The Peabody: A Memphis Landmark
History, pageantry and architectural splendor accentuate one of the largest hotels in the South
For generations the Peabody Memphis has been the place to stay for anyone who wants to tap into the vibe of this musically sloping city on the Mississippi. Ideally located in the heart of downtown Memphis, the venerable hotel is just blocks from the riverside and the scorching clubs of legendary Beale Street.
A National Historic Landmark famous for its elegance, pedigree, and fountain in the lobby inhabited by living ducks, The Peabody is a destination in itself. While many important events have taken place here over the decades, it is these ducks that have put The Peabody on the tourist map.
Ducks on parade
For a daily show for 89 years, people throng the grand lobby of the two-story hotel and lean over the mezzanine railings to watch five resident mallard ducks – one male and four females – come out of the stocked woods. of brass. paneled elevator at 11 a.m. and walk in single file on the majestic red carpet to the Italian travertine marble fountain.
The famous Peabody Duck March is directed almost every day by professional actor Kenon Walker, who bears the title of Duckmaster. Dressed in a red piste master-style coat adorned with braided gold epaulettes, he officiates at the presentation, feasting onlookers with the story behind the original lore. At 5 p.m., the ceremony repeats, again with great fanfare, and the feathered friends return to the elevator and their penthouse, a brick-built rooftop abode called the Duck Palace. At each step, a member of the public is chosen as honorary Duckmaster and receives as a gift a rubber duck for the tub and a cane topped with a brass duck head (just like that of the Duckmaster).
So how did the tradition of ducks at the fountain come about? In 1933 Frank Schutt, the general manager of the hotel, and a friend returned from a hunting trip in Arkansas and thought it would be fun to bring some of their duck decoys alive (it was then legal to hunters to use live decoys) in the Fountain Hall. The public reaction to the prank was enthusiastic and the hotel has since been associated with the ducks.
When Edward Pembroke, a former circus animal trainer, was hired as a hunter in 1940, he volunteered to look after the resident ducks and bring them to the lobby every day. He taught birds to walk along a red carpet and incorporated walking music into the ceremony, thus coining the Peabody Duck March and the title Duckmaster. Pembroke held this position until his retirement in 1991.
Spectators can preserve their celebrity mascot memorabilia by purchasing a duck-related keepsake from the lobby gift shop. Goods range from duck socks, duck books, and plush toys to the Blue Suede Duck, a rubber duck with an Elvis Presley head.
In light of social distancing precautions taken during the pandemic, the hotel is currently requesting that only hotel and restaurant guests attend the duck walk. Others are invited to come and watch the ducks splash around in the lobby from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.
Peabody’s Story: A Look Back
The Peabody Memphis traces its history back to 1869. Soon after opening on the corner of Main and Monroe, it became one of the South’s premier social centers, drawing everyone from riverboat players to cotton traders. Each of the 75 rooms has a private bathroom, a luxury at the time. The rate for the room and meals was $ 3-4 per day.
Funded by Colonel Robert C. Brinkley, the hotel was originally called The Brinkley House. But shortly before the grand opening, Brinkley learned of the death of his good friend, philanthropist George Peabody, and decided at the last minute to name the hotel in his honor. The property closed in 1923 to make way for a bigger and better Peabody who debuted two years later at its present location — Union Avenue on Second Street.
An impressive 12-story structure designed in the Italian Revival style, it opened in 1925 with 625 rooms and has continued to be a social, business and nightlife hub. In the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s, the Skyway Ballroom supper club and dance hall hosted Big Bands led by Tommy Dorsey, Paul Whiteman, Harry James and Les Brown, and singers like the Andrew Sisters. The Skyway was one of CBS Radio’s three national live streaming sites.
