What the Duck?

Sometime in the 1930s, hunting buddies Frank Schutt and Chip Barwick returned to Memphis, Tennessee from a weekend of duck hunting in Arkansas. Like many hunting trips, this one allegedly involved a good bit of whiskey and like many hunting buddies that have imbibed too much whiskey the pair came up with a rather absurd idea.

Upon their late night return to the Peabody Hotel where Schutt served as general manager, the two decided it would be hilarious to take their live decoy ducks and place them in the marble fountain in the middle of the lobby of the very swanky hotel.

duck fountain
Mallard ducks, perfectly at home in the lobby of a swanky hotel.

Of course whiskey-soaked hunting buddies do eventually sober up and Schutt stepped into the lobby the next morning to assess the damage created by his tomfoolery. What he found were excited guests enamored by the presence of three well –mannered ducks swimming in the fountain and minding their own ducky business. The frazzled manager apologized to hotel guests who insisted that the ducks were a charming addition to the atmosphere of the hotel.

So the ducks stayed. And that was pretty weird.

Then a few years later, a bellman by the name of Edward Pembroke, whose previous professional experience included a stint as an animal trainer with a large circus, suggested he might be able to encourage the ducks to march a particular way. What he proposed was a kind of ceremony in which each morning the ducks would march down a red carpet into the fountain, waddling to the piped-in sounds of John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March.” The ducks, he explained, would reverse the same march in the afternoon, in a theatrical performance that would mesmerize hotel guests.

duck carpet
These ducks are kind of a big deal.

It did. And it was definitely weird.

Pembroke was given the title of “Duckmaster” and ninety years later, the ducks are still waddling up and down the red carpet every day in the lobby of the swanky Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis.

My family and I recently spent a long weekend exploring Memphis, and I have to say, in this town that features the delightfully gaudy home of the most likely dead Elvis, the Peabody ducks are still the weirdest tourist attraction we found.

duck master
The Peabody Duckmaster, whose job is not made up, is prepared to answer all your duck-related questions. Yes, all of them.

We got to the lobby of the Peabody around 10:30 and already one of the elevators was roped off and the red carpet had been partially unrolled. One of the current duckmasters, dressed in his brass button duckmaster finest, stood ready to answer all of the growing crowd’s duck-related questions, of which there were a surprisingly large number.

We learned that the Peabody ducks are treated as wild animals and will eventually return to the wild after their three month assignment in the Peabody fountain, and that when they are not swimming in the lobby, the ducks reside in a lavish penthouse duck suite that cost more to build (in non-adjusted dollars) than Elvis originally paid for Graceland.

ducky master
You will not find duck anywhere on the menu of Chez Philippe (the Peabody’s classic French cuisine-inspired restaurant), but you will find plenty of duck-related merchandise in the hotel’s gift shop.

As 11:00 approached, the anticipation in the crowd grew palpable. At about ten ‘til the hour, the duckmaster told the story of the drunken hunting buddies and named one lucky hotel guest the “Honorary Duckmaster” (a title he now shares with Oprah and that will allow him to forever include the initials HDM at the end of his name, that lucky duck). The two of them then finished rolling out the red carpet and headed up in the duck-designated elevator as the rest of us less fortunate observers stood with bated breath.

duck march
Ducks struttin’ their stuff behind the HDM, and being pursued by Paparazzi. #ducklife

Then at last the moment arrived. Sousa’s majestic march filled the lobby, the notes bouncing off gleaming marble surfaces as the elevator doors opened and in walked the HDM with five mallard ducks waddling behind him.

The crowd cheered. I cheered. The ducks waddled. And splashed. And quacked. It was just the kind of absurd spectacle you’d imagine might be dreamt up by a couple of whiskey soaked hunting buddies and a circus animal trainer.

Yep. It was super weird.

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17 thoughts on “What the Duck?

  1. When we were in Memphis a few years ago, I wanted to visit the Peabody’s duck parade, but alas, the schedule didn’t permit. It’s my understanding quite a crowd lines up to view it.

  2. Wonderful story. I lived in Memphis (twice in fact) and my daughter attended Memphis College of Art and worked as a bartender at King’s Palace on Beale Street. As my grandmother would say, “Lord love a duck.”

  3. margolynndill

    I have seen the ducks! I lined up with my friends on a girls’ weekend. (So you can’t say we got too wild, can you?) There is even a children’s book about these ducks!

    1. Except since I posted this I learned that there’s a possibly genuine shrunken head on display in Memphis, which is admittedly way weirder than ducks on parade. But we missed it! What a strange city!

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