The Peabody Ducks: Behind the Elevator Doors

The city of Memphis, the Peabody Hotel and the Peabody Ducks all have a wonderful relationship with our stamp collecting hobby. In 1992 Ducks Unlimited, the largest wetland and waterfowl conservation organization in the world and a major supporter of the Federal Duck Stamp Program, moved their headquarters to Memphis.

In 1997 the famous Peabody Ducks were flown to Washington, D.C. and they marched around the Department of Interior auditorium during the opening ceremonies of the federal duck stamp contest. They were a huge hit and made an encore in 1998.

In 2005, for the first time in the programs history, the contest was to be held outside of Washington, D.C. The city chosen for this honor was Memphis and throughout the week activities and events were held at the famed Peabody Hotel. It was such a tremendous success that the city of Memphis was selected to host the contest again in 2006.

The Peabody Hotel features a duck-themed decor and through a special partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, they are an official outlet for the sale of federal duck stamps – the perfect place for duck stamp collectors to stay!

 

 

Kay and I just got back from a trip to Memphis and New Orleans. While in Memphis we stayed at the Peabody Hotel. The Peabody has become known as the “South’s Grand Hotel” and while it is truly beautiful and luxurious with first class food and service, the reason it has become so renowned is because of the March of the Peabody Ducks. Back in 2002, when my son, Eric, was 11 years old he served as Honorary Peabody Duckmaster and it was a fun and truly unforgettable experience.

On our recent trip Kay was surprised (the morning of) to find that she had been chosen to carry on what is now turning into somewhat of a Torre family tradition. It turned out to be the highlight of this portion of our trip which included taking in Graceland, Beale Street, the Sun Records Studio and the Lorraine Motel – the site of Martin Luther King’s assassination in 1968 and now home to the superlative and poignant National Civil Rights Museum.

Perhaps the biggest difference between 2002 and last week, is that I now had an iPhone which enabled me to make a short video of what actually takes place at the Peabody Hotel before the elevator doors open every morning at 11 AM – something relatively few people have witnessed. It turned out pretty well (and befitting our duck-loving demographic) so we have decided to share the video with you-all today.

 

Introduction

The original Peabody Hotel was built just after the end of the Civil War, in 1869, on the corner of Main and Monroe Streets in downtown Memphis. It was built by Robert C. Brinkley and named after his good friend George Peabody (see Figure 1), who had financed the railroad line between Memphis and Charleston and who is widely regarded as the “father of modern philanthropy.”

 

 

Figure 1. George Peabody in 1866. Courtesy of the The Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University.

 

 

Peabody was born in Massachusetts and later moved to London, where he founded a bank. As he neared retirement, Peabody took on a partner by the name of Junius Morgan and the business was then known as Peabody, Morgan & Co. After Peabody retired, the bank was known as J.S. Morgan & Co. Eventually, the business took on the name of Junius’ son, J.P. Morgan & Co.

In retirement, Peabody established a pattern of making generous donations to public causes and served as the role model for such men as Johns Hopkins, Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller and, more recently, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates.

During his lifetime, George Peabody made donations equalling $160 million in today’s dollars, including funding for what is now the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at at Harvard University, the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University, the Peabody Academy of Science in Salem, Massachusetts (now the Peabody Essex Museum) and the George Peabody College for Teachers (now the Peabody College of Vanderbilt University).

For decades the Peabody Academy of Science in Salem displayed a complete set of framed federal waterfowl stamp prints – all first editions. When the museum merged with the Essex Institute to form the Peabody Essex Museum in 1992, I was asked to oversee the deaccession of the print collection. The Peabody collection made it possible for two longtime collectors to complete their own sets of first edition prints.

 

Memphis: The Home of the Blues and the Birthplace of Rock and Roll

The original Peabody Hotel became an eclectic social hub for post war Memphis and guests included U.S Presidents Andrew Johnson and William Mckinley as well as Robert E. Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The Peabody was a place where “plantation owners could rub elbows with professional gamblers and [Mississippi] steamboat captains.”

In 1925 a larger, grander hotel was constructed one block from the original, on Union Avenue. The Italian Renaissance structure was designed by famed Chicago architect Walter Ahlsclager and is located just one block from Beale Street – the Home of the Blues.

In 1903 Mayor Thornton called his friend Booker T. Washington asking for a recommendation for a director for his band, the Knights of Pythias which was based in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Washington recommended W.C. Handy, an African-American musician who played in the “Delta Blues” style popular south of Memphis.

Handy moved to Clarksdale and stayed with the band for six years. During this time his musical style was heavily influenced by Hawaiian guitarists and “poor country black folks who poured their hearts out in song.” In 1909 Handy and the band moved to Memphis and began playing in bars and clubs on Beale Street.

He wrote a campaign song for a local political leader that was later renamed “The Memphis Blues” and it helped to bring the regional Delta Blues style and Beale Street to prominence (see Figure 2). Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, B.B. King and Rufus Thomas all played on Beale Street for decades and, together, they developed what became known as the “Memphis Blues” style or simply “The Blues” as we know it today.

