The air is alive with the hum of anticipation. Hushed voices mingle with the conspiratorial gurgle of a nearby fountain; excited glances pass among the gathered crowd as it hovers, cameras poised, leaning expectantly towards the gleaming brass of a pair of elevator doors. A plush red carpet is unfurled, at home among the rich wood paneling, sparkling chandeliers, and deeply cushioned armchairs of the hotel lobby. The first musical bubbles of John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March” burst overhead, and a collective gasp issues from the crowd as the elevator dings. The doors glide noiselessly open, and four lovely ladies step out, glancing coyly from the corners of their eyes. A gentleman follows, tugging nervously at his tail. Down the path of red carpet, between the blinding shocks of camera flashes and amorous grins of her adoring fans, one of the ladies spots it: the beaconing glow of travertine, the sparkle of water. She makes a break for it, unceremoniously stretching her neck as she hurdles forward with her friends waddling mightily behind her. A leap. A splash. Applause.
The Peabody Ducks have arrived.
The march of the Peabody Ducks is a tradition eighty years in the making, one that auspiciously began as many things do: with a hunting trip, a practical joke, and a bottle of Tennessee whiskey. One chilly winter night in 1933, the general manager of Memphis’s Peabody Hotel, Frank Schutt, along with his friend Chip, tiptoed into the hotel lobby. A bit tuckered and tipsy from a fruitless day of duck hunting with nothing more than a bottle of Jack Daniels to keep them warm, the pair decided to raise their spirits by playing a trick on the hotel guests. Rather than take their live decoys back to their pond of residence, Schutt plopped the three English Call Ducks into the ornate renaissance revival fountain in the center of the hotel lobby, then headed off to bed. Schutt awoke the next morning to a surprise: not only had the ducks behaved themselves with all decorum due their elegant aquatic accommodations, but the guests were delighted with their appearance. Never one to snub publicity, Schutt kept the ducks as a novelty, and the hotel soon enlisted the help of an ambitious bellman by the name of Edward Pembroke. A former animal trainer for Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, Pembroke recognized the untapped potential for fanfare in the ducks, and volunteered to train the birds to ride on an elevator from the thirteenth floor of the Peabody to the hotel lobby, march across a red carpet, and leap into the fountain, followed by a reverse of the production in the evening. Pembroke’s endeavor was successful, and the tradition has continued every day since.
Though Pembroke retired in 1991 after fifty years in service, the position of Duckmaster – complete with gold-buttoned red blazer and a sturdy, duck-head cane – has remained an honored one at the Peabody. Only five others have held the title since Pembroke’s retirement, though a number of celebrities, from rock legend Gene Simmons to culinary powerhouse Emeril Lagasse, have filled the coveted role of Honorary Duckmaster. The position requires not only leading the twice-daily march with all due pomp and pageantry but also chaperoning the ducks to their public appearances. The team has been featured on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, celebrated National Rubber Ducky Day on Sesame Street, and showcased among other bathing beauties in Sport’s Illustrated’s renowned swimsuit issue.
When they’re not preening and diving for crowds of adoring fans, the ducks have sumptuous accommodations on the hotel’s rooftop to call their own. The $200,000 structure, complete with granite floor, a scale replica of the Peabody, a fountain with water-spitting duck statuary, and a broad, grassy front porch, is appropriately named “Royal Duck Palace.” As is often the case, however, every star’s time in the limelight is brief. Each team of ducks – always four hens and a mallard – only holds their post at the Peabody for a total of four months. When their time is over, they are moved to “Peabody Duck Retirement Island,” an undisclosed location where the ducks are released in secret. The brevity of the duck’s stay and the mystery surrounding their departure need not be cause for suspicion, however. Confit de canard does not appear anywhere on the menu of Chez Philipe, the hotel’s French restaurant. Since 1981, the chef has been strictly forbidden to serve duck.