As much as getting some Memphis barbecue was on my husband’s list (yum!), taking him to see the Peabody ducks was on mine. As a girl, I remember being pretty enchanted listening to my dad talk about the ducks in the fountain of the hotel he’d stayed at while in Memphis on business. As a young woman, I saw them in person for the first time. I’d been trying to explain the whole thing to my husband for a while and never felt like he quite got it. It’s a Thing, and I knew that lounging in the lobby, cocktail in hand, watching the ceremony unfold, he’d get it.
He thought I was a little nuts to want to get there as early as I did. The evening march of the ducks is at 5:00 PM. We got there at 4:30, and the place was already packed. No room at the lobby bar. We got drinks and staked out a place on the second floor balcony to watch from and waited, sipping our drinks and people-watching, with my husband snapping this pic of the fountain while getting said drinks:
It’s a small fountain for a big fountain, if that makes any sense? I remember being a little underwhelmed the first time I saw it. In my mind, the ducks that spend their day paddling around a hotel lobby fountain before parading down a red carpet to a waiting elevator which then whisks them up to their rooftop penthouse lair? They’d be spending their day paddling around in more water than this, in a more fantastical, over-the-top fountain than this. My husband was likewise underwhelmed, maybe rolling his eyes a little, but bemused by my palpable excitement.
More and more people gathered, with children lined up three-deep along the path to the elevator. The ducks, one male and four female mallards, knew it was nearly time to do their thing and were gathering near the part of the fountain where the rolled up red carpet was waiting. Then the Duckmaster (an awesome job title if ever there was one!) came out. The red carpet was unfurled and he gave a monologue about the history of the ducks and how there came to be mallards in the hotel’s fountain.
Short version? It all comes down to booze, which is why it is so much a part of the experience (as an adult) to watch the march with a drink in hand! The fanciful revisionist version presented in the charming Patricia Polacco book “John Philip Duck” tidies things up for the children quite a bit. The real story? In 1932, the hotel’s general manager was quite inebriated following an unsuccessful hunting trip. He and his hunting buddies thought it’d be hilarious to put their live decoy ducks in the hotel fountain, which they drunkenly did in the wee hours of the morning that fateful day. Luckily, the ducks stayed in the fountain and the hotel’s guests were charmed. A tradition was born! The current ducks are raised by a local farmer. Each team lives in the hotel for three months before being retired and returned to the farm to live out the remainder of their days as wild ducks. This whole deal seems to typify Southern Eccentricity to a T.
Following the speech, some little stairs were pulled next to the fountain, and the speakers began blaring “King Cotton March” by Sousa. The Duckmaster tapped the side of the fountain with his wooden staff, and pretty as you please, the ducks, single file, hopped out of the fountain and began their majestic waddle down the red carpet to the waiting elevator. I looked over and found my husband, who had clearly been humoring me up to this point, grinning a goofy grin and chuckling. He got it! The ducks were, he agreed, “a Thing”.
If you find yourself in Memphis, I recommend stopping by to see the march. Or I’m sure it’s posted on YouTube somewhere. Other Peabody hotels now feature ducks, but this is where it all started. How this hasn’t been stopped by PETA? I can only say that the ducks seemed content and well-cared for, although you’ve got to wonder what it’s like for them to go back to the wild after their 3 month stint in the lap of luxury.