Where Everything Is Just Ducky

Ducks go marching on. Jerry Coffee photo

The legend of the Peabody ducks: Back in 1932, Frank Schutt, manager of iconic The Peabody Memphis hotel, and his best hunting buddy, Chip Barwick both avid sportsmen returned from a weekend duck-hunting trip in Arkansas. Feeling mischievous, and possibly motivated by a little Tennessee sippin’ whiskey, they thought it might be funny to put a few of their live duck decoys (live decoys were legal in those days) in the beautiful but barren Italian travertine marble fountain that graced the lobby of the hotel. Three small English call ducks were selected as the first “volunteers” and the reaction of the hotel guests and the Memphis public was nothing short of enthusiastic. Everyone loved the idea.

Thus began the legend of the Peabody ducks a tradition that has become famous in “international hoteldom.” In 1940, Peabody bellman, Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, offered to train the ducks to march to and from the fountain. Twice each day, at 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., the ducks march from their “royal duck palace” on the hotel rooftop, down the elevator and onto the red carpet that leads to the lobby fountain. Mr. Pembroke, the first “duck master,” continued on for 50 years, retiring in 1951.

The original ducks also have retired, replaced by five North American mallards, one drake (male) with a white neck ring and an iridescent green head, and four less-colorful hens, which have become the standard complement of “Peabody Ducks” at all three of the hotels the original in Memphis, one in Little Rock, Ark., and one in Orlando where I spent two days last week.

The Orlando duck master is a congenial, silver-haired gentleman who was happy to share with me the details of his feathered charges, including their names and their individual proclivities. Dressed in red-and-gold livery, he somewhat resembled a circus ringmaster without the shiny black boots. His ornate name tag read “Donald,” which he assured me was only coincidence.

The ducks at the Memphis Peabody have been a mustsee attraction for the likes of Lisa Marie Presley, Michael Jordan, Nicolas Cage, Priscilla Presley, Don King, President Jimmy Carter, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Jeff Bridges, Justin Timberlake, Patrick Swayze, Oprah Winfrey, Florence Henderson, Chris Matthews, Larry King and Kevin Bacon some of whom have actually been honorary Duck Masters.

The Peabody marching ducks have appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, on Sesame Street with Bert and Ernie, The Oprah Winfrey Show, People magazine and even in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.

Oh, and none of the The Peabody hotel restaurants serve duck.

What a country!