Five well-fed ducks waddle across the red carpet, encouraged by two rapid thumps from the Duckmaster’s cane. No, this isn’t the opening of a children’s book, though the delighted faces of youngsters watching their progress speaks volumes. It’s a spectacle many, including a long list of glitterati like Michael Jordan, Nicholas Cage and President Jimmy Carter, have found irresistible.
Ducks on a red carpet, you ask? Well, gather around and I’ll tell you the story……
It all began in the 1930s (the exact date has been lost in the mists of time) when Frank Schutt, then General Manager of The Peabody in Memphis, Tenn, returned from a weekend hunting trip to Arkansas. With the kind of brilliant decision making that comes with too much familiarity with Jack Daniels (Tennessee sippin’ whiskey), he thought it would be a good notion to place his three live duck decoys (it was legal then for hunters to use live decoys) in the spectacular, travertine marble Peabody fountain.
It might not have been completely ill-judged. Rumour has it that turtles and baby alligators each briefly graced the fountain in the 1920s. Nonetheless, the morning no doubt brought second thoughts and alarm. But to his surprise, Schutt found the ducks contentedly ensconced in their new water park. More significantly, the hotel guests were charmed, and insisted they remain. And so the famed Peabody ducks were born.
The current Peabody Duckmaster, Anthony Petrina, is only the fifth to hold this title since it originated in 1940. The first, Edward Pembroke, held the post for 50 years!
Petrina cares for the five mollycoddled mallards, as well as the five more ducks in training. All of them reside in the Royal Duck Palace on the roof. Made of marble and glass, the $200,000 replica of the hotel includes its very own fountain with bronze duck spitting water and a soft, grassy “front yard.”
Each morning at 11 a.m. the five ducks descend from their penthouse, march majestically from the open elevator along the red carpet, up the steps, and settle into the fountain for a contented day of splashing. Each evening at 5 p.m. the process repeats as they march back to the elevator to return to their rooftop home.
Of course all of this is done with due pomp. The Duckmaster begins with a brief description of their history. Then the lobby falls silent as Sousa’s King Cotton March swells, and five obedient ducks waddle their runway with all the grace of Dior models. Indeed, they have graced the pages of Sports Illustrated‘s swimsuit issue!
Their fame is widespread. The Peabody Ducks have appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, on Sesame Street when Bert and Ernie celebrated Rubber Ducky Day, on The Oprah Winfrey Show, and even in People magazine.
Most significantly, the Peabody Ducks have become symbolic of this magnificent hotel, originally built in 1869 and rebuilt in 1925 in the tradition of grand hotels. Ducks abound here − soaps, ornaments, even their famous patisseries are ducky. The only place you won’t find duck is on the menu, not even in the hotel’s signature restaurant, Chez Phillipe. It’s probably the only French restaurant in the world that doesn’t serve canard.
In some ways, the choice of a Sousa March for the ducks’ progress is all wrong. This is after all, Memphis, the musical home of rock and roll, and of blues. Indeed, it has been said that the Mississippi Delta “begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (in Memphis) and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg”.
The hotel played a role in this musical history. Blues musicians like Furry Lewis, Frank Stokes, Rufus ‘Speckled Red’ Perryman, Kid Bailey and others recorded in rooms at the Peabody in the late ’20s and early ’30s. Others, including Gus Cannon, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jim Jackson and “jug bands” fronted by Will Shade, Jack Kelly, and Jed Davenport all performed at the hotel.
The Skyway and adjoining Plantation Roof were added on to the hotel in 1939 and immediately became THE spot for the Big Bands −Tommy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, Lawrence Welk, and the Andrews Sisters appeared regularly. During the 30s and 40s, The Skyway was one of just three national live radio broadcast sites for CBS Radio. One such weekly program called “Saturday Afternoon Tea Dance” was hosted by a young Sam Phillips, from 1945 to 1950. Phillips would go on to launch Sun Records, and with it the careers of stars like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and of course, Elvis Presley.
Elvis would sign his first contract with RCA at the Peabody. It was typed on Peabody stationery and a copy sits in the hotel’s museum.
Of course, no visit to Memphis is complete without a visit to Graceland, home of The King. But this city is filled with musical history: Sun Studios, Stax Records, and of course, the Rock ‘n Roll Museum celebrate the birth of music which may have been unique to this part of America, but which has been embraced worldwide.
Beale Street is closed to traffic in the evening. A walk along its length, with its sidewalk stars proclaiming musical legends, is extraordinary. On every corner, performers offer a free concert and their talent is undeniable. What a treat!
This city is just plain fun. I wasn’t going to say it, but what the heck – in Memphis, life is just ducky!