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    -  -  -  -  -     The Legend of the “March of the Peabody Ducks”     -  -  -  -  -   

 

On Saturday, February 26, 2011, I was afforded the great privilege by the management of The Peabody Hotel in Memphis (“The South’s Grand Hotel”), to be the Honorary Duckmaster for the 11:00 a.m. March of the Peabody Ducks.  And, what an honor and thrill is was!  I have done a lot of things in my life, and have been involved in a lot of important and exciting events in Memphis over the past forty years – and this brief “15 minutes of fame” will be a memory that lasts a lifetime for me.

 
Scene 1:  Getting There


  I have always marveled at the grandeur of The Peabody Hotel.  The memory that I go back to first was really when I attended a 60s high school formal in the Continental Ballroom.  Boy, did I pick out an ugly tux!
 
  Fast forward to the modern era (1980s) and my ‘invasion” into Downtown as Interim General Manager of Mud Island in 1985.  Beale Street was in its infancy on the comeback trail, The Orpheum had just re-opened with fourteen days of Broadway shows, and Downtown was pretty much barren, except for The Peabody Hotel, Memphis Queen Line and Mud Island.  Go back one decade to realize that The Peabody Hotel was closed, boarded up and bought on July 31, 1975 on the southwest steps of the Shelby County Courthouse
(pictured at right) at public auction for $550,000 by the Belz Corporation.  Jack Belz recently told me that on that day they outbid Prince Mongo for The Peabody (it would have made some kind of “Planet Zambodia”!).  The Peabody stayed closed for six years, going through feasibility, financing and rehabilitation challenges. 
 
  As for the rest of Downtown in the 1970s, Beale Street and its sidewalks were fenced off.  One could not ride or even walked down Beale from 1977 to 1983.  Not a single business was open, except for A. Schwab’s and one had to enter from the rear door in the alley (that’s why there is a name painted on the back side of A. Schwab’s).  In 1979, there were more people living in jail in Downtown Memphis than living residentially – 500 residents vs 1,000 inmates.  And the big public issue at the time was “how do we build a bigger jail?”  It was entitled by the local newspaper “the glamour slammer”!  Much has changed in thirty years.
 
  In 2011, try to convince people that you give walking tours to in Downtown that The Peabody Hotel was ever closed, much less bought at a public auction for such a price.  But, the “traditions” of The Peabody never changed.  There is a coffee table book entitled “The Peabody: A History of the South’s Grand Hotel”  and there is even a Heritage Room on the Mezzanine level of the Lobby.
 
  In the Autumn of 2009, I was asked to give an informational talk (focusing on the Memphis Music History story and legacy) to the Sales Team of The Peabody Hotel in The Skyway Room where they regularly meet.  At the close of my talk, Doug Browne, General Manager of The Peabody, held up a roll of toilet paper.  I truly thought for a moment that he was getting ready to say that I stunk and needed to be wiped away.  Thankfully, the creative Mr. Browne passed a similar roll to every employee in the room and challenged each table to select the best representative of a perfect end fold of a roll of toilet paper, to be compared throughout the room.  The morale of the story was “detail”.  The Peabody “standard” was to watch every single, little detail in the building, even how the end of a roll of toilet paper looks like hanging there waiting for duty.  (So, I didn’t stink, after all, or win the folding contests either).
 
  Apparently, my presentation was well received as I was asked to return with another session, Doug asked for my services in making 15-minute presentations to close the daily sessions of an upcoming convention that The Peabody was hosting - Historic Hotels of America, which featured representatives of all of the leading historic properties around the country, such as the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, Don Cesar in Tampa, and the Greenbrier in West Virginia.   The two-part presentation was “History Memphis” and “Modern Memphis”, and is now the basis for my standard “Welcome to Memphis” for convention groups and/or meetings, or my “introductory PowerPoint” to local groups that I wish to return to on a multiple occasions for presentations of other “Memphis” topics.  So far the strategy has worked pretty well, as I have had return engagements with quite a few local groups.
 
  So, that Peabody Sales Staff meeting in 2009 was apparently a tune-up, as I returned when the Paperboard Packaging Council (a nationwide group headquartered out of Springfield, Massachusetts) asked me to be its opening speaker (about Memphis) for their October Symposium.  The dinner was again in The Skyway Room, which I consider to be one of the most exclusive meeting places in Memphis – hallowed ground.
 
  In 2010, I was asked by the Peabody again to write some Memphis history “nuggets” that could be used in the Sales Team’s vernacular to help sell them The Peabody and Memphis to clients.  Apparently, I supplied plenty of “nuggets” (two rounds worth) as shortly afterwards, I was rewarded with the opportunity of a lifetime, the role of Honorary Duckmaster.

 

Scene 2: The Big Day – Saturday, February 26, 2011

 

  My life and interests have evolved so much, that being Honorary Duckmaster to me was better than being asked to throw the “ceremonial” first pitch at a baseball game!  I wanted to share this moment with my family, and I was able to have fourteen other family members present.  The Peabody staff was exquisite.  My Mother had an especially reserved table right by the fountain and along the long red carpet that led from the elevator to the fountain.  There was also plenty of “Ogle paparazzi” around to capture the moment.
 
  The daily routine for Jason Senat, Duckmaster, is to come out to the Lobby at about 10:40 a.m. to make an introductory speech to the visitors in the Lobby about the history of The Peabody Hotel and the history of the March of the Peabody Ducks, which takes about ten minutes.  He sets the steps to fountain for the Ducks. He keys the special elevator to “hold” for the express, reserved run to the roof and the Duck Palace.  He perfectly kicks the long (about sixty feet) red carpet to begin it's roll from the fountain steps to the elevator door.  And then he rides to the floor marked “S” in the elevator and keys it off once again.
 
