealed in cement, there was no functioning plumbing, and the roof was a leaky disaster.

Air-conditioning? It was never installed in the 12,000-square-foot building.

None of that diminished the wow factor — the original proscenium arching 25 feet wide.

Architect Francis Kinnard designed the Rialto as well as the Floridan Hotel, Hillsborough High School, St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, El Centro Español de Tampa and the Belleview Biltmore Hotel. It opened in 1926, the same year as the Tampa Theatre nine blocks south, the city's first air-conditioned theater.

"It was a gorgeous building, with a metal canopy that spanned the full facade, very handsome," said architect Stephanie Ferrell. Her efforts on behalf of the Upper North Franklin Street Commercial District, which includes the Rialto, earned recognition on the National Register of Historic Places. The designation can lead to tax credits on restoration performed to certain standards.

Donnelly searched four years for a place to unite her artistic abilities. The Eckerd College graduate spent 10 years dancing and cheering for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Tampa Bay Storm and the Orlando Magic. She worked as the entertainment manager from 2005 to 2009 at the then-St. Pete Times Forum, now the Tampa Bay Times Forum. She earned a master's degree in sports and exercise psychology at the University of Tampa while coaching the Spartan cheerleaders and dance team from 2009 to 2013.

"It was an amazing, amazing find. We were very emotional," said Carter, 31. He joined the Navy and trained in information technology and network security after graduating from Gaither High School. In every port, "from Chicago to Malta," he picked up new dance styles, and later became a certified ballroom dance instructor specializing in popping, tutting and other types of freestyle hip-hop.

In its first decade, the Rialto featured musical and comedy acts, then came the "talkies" after Al Jolson starred in The Jazz Singer in 1927. It was shuttered during the Great Depression, then reopened when the Works Projects Administration hired unemployed actors and writers as part of the Federal Theater Project. It closed again after World War II, reopened for a while as the Cinema in the 1950s until the adjacent Bay Armature auto body shop bought it to store heavy equipment.

In October 2007, a group of investors attempted to turn the Rialto and four surrounding buildings into a private membership nightclub. That deal fell apart and a law firm leased the space for storage.

"Everybody is excited about breathing life into this part of the city," Donnelly said. So far, with a Small Business Administration loan, she said they have spent $150,000 for a new thermal plastic roof, electrical and computer network runs, 10 bathroom stalls and air-conditioning in the offices, conference room and bathrooms.

New entry doors, painted royal blue, open to a wide foyer. On the right, a video producer and a Web designer rent two of three tiny offices. A small kitchenette with sink, microwave and refrigerator was created with caterers in mind. New drywall partitions off a linear art gallery, about 75 feet long and 14 feet wide, which Donnelly will curate with local talent and her own artwork.

"One of our last major hurdles is working with the city on a solution for the outdated fire suppression system," Donnelly said. "We want it to be a safe building but we don't have $100,000 for new valve work."

So far, they've hosted a Tampa Heights neighborhood association event and the Gasparilla International Film Festival shot a commercial there. Rental rates range from $500 to $3,500 for 50 to 300 guests.

The premiere event was their own wedding April 12, which showed off the progress and potential they saw all along.

Phase two will restore architectural details, install more air-conditioning and turn three small nooks into art studios tucked under the roof. Repairs could top $1 million for optimal commercial and residential functionality, Carter said.

One day their penthouse — the former mezzanine — will have a bird's-eye view of the proscenium.

"I definitely see kids running through the studio," Donnelly said.

Amy Scherzer can be reached at or (813) 226-3332.

About the Rialto

For information about the theater and its campaign for historic preservation, visit or Follow @8CountTampa on Twitter.

Newlyweds renovate historic Rialto Theater as art and event space 06/19/14 [Last modified: Thursday, June 19, 2014 10:02am]
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