Tennessee's Most Historic Hotel Is Also Home to the Greatest Duck Tradition
It's 11 a.m. at the four-star Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis, Tennessee, and a sharply dressed man has just walked in with an entourage of ducks. They waddle ahead of him, making their way down the plush red carpet, past rows of adoring fans, as the brass of John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March” plays in the background. At the end of the runway they stop, before climbing up three stairs and diving into a giant marble fountain. There they lounge until 5 p.m., when the man returns to whisk them away to their room for the night. Guests line the carpet again, cameras and cocktails in hand, waving goodbye as the elevator doors close on the "Duckmaster" and his web-footed protegés.
This is the Peabody Duck March, as performed by the five resident Mallards of Memphis's most-storied hotel. It's a charming tradition that started as a drunken prank . . . 83 years ago. In 1933, after returning from a fruitless hunting tip, with Jack Daniels still hot on his breath, the Peabody’s general manager bitterly released his English call ducks (which he was using as live bait) into the Grand Lobby fountain. The ducks became a sensation with the guests, and soon, the hotel brought in five North American Mallards—one drake and four hens—to take their place. But it wasn’t until 1940 that the bellman Edward Pembroke, a former circus trainer, began training the birds to perform the now-famous march.