Everything is just ducky at the historic Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis, a short walk from Beale Street where the blues and barbecue rule supreme.
But the Peabody is a world away from the rough and ready atmosphere of this southern city’s music scene. To call the Peabody a class establishment is understatement. It is the place to stay in Memphis if you have the wherewithal.
Famous guests of the original Peabody Hotel, built in 1869, include Presidents Andrew Jackson and William McKinley. Jefferson Davis once lived in the hotel while working in Memphis. The current Italian Renaissance incarnation was built a block from the original site, which closed in 1923.
The hotel has played a pivotal role in the Memphis social scene since it reopened in 1925. Elvis Presley attended his high school graduation party in one of the hotel’s ballrooms. Neil Diamond wrote Sweet Caroline (with a young Caroline Kennedy in mind) in his room after serenading hotel guests at the lobby’s grand piano.
And what a lobby. In the weeks leading up to Christmas it is festooned with a two-story Christmas tree with more glitter than Liberace, who likely stayed here when in town. The tree is matched in grandeur by the bar on the opposite side, which rises behind the lobby’s centrepiece fountain, its rich wood shelving gleaming with an array of libations to tempt the most devout teetotaler.
Not that you have to imbibe alcohol to soak up the Peabody’s atmosphere. Tastefully uniformed servers are happy to serve tea, hot chocolate topped with Santa Claus hats of rich whipped cream or even root beer floats, a house specialty. All accompanied by bowls of crunchy aperitifs.
The lobby is adjacent to the requisite high end shops, including the gentleman’s clothing purveyor where Elvis liked to shop. It is said he often ordered his unique rock and roll outfits (pre-white jumpsuit phase) by phone and the proprietor, knowing his size and taste, would send over a van load of clothing for the King to peruse. On more than one occasion he instructed the delivery driver to leave it all.
The scene is overlooked on all sides by a second story walkway from which hotel guests can lean on the railing and watch the action unfold. On our visit the action included a lot of men in athletic gear, all of them closing in on seven feet, emerging from the elevator to walk through the lobby. A discreet inquiry revealed that they were not NBA players in town to take on the Grizzlies but instead college players getting psychologically prepared for a game against the University of Tennessee. No billets in college dorms for these amateur b-ballers.
In late afternoon, the lobby fills to capacity with tourists and hotel guests, all of them focusing on the magnificent fountain, and pool, built from a single block of Italian travertine marble, that is the lobby’s centrepiece. Athletes, entertainers and political luminaries walk unnoticed among the gathered, who have their eyes on a man in a red, gold braid-embossed tail coat who moves about the room, gold-knob walking stick in hand, with the calm but welcoming authority of a man who knows he’s in charge.
He is the famed Peabody Duck Master, a man who by force of will alone will lead his feathered charges from the fountain, down three stairs and along a red carpet that is rolled out from the fountain twice a day for the march of the Peabody ducks to the musical accompaniment of John Phillip Sousa’s King Cotton March.
The tradition dates back to 1933 when the hotel’s general manager returned from a duck hunting trip which included liberal draughts of Tennessee sippin’ whiskey. He thought it would be amusing to put some duck decoys in the fountain. It was, and the Peabody Duck March was born when hotel bellman Edward Pembroke volunteered to care for the ducks. He served as Duckmaster for 50 years until his retirement in 1991. The list of celebrities who have served as honorary Duckmaster includes Oprah, Joan Collins, Kevin Bacon, Emeril, Peter Frampton and Queen Noor of Jordon.
The Peabody ducks, always a mallard drake and four hens, take the elevator at 11 a.m. from their $200,000 glassed-in home with private pool on the hotel’s roof down to the lobby, which they march across on a red carpet to the magnificent fountain and pool, there to while away their day, paddling and quacking, in the midst of the lobby’s coming and goings.
The ducks are raised on a farm. They stay at the Peabody for three months before being returned to the farm where they are free to fly away. They are not ducks to be toyed with. Petting and feeding are strictly prohibited, as is throwing coins into their pool. They do not leave the water to fly about or to solicit treats from hotel guests. These ducks know a good thing when they see it, and their part of a bargain which includes free food and luxurious accommodation in the city’s premier hotel, is to cavort in the water until it is time to walk the red carpet to the elevator at the Duck Master’s behest.
At precisely five p.m., the Duck Master taps his walking stick on the pool’s marble edge, signalling his feathered charges that it is time to go. They jump from water to marble with a barely discernible flap of the wings, then down the steps one stair at a time before waddling their way to the elevator, taking little or no notice of the surrounding throngs snapping pictures in their wake.
The elevator doors close to a flash of cameras and the Duck Master and his feathered charges chalk up another ducky day at the Peabody Hotel.
Incidentally, Duck does not appear on any of the hotel’s menus.