If you have ever tried to leave work early, I hope you fared better than the Peabody ducks. One these famous ducks waddled away from the hotel lobby’s Italian travertine marble fountain. Then, the other four ducks must have thought it was quitting time and started to follow. Their exit came to an abrupt halt. The Duckmaster at The Peabody picked them up one by one with help from a waitress and gently plunked them back in the water.
"That’s what happens when you try to leave work early," he reprimanded the ducks and drew laughter from the gathering crowd of people in the Grand Lobby.
I checked my Seiko – 4:37 PM, getting close to 5 PM. At the top of the hour, we see the Duck Parade. The mallards would go down several steps from the fountain and follow the red carpet through a crowd of spectators. They’d waddle into the elevator for a ride to their "Duck Palace" on the hotel roof. This occurs every day at 5 PM. The ceremony is reversed daily at 11 AM.
Ed and I had joined the growing crowd of people in the lobby of this downtown Memphis hotel, The Peabody. We arrived at 4 PM when there were still tables available in the lobby surrounding the fountain where the five Peabody Ducks swam in slow circles. Waiting for the hour to pass, Ed read a USA Today and I visited with some ladies in town from Alaska for the Garden Club National Convention. Occasionally, I’d break from the casual conversation to shoot a few photos of the ducks – one male and four females.
We watched the crowd swell to standing room only in the expansive lobby. Even though our table was close to the fountain, our great seats became obstructed with the view of people’s behinds. It occurred to me that we needed to be in the balcony above the scene, not lobby level. We found the stairs and claimed a place at the balcony railing.
At about 4:50 PM, the Duckmaster told the crowd that the tradition of the Peabody Marching Ducks began as a practical joke at a time when live ducks were used as legal hunting decoys. The story goes that in 1933, Peabody General Manager Frank Schutt and his friend Chip Barwick returned empty-handed from a duck hunting trip in Arkansas but full of the effects of Tennessee whiskey. They decided to put their three live duck decoys in the fountain in the hotel’s Grand Lobby. Hotel guests reacted with delight. Eventually, five North American Mallard ducks replaced the original ones. The joke turned into an attraction, one we’d enjoy decades later.
Shortly before 5 PM, the Duckmaster unrolled a red carpet. He invited children to sit along its edges. Adults crowed behind the kids, filled the lobby, and hung over the balcony. The tune of John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March signaled the Duck Parade to begin. The Peabody Ducks waddled single-file out of the fountain, down red carpeted steps, and along the red carpet, stopping briefly to wiggle their tail feathers and sprinkle the startled kids with water. They entered the elevator for a ride to the roof and retire for the evening. It was truly quitting time.