Sara Shookman and Angelo DiFranco's Wedding Sara Shookman and Angelo DiFranco's Wedding
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Sara Shookman and Angelo DiFranco can’t remember when or how they first met. 

They had been casual acquaintances during their college days at Ohio University and kept tabs on each other after graduation. But Shookman first realized DiFranco, a project manager for Valley View-based Harley Davidson Dealer Systems, was interested in her during a speech at a mutual friend’s wedding reception in July 2015. He invited the newlyweds to fix him up with someone “blonde, very pretty and an anchor on the 11 o’clock news.”

The stunt turned Shookman every shade of red and had friends and family in attendance assuming DiFranco ruined any chance with her. But Shookman agreed to a dinner at Bourbon Street Barrel Room in Tremont a month later. A few dates turned into a serious relationship. A year later, DiFranco proposed on a yacht he chartered for a romantic Lake Erie sunset cruise.

“He’s the grand-gesture person,” Shookman says. “He likes that stuff. He likes doing it,
I think. And he likes the payoff.”

It’s not surprising, then, that staging their Sept. 2 wedding and reception for 250 guests was a process that produced grand gestures all their own.

After touring a number of downtown venues, the couple settled on one of Shookman’s favorite Cleveland landmarks — the historic U.S. Coast Guard station on Whiskey Island. The city-owned art moderne structure, which opened in 1940 but has been shuttered since 1976, had no electricity, running water or working plumbing. 

Yet the waterfront property at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River offers spectacular views of the Flats and downtown Cleveland — making it the ideal spot for the relaxed, yet elegant late-summer wedding Shookman envisioned.

“It was like, This is going to be stressful and expensive anyway. So let’s do something that feels incredible,” Shookman says.

To transform the space into a wedding venue, Shookman and DiFranco worked with the city’s Department of Public Works’ Division of Special Events to figure out the details.

“We had to go through the city of Cleveland as if we were planning this in Voinovich Park or on the Mall,” Shookman says, “as if we were planning the Cleveland Marathon.” 

She presented to a 20-member special-events steering committee on details such as security and trash removal while securing permits for generator and reception tent rentals. Yet the extra legwork provided a distinct advantage.

“We were not locked into using any specific vendors,” she explains. “We could do kind of whatever we wanted. And that was huge. I had no idea until I really started researching this and talking to other brides how most venues are not like that.”

When planning the rest of their nautical-themed wedding, the couple was able to purchase their own liquor, request estimates from multiple vendors and discuss the price of everything together — right down to dinner napkins, an item Shookman found was cheaper to buy at Target than rent. 

They tracked quotes and expenses on shared Excel spreadsheets. 

“We really tried to find areas that were going to have impact, spend there, and not spend on things that people weren’t really going to notice as much,” she says.

One of the bride’s most innovative moves was renting the Badgley Mischka gown she chose for her 10 bridesmaids from the online service Rent the Runway. During a 30th-birthday trip to New York City, she spotted the short-sleeved polyester-crepe affair with a boat neckline and pleated V-back in her favorite red. Shookman routinely uses the site to dress herself for black-tie events. 

“I can’t wear the same dresses all the time,” she explains. “And they’re expensive! I wouldn’t want to have a closetful of them, either.” 

As a result, she was able to put her attendants in a designer dress for a fraction of the retail cost.

To anchor the empty Coast Guard station, Shookman filled the space with rented sofas and chairs from L’Nique Specialty Linen Rental, Event Source and Borrow Vintage and Eclectic Rentals. Decorative anchors, lanterns, pillows and throws from Target added to the theme. She capitalized on the space’s white art deco lines with lush arrangements of white hydrangea, white open spray roses, red dianthus, seeded eucalyptus, Italian ruscus, salal and plumose from Manchester-based Flowers by Dick & Sons.  

Shookman’s mother, Becky, helped her clip blue table-assignment cards to rope wrapped around a large wooden frame painted white and accented with a piece of driftwood.

But the most meaningful touch was finding a place for the canoe Shookman and her sister Kimberly built with their father Scott before he passed away in 2015. Staffers from A Taste of Excellence elevated it on trestles and used it as a drink station for flavored lemonades and raspberry iced tea. 

“That canoe is the result of a lot of hard work and long hours from my family,” she says. “It just felt natural to include it in a way that had a special meaning for us but that our other guests may not have noticed as anything more than a beautiful wooden canoe.”

Shookman walked down the aisle in a fit-and-flare custom creation of silk stretch crepe by Laura Smith of A Bride’s Design in Avon. The dress featured an embroidered floral-lace bodice, halter neckline, spaghetti straps angled over an open back, and chapel train. Shookman had tried on a similar gown at Kleinfeld’s in New York City, but she wasn’t sold on its simple solid-crepe front.

“Laura gave me the option to change what I wasn’t in love with about this dress and yet maintain what I was in love with about this dress and make it my own,” she says.

The bride and groom began their wedding day with an afternoon first-look photo shoot at the Fountain of Eternal Life monument on Memorial Plaza. 

They then met their bridal party, parents and grandparents in the Flats to board a chartered boat bound for the wedding venue. Using that mode of transportation ensured they wouldn’t get stuck in traffic generated by the annual Labor Day weekend air show at nearby Burke Lakefront Airport. 