 

 

Figure 2. W.C. Handy performing the Memphis Blues. Photo courtesy of BBC News.

 

 

Sam Phillips, an announcer and sound engineer for the local radio station WREC, conducted live broadcasts of national acts such as the Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey bands from the Peabody Hotel between 1945 and 1950. On January 3, 1950, he was inspired by the local music scene to open the Memphis Recording Service where he let amateur musicians record for very little money.  Many of the Beale Street Blues musicians made their first recordings there, including B.B. King, Rufus Thomas and, one of my personal favorites, Howlin’ Wolf. What a voice!

In 2011 Rolling Stone Magazine ranked Howlin” Wolf #54 on their list of the top 100 recording artists of all time. To hear Howlin’ Wolf sing one one his most popular and influential songs (reaching #11 on the Billboard R&B Chart in 1956), Smokestack Lightning, turn up the speakers on your device and click on the image below.

 

 

 

 

Initially, Philips sold the better recordings to other record labels. In 1951 he recorded what is widely considered the first rock and roll song by a band called Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, led by then 19 year old Ike Turner. Ike also wrote the song, “Rocket 88”. Phillips sold the recording to the Chess Record label in Chicago.

In 1952 he launched his own label, Sun Records. During this time a young Memphis delivery boy was influenced by the Blues musicians on Beale Street and dreamed of being a performer himself one day. On July 18, 1953 he dropped by the studio to make a recording for his mother’s birthday.

As legend has it, Sam was out but his secretary, Marion Keisker, “thought she heard some talent in the truck driver’s voice” and turned on the professional tape recorder while he was singing. That boy was Elvis Presley (see Figure 3). Sam liked the boy’s style and the rest, as they say, is history. Within the next few years, Sam Philipps and Sun Records launched the careers of Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Rock and Roll was invented in Sun Studios and American pop culture would never be the same.

 

 

Figure 3. A young Elvis Presley. I took this photo at Graceland with my iPhone.

 

 

Elvis became a regional sensation in the south, recording “That’s All Right” and “Baby Let’s Play House” for Sam Phillips and Sun. However, Phillips was not the greatest businessman and often found himself in financial trouble. On November 21, 1955 Phillips was forced to sell Elvis’ contract to recording giant RCA. Elvis signed his RCA contract in the Peabody Hotel lobby (see Figure 4).

 

 

Figure 4. Elvis signed with RCA in the Peabody Hotel lobby.

 

 

RCA had the wherewithal to promote Elvis and distribute his records that Sam Phillips lacked. His debut single on RCA, “Heartbreak Hotel” soared to number 1 on the Billboard Top 100 Chart. His first RCA album, Elvis Presley, featured a cover of one of his Sun Record buddy’s biggest hits – “Blue Suede Shoes” by Carl Perkins. Powered by Elvis’ rendition of Blue Suede Shoes, the LP became RCA’s first million-selling album.

 

Speaking of the Peabody Hotel Lobby…

When Elvis signed his contract in the hotel lobby Colonel Parker and RCA may very well may have coordinated this event with the March of the Peabody Ducks. For every day since 1933 the ducks have entered the hotel lobby via an elevator which has transported them from their penthouse home at exactly 11 AM.

Led by the Peabody Duckmaster, they walk (waddle?) the red carpet that extends from the elevator doors to the grand fountain located in the center of the lobby (see Figure 5). The ceremony involves a fair amount of pomp and circumstance and the ducks move to the tune of John Phillip Sousa’s Cotton March.To the delight of small children and tourists from around the world, they spend their day swimming around the fountain until the end of the day ceremony which commences at 5 PM.

At this point, the Duckmaster leads the ducks from the fountain back across the red carpet to the elevator, where they ride back up to their home. Oh by the way, did I mention there are hundreds of duck fans and often members of the media lining both sides of the red carpet and crowding the elegant lobby?

 

 

Figure 5. The beautiful Peabody Hotel lobby and the famous ducks. Photo courtesy of Adventures All Around.

 

 

You see, this has become what they would now call “a thing” and not a little one either. Apparently, back in 1933 the General Manager of the Peabody Hotel, Frank Schutt and his friend, Chip Barwick had just returned from a duck hunting trip to nearby Arkansas (right across the Mississippi River).

According to some accounts they had had a little too much to drink. For whatever reason, they decided it would be a fun idea to have their live duck decoys (legal at that time) play in the fountain. The hotel guests and staff went wild!

Since then, the event has been repeated daily to a new audience. Starting in 1940, one of the hotel’s bellmen, Edward Pembroke offered to help lead the ducks back and forth between their roof-top home and the fountain. Pembroke was a former circus animal trainer and is credited for teaching the ducks their now famous march (see Figure 6).

 

 

Figure 6. Edward Pembroke, the original Peabody Hotel Duckmaster.