By the early 1970s, however, downtowns across the country began to experience economic decline, and Memphis was no exception. After multiple ownership changes and a brief stint under the Sheraton-Peabody name, the hotel closed in 1975, but it did not remain closed. Family owned Belz Enterprises, a local property development and management company, saved the Memphis icon from the wrecking ball and began a massive, multi-year renovation, returning the monument to its former grandeur. The Peabody reopened on September 1, 1981, marking the start of a downtown revival. It boasts many loyal and longtime employees; three generations of a family working there at the same time is not uncommon.
The hotel’s colorful history comes to life in the mezzanine memorial room. For example, we learn that Elvis Presley, a boy from Memphis, received the signing bonus of $ 4,500 from his first RCA national recording contract at the Peabody on November 21, 1955. His manager, Col. Tom Parker, was the guest of the hotel from and I had the receipt typed on Peabody’s letterhead. Elvis also visited the hotel for his high school graduation party, which was held in the Continental Ballroom in 1953.
On the mezzanine is a rosewood-covered grand piano custom-built in 1838 for Francis Scott Key, the Maryland lawyer who wrote the lyrics to “The Star-Spangled Banner” during the War of 1812. The mezzanine is the best place to admire the stained glass window of the lobby painted coffered ceiling.
Exploration of the historic hotel should also include the open-air rooftop, which offers panoramic views of downtown Memphis and up-close views of the exterior of the Duck Palace and the giant red neon signs “The Peabody “. On Thursday evenings, April through August, the Great Space hosts a rooftop party with live music and beautiful sunsets.
Public spaces and bedrooms
The lobby with marble columns, its fountain adorned with a magnificent floral arrangement, is a fashionable place to gather around a cocktail, whether or not there is a parade of ducks. It was called “the Memphis living room”. The $ 12 Rubber Ducky cocktail (Malibu rum, banana cream, pineapple juice and orange juice) is accompanied by a mini rubber duck. For an additional $ 2, any drink can be ordered with the floating souvenir.
Equally opulent as the lobby is adjacent Chez Philippe, a French restaurant with murals, crystal sconces, rising Corinthian columns, and other palace touches. Although temporarily closed for dinner service, it offers traditional English afternoon tea (Wednesday to Sunday) with savory tea sandwiches, assorted candies, and hot scones from the Peabody Patisserie.
By the way, duck has not been served at any of the hotel’s restaurants since it reopened in 1981, when managing partner Gary Belz challenged a menu offered by the pre-opening executive chef. In an emphatic letter, Belz said, “There will be no dead ducks at the Peabody.” (The restriction makes Chez Philippe the rare French restaurant that does not offer duck.)
The Capriccio Grill is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner and is known for its steaks, pastas and wood-fired pizzas. The Peabody Deli & Desserts, which serves pastries and sandwiches from 6.30am to 11.30am, offers free coffee, tea, and hot chocolate to hotel guests.
A few years ago, The Peabody Memphis completed renovations to all of its 464 guest rooms and suites. The multi-million dollar project included sparkling new bathrooms with upgraded lighting, white Carrara marble tiles on the floors and tub surrounds, open shelves for storage, and quartz vanity tops. The wall art pays homage to Memphis, the blues, sunsets over the Mississippi River, and Peabody’s ducks.
I stayed in room 1122, a spacious, high-ceilinged corner nest that featured an impressionist painting of a male mallard duck in the entryway. The dressing room amenities included bathrobes, slippers, an iron and ironing board, an umbrella and a safe. A 42-inch flat-screen TV along with an executive desk and chairs are standard amenities. The level of luxury service and care has earned The Peabody Memphis AAA Four-Diamond and Forbes four stars. The Peabody is a member of Historic Hotels of America.
A limited number of pet-friendly rooms are available. Considering the Peabody Ducks, pets are not allowed inside the lobby seating area or along the red carpet during the Ducks Walk.
For more information on the Peabody Memphis, visit www.peabodymemphis.com.
Tourist information about Memphis can be found at www.memphistravel.com.
—By Randy Mink, Editor-in-Chief
Main photo courtesy of The Peabody Memphis