After another photo session, the party got back on the boat for a relaxing lake cruise while guests arrived for a 4:30 p.m. pre-ceremony cocktail, an incentive offered to reduce the odds that anyone would show up late for the 5:30 p.m. nuptials.

“People enjoyed that,” Shookman says. “They got to mingle a little bit and visit with each other before they sat down.”

After a 20-minute ceremony on a circular plaza overlooking the Cuyahoga River, the main bar opened for cocktails and charcuterie while a jazz quartet of Cleveland Institute of Music students entertained. 

Guests then queued up at five stations serving chilled soup shooters, green salads and 10 tapas-style plates such as pan-seared scallops on angel-hair pasta in a white-wine basil sauce, filet mignon medallions with a Marin cabernet reduction over leek-and-wasabi mashed potatoes, and blackened chicken-lobster slaw with Key lime tortilla strips. The magnificent spread actually provided the couple with their biggest cost savings.

“We wanted people to be up and mingling and moving around,” Shookman adds. “There was so much choice. And I loved the presentation.”

The couple cut what appeared to be a multitiered cherry-almond cake iced in almond buttercream from Whipped & Baked in Akron. 

But all save for one tier were Styrofoam forms decorated in buttercream, fondant and hexagonal white-chocolate tiles. Guests were served from a selection of chocolate-peanut butter, tiramisu, lemon-berry and cherry-almond sheet cakes, a concession that facilitated storing, cutting and plating in a place with no full kitchen.

After the bride and groom’s first dance on a boathouse dance floor to Gavin James’ “The Book of Love,” guests grooved to music provided by a Rock the House DJ until midnight. Akron favorite Swenson’s even delivered burgers and fries for a mid-evening refueling. 

DiFranco planned the reception’s cork-popping, champagne-spraying finale complete with plastic ponchos and ski goggles inspired by the 2016 American League champion Indians’ and NBA champion Cavs’ locker-room celebrations. 

“You don’t get many opportunities in your life when you can just throw some champagne around and people won’t look at you weird,” he quips. 

Shookman was among the revelers wielding a bottle. The bottom of her dress was filthy, in part because the bustle broke. But she figured she’d never wear it again anyway. She and DiFranco left the reception drenched in bubbly.

“It really was the time of our lives,” Shookman says of the day. “It was just so fun.”

Detail Experts

To book the historic U.S. Coast Guard station on Whiskey Island, Sara Shookman and Angelo DiFranco spent six months preparing for a meeting with a 20-member special-events steering committee. Among the paperwork they had to provide were a list of all the vendors under contract, a detailed site plan showing the placement of everything from electrical hookups to trash disposal, a certificate of event liability insurance that co-insured the city against bodily injury, property damage,  liquor liability and more. Here are other factors the couple had to consider when planning for the unique location by the lake.

Security: The document included details such as where guests would park and how property perimeters would be secured from the time Rock the House arrived to light the place the night before the wedding until the last vendor  left after the reception. The couple ended up hiring more guards from Tenable Protective Services — up to four on duty at any time — to meet police recommendations.

Restrooms: “You had to have a certain, set amount of restrooms based on the number of people,” Shookman explains. The couple went all out and rented a four-stall cottage trailer from Aris Co. in Chagrin Falls complete with onboard water tanks to supply the flush toilets and sinks for their 250 guests. 

Permits: The couple had to get a temporary-use permit from the city’s Department of Public Works’ Division of Special Events to use the property as well as permits from the fire department for a rented generator and the caterer’s generator and propane oven. They also needed a permit from the state of Ohio for the reception tent.

Special requests: They also consulted with Cleveland Metroparks, which maintains the station for the city, about all their plans, including burying a bottle of bourbon upside down on the grounds a month before the wedding — a tradition that ensures good weather. The couple got permission to plant a liter of Maker’s Mark bottled from a barrel her late father Scott put his name on as a member of the brand’s Ambassador Program. They then dug it up from its flower-bed spot during the reception and poured shots for themselves, family members and her parents’ good friends. “It felt like a good connection to my dad,” she says. “But it also was like, This is Whiskey Island. We have to bury this bottle of bourbon out here!

Dress for Success

Renting dresses for 10 women participating in an event as big as a wedding takes some planning. First, Shookman rented a range of sizes from the online service Rent the Runway for her bridesmaids to try on at her May bridal shower and shipped them back before the end of the four-day rental period. “I was comfortable with just sort of winging it,” she says. “But my friends, I knew, weren’t going to be.” 

She then re-rented each woman’s chosen size, along with a backup size included in the rental fee, for arrival on the Thursday before the Saturday wedding.

“They didn’t have the dresses again until right before. I think that made some people a little nervous — like, ‘Oh, but I don’t really remember which bra I wanted to wear with that and which underwear,’ ” she admits. 

The only drawback Shookman cites: not being able to alter the dresses. The bridal-shower try-on revealed only a couple of bridesmaids required a simple hemming — a task Shookman’s mother accomplished with baste stitches removed before the dresses were returned.

“If everyone’s had needed it, it might have changed my mind about whether or not renting them was a good idea,” Shookman says.

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