 

 

Edward Pembroke held the position for 50 years until his retirement in 1991. All told there have now been six official Peabody Hotel Duckmasters. In addition, there have been a number of Honorary Duckmasters, many of whom who are celebrities, such as George Hamilton, Joan Collins, Gene Simmons, Patrick Swayze, Peter Frampton, Molly Ringwald, Kevin Bacon and even Oprah.

The trending celebrity Duckmaster of the moment is Ariana Grande, who recently made headlines for becoming the most popular recording artist since the Beatles and, as I write this, holds the number one, two and three spots on the Billboard Top 100  – with her “7 Rings” topping the charts for the 5th straight week.

Ariana also just won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album (Sweetener) and passed Selena Gomez as the most followed woman on Twitter. Wow. But in my book, she will always be remembered for her turn as Honorary Peabody Duckmaster in 2011, when she was 18 years old (see Figure 7).

 

 

Figure 7. Ariana poses with her rubber Duckmaster (left) and official certificate (right). Courtesy of the Peabody Hotel.

 

 

There’s a New Duckmaster in Town

Kay and I arrived in Memphis early on Saturday night February 9th, just in time to check in and run across the street for some great BBQ at the Rendezvous (see Figure 8). The plan was to not inform Kay of her role until the  morning so that she would not be nervous and get a decent night’s sleep. However, on our way to dinner I introduced Kay to the concierge and, try as she might, the concierge was unable to smile at Kay without giving something away. Kay did not say anything at the time, however, the seed was planted.

 

 

Figure 8. Kay arrives at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.

 

 

Over dry rub ribs and beef brisket I told Kay that I had arranged for us to visit the ducks on the roof before the 11 AM ceremony. The seed was taking root. When we got back to the room we watched a movie and went to bed without discussing it further. The next morning I was talking to my collector friend Paul Hanyok on the phone and Kay was taking a shower – when I heard a shriek come from the bathroom, “Am I going to be the Duckmaster?”

Darn! Oh well, at least she got a good night’s sleep. I walked into the bathroom and said, “Why yes, as a matter of fact you are.” I got dressed and walked around the hallway for a while, enough time for Paul and I to complete our deal and for Kay to settle down.

Paul is thinking about embarking on a new business venture and decided to part with a couple of great license buttons from his collection, including an ultra-rare 1934 California Duplicate Hunting License Button (two examples recorded – see Figure 9). Thank you, Paul!

 

 

Figure 9. 1934 California Duplicate Hunting License Button.

 

 

When I got back to the room Kay was fine and we went to meet the real Duckmaster, the legendary Jimmy Ogle. Jimmy is now retired but still enjoys filling in from time to time so we lucked out. Jimmy has worked all over Memphis throughout his life and is a local celebrity with a great personality.

As we made our introductions I informed Jimmy that Kay had figured it out and we all had a good laugh. He showed us where our reserved carpet-side table was and then took us up to see the ducks. When you walk out on the rooftop at the Peabody Hotel you see what appears to be an imposing rooftop duck mansion. However, the structure is just a facade for events and photo ops. The ducks actually live in a more modest apartment behind the facade (see Figures 10 and 11).

 

 

Figure 10. Jimmy familiarizes Kay with the rooftop at the Peabody Hotel.

 

 

Figure 11. The ducks in their “modest” digs. Photo courtesy of the Peabody Hotel.

 

 

After our tour of the roof it was time to go back down to the lobby. When the elevator doors opened, we could see that dozens of eager duck fans had already claimed a spot either along the red carpet (mainly kids) or elsewhere throughout the lobby (mainly adults).

Kay and I sat at our table and watched as the crowd filled in. At about 20 minutes to eleven Jimmy reappeared and gave a speech to the crowd about the history of the hotel and it’s adopted charity, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (based in Memphis) and the story of the Peabody ducks. Then he invited Kay to come up, introduced her to the crowd and presented her with an official Duckmaster cane and certificate (see Figures 12 and 13).

 

 

Figure 12. Kay and Jimmy with their matching canes.

 

 

Figure 13. It’s official, Kay is an Honorary Peabody Hotel Duckmaster!

 

 

Behind the Elevator Doors

By this point duck fans were poring into the lobby and at exactly 10 minutes to 11, Jimmy called me up and introduced me to the crowd. After explaining that we were now going up to get our feathered stars (five mallards, including one drake), we walked down the red carpet and got into the elevator. To see what really happens behind the elevator doors, click on the video below and enjoy!

 

 

 

 

We hope you have enjoyed learning about Memphis, the Peabody Hotel and the Peabody ducks. We would like to thank everyone at the Peabody Hotel who helped make this blog and YouTube possible. If you ever get to Memphis, don’t miss the March of the Peabody Ducks – it is loads of fun! Thanks also to our new friend Jimmy Ogle, Duckmaster extraordinaire who, whenever I referred to Kay as “The Duckmaster”, was quick to remind us she was the “Honorary Duckmaster”, to Kaiya for editing my iPhone video and setting it to music and to Kay, for being a good sport (it was in the 30s when we shot the video on the roof) and having fun with this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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