While many of his co-workers were heading home from People's United Bank headquarters in downtown Bridgeport on Tuesday evening, Armando Goncalves was leading someone wearing an elephant suit through part of the complex.

"This is unbelievable," he said, with dozens of friends, fans and colleagues -- and an elephant mascot -- cheering him on. "It's like I'm running for senator."

In fact, Goncalves, a 58-year-old Fairfield resident and bank executive, had just been named ringmaster of the 2011 Barnum Festival. Clad in the ringmaster's fire-engine red jacket, he was welcomed into the ranks of 61 men and one woman who have previously led the annual celebration of P.T. Barnum's legacy in Bridgeport and surrounding communities. The 2011 festival will feature 18 events next May and June.

Goncalves is the president of People's United Bank's southern Connecticut and New York divisions. He was personally welcomed as ringmaster by the man vacating the post, Weston resident Thomas Santa, the chief executive officer of Santa Energy.

"These are the two happiest days of a ringmaster's life," Santa said, watching Goncalves address the crowd from a makeshift stage. "The day you put on your own red jacket, and the day you see the next guy put on the red jacket." At that, Goncalves quipped, "I have big shoes, or should I say big boots, to fill." Former ringmasters scattered throughout the room in red jackets laughed.

The Barnum Festival -- named for the world-famous showman and one-time Bridgeport mayor -- was established in 1948 as the city began to suffer the collapse of its heavy industries that had prospered during the wartime economy. With unemployment high and public spirits low, leading city figures came together to create something to celebrate, focusing on the kinds of entertainment pioneered by Barnum.

With Goncalves' appointment Tuesday, some on hand spoke of that narrative coming full circle.

"The whole festival started when the economy was bad," said Richard Porto, of Bridgeport, who served as ringmaster in 2006 and who will be president of the 2011 festival. "People's Bank has been here 168 years; they never left."

Gesturing at the 15-story corporate offices above him, Porto added: "They built this building instead. The board is so pleased to have a new ringmaster that's serious about Bridgeport business."

And serious about the Barnum Festival, it appears. After his family arrived in Bridgeport from Portugal in 1965, the annual Barnum parade was one of the first events to catch Goncalves' eye, he said.

"I loved the marching bands and the floats," he explained.

His vision for the 2011 Barnum Festival, he said, is to "unite as many communities in the greater Bridgeport area" as he can. He said he wants them to "introduce their cultures."

Speaking afterward, Bridgeport Mayor Bill Finch nodded to Goncalves' wife, Nancy, who retired three years ago as the Bridgeport schools' director for fine- and performing arts.

"You'll make sure there's lots of music at all the events," he said. "Right?" Nancy Goncalves nodded yes.

The theme of next year's festival will be "much like the way P.T. Barnum thrilled and entertained residents and the growing number of immigrants who escaped their troubled foreign countries to seek a better life in Bridgeport in the late 19th century," its website states.