The One and Only Female Ringmaster

Of the 70 Ringmasters who have served the Barnum Festival since its inception after World War II, Betty was truly unique.  Not only was she the one and only female Ringmaster, she was easily the most generous supporter of not only the festival, but also of many, many other organizations, charities and worthy causes throughout our region.

The 1992 Ringmaster, Bill Murphy, gave a heartfelt eulogy in which he described how Ringmaster “Hi-Ho” D’Addario had convinced a reluctant Betty to become the 1986 Ringmaster because that year was the “Year of the Lady” as our country celebrated the complete rehabilitation of the Statue of Liberty.  At the time, Betty was the publisher of the Bridgeport Post (now the Connecticut Post).  Hi-Ho used to always say to Betty after she became Ringmaster: “Ring-a-ding-ding Betty Pfriem”.

Bill told us all what we already knew, that Betty was an ardent champion of “the little people”, that nothing made her happier than bringing joy to the children of our region.  And it was supreme irony that our current Ringmaster, Terry O’Connor, joined us late because he was involved in the selection of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, the two elementary school children who are part of the Ringmaster’s Royal Family.

My Ringmaster year was 1993, seven years after Betty’s, and I observed first hand her love of children since I was the first Ringmaster to become a father while I was a Ringmaster, when my wife Jackie gave birth to my son, Mickey, only a few days before the Whip, Whistle and Watch luncheon in May 1993.  One of my fondest memories of that year was how Betty always wanted to hold Mickey at every festival event.  And it was déjà vu all over again, when my youngest son, Charlie, was born a year later, and Betty would again want to hold him throughout the 1994 festival.

It has been almost a quarter century since I met Betty during my Ringmaster year, and Jackie and I feel utterly privileged to have known her during that time.

When we set up the Bluefish Foundation to benefit Bridgeport children almost 20 years ago, Betty was our most generous donor.  In fact, she gave us an initial donation to get the Foundation…and when she asked us several weeks later how it was doing, she pulled out her check book, went into the ladies’ room, and came out with another generous contribution.

That, of course, was vintage Betty Pfriem, and many, many others in our community have similar stories, and that doesn’t even count the major gifts she has made over the years to both of our hospitals and to many other non-profit organizations.

As Betty grew increasingly frail in recent years, she remained engaged and committed to her beloved Barnum Festival.  Though she was not able to attend the many festival events, she always stayed in touch, and was an active participant in the selection process for the next year’s festival.

An Ode to Elizabeth  By Mickey Herbert