Friends know Johnny Vazzano ’82 as a successful restaurateur and tireless volunteer in the Greater Bridgeport area and beyond. But now they can call him something else—2018 Barnum Festival Ringmaster.
“It’s an honor,” the longtime Trumbull resident said of becoming the public face of the 70th annual festival. “My family has had roots in the community for about 100 years.”
As ringmaster, Vazzano has chosen to salute first responders and the military with the 2018 Barnum Festival theme. “They really deserve respect for what they do,” said the father of three grown sons, including Alex ’15, who played hockey at SHU.
Upon Vazzano’s selection to lead this year’s festival, he hit the ground running to fundraise for a full slate of events, including the revived Champions on Parade concert, Barnumpalooza music and food truck event, the children’s Wing Ding and July 1 parades and the annual fireworks extravaganza at Seaside Park. He chose SHU Director of Athletics Bobby Valentine as the 2018 parade grand marshal.
Vazzano said he enjoys making ringmaster appearances in his trademark red jacket and white jodhpurs, especially those with the festival’s team of performers. “It’s like a little circus on wheels,” he said. “The best part is watching the people. For the older people, it’s a chance to go back into the past. I hope to bring back some of the traditions.”
Born in Bridgeport and raised in Trumbull, Vazzano attended St. Joseph High School before heading to Sacred Heart University for his degree in business. His father’s declining health necessitated that he stay close to home and help run the family businesses.
“Sacred Heart was more of a commuter school when I was there,” he said. “It didn’t really explode until later, and now it’s really expanded. It’s impressive.”
Vazzano credits his business acumen to his SHU education and hands-on experience at the family’s original three businesses—Savoy Linen in Stratford and two restaurants, Hawley Manor Inn in Newtown and Westport’s former landmark, Three Bears Restaurant.
In 1993, Vazzano officially became a second-generation restaurateur, opening his first Vazzy’s in Bridgeport. Locations in Shelton, Monroe and Fairfield followed. In addition, he and his cousin, Larry LeConte Jr., took the helm at the famed Windmill Tavern and opened Vazzano’s Four Seasons, Beach House Grill and Lordship Pizza, all in Stratford. The family also operates Catamount Food Service, catering to many schools and cafeterias in the area.
Even with all of Vazzano’s business demands, he still finds time to give back to the community. He’s a Rotarian and a member of the Knights of Columbus, and he’s involved in several charitable foundations, including Swim Across the Sound, the 911 Ride, the Cardinal Shehan Center and the Marilyn Goldstone Foundation.
He serves on the board of directors of The McGivney Center and Homes for the Brave and has raised about $1 million for families in need through a holiday food and toy drive he runs with the Bridgeport police and fire departments and Bridgeport EMS.
Vazzano said he learned to value community service from his family and SHU professors, who he said truly took an interest in their students.