MY DAY WITH THE DUCKMASTER (+ HOW TO BE A PEABODY VIP ON ANY BUDGET)
Do your homework on the Peabody Ducks and the name Edward Pembroke is sure to turn up.
“He literally ran away from home to join the circus,” Anthony Petrina says of Mr. Pembroke. Petrina is the Peabody Memphis’ fifth full-time Duckmaster. Pembroke was the first.
Pembroke worked as a bellman at the Peabody after a stint training circus animals. It was his idea to train the ducks to march in 1940. In the 50 years that followed, “Mr. Pembroke took the ducks on world tours,” Petrina explains, including an appearance on Sesame Street. That was Petrina’s first time seeing the Peabody Ducks.
These days, he sees them eight hours a day (except Sundays and Mondays, when an assistant Duckmaster steps in to give Petrina time off).
During my visit (on the coldest of mornings), spectators were already gathering by 10:30 for the 11 a.m. duck march. Petrina rolls out the ducks’ carpet and answers questions from a group of women sipping bloody marys. He positions the ducks’ staircase and poses for a photo with a man celebrating his 70th birthday. He points out the best tables for viewing the march to a couple; then gives a plastic duck pin to a boy dressed as Batman, and urges him to sit right on the edge of the red carpet. “Kids get special privilege,” Petrina affirms.
At 10:50, the photo ops and casual Q-and-As give way to Petrina’s practiced speech. He tells the story of the Peabody and its ducks much better than I ever could, in a voice that’s fit for the theater: how the hotel took its name; how it was built and built again bigger; how it came by its ducks; how many U.S. Presidents have come to see them since, and so on. Then, he disappears into the elevator. Today, I go with him.
On the roof, we cross to the Royal Duck Palace, that $200,000, marble-lined penthouse where the ducks hang when they’re not in the lobby fountain or out on community engagements. Petrina greets them, opens the door to their palace and leads them, single-file, back inside the building and into the elevator.
I struggle here: The ducks are crazy-adorable (and crazy-close to me in the elevator). I want to reach down and scoop them up. Petrina politely reminds me that’s not part of the deal. (The ducks are born and raised on a family farm not far from Memphis, and only live at the Peabody a maximum of three months before returning to the farm. Still, they’re VIPs here, with meals of cracked corn, fresh lettuce and milo served from a silver platter, and constant praise from Petrina.)
The moment we land in the lobby and the elevator doors open, the ducks are off – waddling down the red carpet to the fountain; climbing up the steps and splashing in. They’ll remain in the fountain until 5 p.m., when another public procession will march them back down the red carpet and up the elevator to their rooftop palace.
If all you do is poke your head in the lobby of the Peabody long enough to witness the 11 a.m. or 5 p.m. duck march, you’ll get the gist of this quirky/endearing tradition. But stay a while – there’s so much to soak in here. What’s your fancy?
I want to ask questions: “How long does it take to train the ducks?” “How do you train a duck?” “I heard Elvis had his prom here!” Whether you have questions about the ducks, history or architecture, the Duckmaster knows all, and he spills it on an hour-long history tour of the property daily at 11:30 a.m. Reserve your spot at the concierge desk ($5 for guests; $10 for the public), and be sure to ask about what animals pre-dated the ducks in the lobby fountain. Bonus: The tour includes coupons for lunch and a free cookie at the hotel deli.
I want to eat: My mushroom ravioli at the Peabody’s Capriccio Grill was a spoil of meaty mushrooms last week. I hear the dish appears on the Sunday Brunch buffet periodically, along with bacon dipped in peanut butter and chocolate. Oh – and free-flowing mimosas. Do Sunday Brunch in Capriccio Grill 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. $38.95 for adults; $14 for ages 5-12; free for ages 4 and under. Call 901-529-4199 for reservations.
Or, treat yourself to afternoon tea in Chez Philippe. Beyond tea, it’s three courses of savory sandwiches, scones and assorted sweets – crafted by the Peabody Executive Pastry Chef Konrad Spitzbart and team – in the muraled, brocaded opulence of one of Memphis’ finest restaurants. The Peabody’s Chez Philippe serves High Tea Weds.-Sat., 1-3 p.m. Prices begin at $27.50 for adults; $23 for ages 12 and under. Call 901-529-4188 for reservations.
I want to drink: 2013 marked the 80th anniversary of ducks at the Peabody. In celebration, the “retiring” class of ducks was released at Jack Daniel’s Distillery in Lynchburg, Tennessee, joining the resident mallards. Concurrently, envoys of the Peabody made a private selection of single barrel whiskey to be served at the hotel. Grab a seat at the Peabody lobby bar, or any of the surrounding tables, and order your taste.
I want to spend the night: Book the “Ducky Day Family Package” to land one night’s accommodations and the role of Honorary Duckmaster. Yep – that means that you, or someone you appoint, gets to help the Duckmaster just as I did (and, you’ll take home some sweet souvenirs, including your own Duckmaster cane).
Have you stayed overnight, eaten or toured the Peabody Memphis? What’s your favorite memory?