  On this particular day, Jason took the time to introduce me as the Honorary Duckmaster and said some really nice things about me and my walking tours of Downtown.  I received a certificate, a souvenir Peabody duck toy, and an authentic (beautiful) Duckmaster cane.
 
  The Duckmaster then goes out to the roof over to the Duck Palace and leads, or really prods from behind, the set of five ducks to the elevator, and the promptly hop right on.  Now, the “inside scoop”.  On this day, my niece, Elise Roach, went up to the roof with us she had a video camera.  Jason then tells us that he is going to begin counting and once he reaches the number “8”, for us to step into the elevator, and that he will continue to count.  We nod our heads in understanding, as these were not too complicated instructions to follow. 
 
  Jason then calls “Security” on the in-house radio that he has and tells them to start the music.  He then softly begins his count (and we are both just looking at him as if we were a rocket getting ready to blast off – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 (and we step on) – 9, 10, 11, 12,13,14,15 (and at “15” he turns the elevator key to start the elevator on its descent to the Lobby, which takes about fifteen seconds.  And then . . . the doors open, the “Cotton States March” by John Phillip Sousa plays, and the Ducks march (rather dash) to the fountain amidst a glaring blaze of flash bulbs from the several hundred “fans” in attendance, lined up along the carpet, sitting in chairs and “hanging” from the mezzanine floor.   What a thrill !!!
 
  Needless to say, the Ducks made it to the fountain safe and sound, and had a good day “on duty” in the Lobby.  Quite a few friends came to witness the spectacle, and we all took pictures together.  My family adjourned to The Capriccio Restaurant for lunch and just had a delightful time there, too.
 
  The “duty” staff that day in The Peabody Hotel made my family feel like royalty, and I will never forget it.  I want to acknowledge Vincent (Security), Rogina (Hostess at Capriccio) and Chris (waiter) for their excellent attention to every detail on this day.  I would also like to thank Doug Browne (General Manager), Craig Smith (Director of Sales & Marketing) and Cody Willard (PR & Marketing Coordinator) for giving me this honor.

 

 

In closing, there is an old saying by David Cohn that rings so true:
 
“The Mississippi Delta beings in the Lobby of The Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Tennessee
and ends at Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi.”  So true, so true.

 

How did the tradition of the ducks in The Peabody fountain begin?

Duck March 1947

Duck March 1940s

 

  Back in 1932 Frank Schutt, General Manager of The Peabody, and a friend, Chip Barwick, returned from a weekend hunting trip to Arkansas. The men had a little too much Jack Daniel's Tennessee sippin' whiskey, and thought it would be funny to place some of their live duck decoys (it was legal then for hunters to use live decoys) in the beautiful Peabody fountain.

 

Edward Pembroke
Original Peabody Duckmaster

Three small English call ducks were selected as "guinea pigs," and the reaction was nothing short of enthusiastic. Soon, five North American Mallard ducks would replace the original ducks.  In 1940, Bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, offered to help with delivering the ducks to the fountain each day and taught them the now-famous Peabody Duck March. Mr. Pembroke (at left) became the Peabody Duckmaster, serving in that capacity for 50 years until his retirement in 1991.

 

Today, The Peabody Ducks are led by
Duckmaster Jason Sensat.

  The original ducks have long since gone, but after 75+ years, the marble fountain in the hotel lobby is still graced with ducks. The Peabody ducks march at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. daily.

Ducky Facts

  • Ducks were not the first residents of The Peabody's lobby fountain. Rumor has it that turtles and baby alligators each briefly graced the fountain in the 1920s.
  • The Peabody Ducks have been a must-see Memphis attraction for Lisa Marie Presley, Michael Jordan, Nicholas Cage, Priscilla Presley, Don King, President Jimmy Carter, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Justin Timberlake, and Jeff Bridges. In addition, Patrick Swayze, Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King, Florence Henderson, Emeril Lagasse, Joan Collins, Molly Ringwald, Chris Matthews, Paula Deen, Larry King, and Kevin Bacon have been Honorary Duckmasters.
  • The Peabody Ducks are five North American mallards - one drake (male) with white collar and green head, and four hens (females) with less colorful plumage.
  • Duck is not served anywhere at The Peabody, and has not been seen on the hotel's menus since its 1981 reopening, quite possibly making Chez Philippe the only French restaurant in the world that does not serve duck.
  • The Peabody Ducks do not have individual names. The hotel recognizes that its resident waterfowl are wild animals, not pets. However, the very first team of ducks were Peabody, Gayoso, and Chisca - named for the three hotels owned by the Memphis Hotel Company in 1933.
  • The Peabody's lobby fountain is cut from one enormous piece of travertine marble made and shipped from Italy for the hotel's 1925 opening. The colorful flowers adorning the top of the fountain are changed out every other day in the middle of the night.
  • When off-duty from the Lobby, the ducks live in their Royal Duck Palace on the hotel's rooftop.
  • The Peabody Marching Ducks have appeared on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Sesame Street, when Bert and Ernie celebrated Rubber Ducky Day, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and in People magazine and the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. In addition, they were once a question on Jeopardy.
  • The Peabody Ducks are raised by a local farmer and a friend of the hotel. Each team lives in the hotel for only three months before being retired from their Peabody duties and returned to the farm to live out the remainder of their days as wild ducks.


With Permission from
The Peabody Hotel
 

 

Next “Detour”
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