As new Duckmaster at The Peabody Hotel in Memphis, Anthony Petrina has no doubts who is boss. After trailing the fowl on their daily march to the elevator, Petrina acknowledges the obvious.
“The ducks don’t actually follow me,” he admitted. “They lead me.”
As only the fifth Duckmaster in the history of the legendary Peabody, Anthony does a great job of being in charge of the popular birds. At 11 each morning, the ducks step to John Philip Sousa’s “King Cotton March” along a red carpet from their rooftop Royal Duck Palace to the famous travertine marble fountain in the Grand Lobby.
There they splash and preen until 5 p.m., when the procession reverses and the ducks retire for the evening to their rooftop abode. Visitors are invited to watch the free spectacle and to visit the rooftop for one of the best views of Memphis.
The role of Duckmaster originated at The Peabody Memphis almost 80 years ago.
“The whole thing started as a practical joke,” Anthony said. Back in the 1930s, Frank Schutt, general manager of The Peabody, and a friend, Chip Barwick, returned empty-handed from a weekend hunting trip in Arkansas.
“They had had a little too much Jack Daniel’s sipping whiskey and thought it would be funny to sneak some of their live duck decoys into the lobby fountain. That’s back when you were allowed to have live duck decoys,” Anthony said. “That’s what they did. Then they went up to their room to sleep it off.”
When they came down the next morning, the two men were shocked. “They were surprised because the ducks were still there,” Anthony said. “And they were surprised to see a huge crowd watching and enjoying the ducks.”
Thus began a Peabody tradition.
The five mallards are always four females and one male. More than one male might cause turf problems, Anthony said. An uneven number of females might make the lady mallards turn on the odd duck.
“We get them when they are about a year old, and they stay here for only three months because we don’t want the ducks to get too domesticated or start to feel too comfortable with the hotel,” Anthony said. “They are wild animals.”
After their three-month tenure, the ducks are returned to the farm where they can live out the rest of their days.
Clad in his scarlet-and-gold-trimmed jacket with his traditional brass-head duck cane, the 25-year-old Anthony said he used to visit The Peabody with his parents to watch the duck parade. “Growing up in Memphis, this was a legendary place,” he said. “But I never dreamed I would one day be the Duckmaster.”
Although the ducks seem perfectly content to paddle around in the lobby fountain, sometimes unexpected incidents do happen. “Over this last Christmas, one of the hens took a nap on the ledge of the fountain and fell off on the no-water side,” Anthony recalled.
“The duck didn’t know what to do so she went running to the elevator. But the elevator wasn’t open so she ran past the gift shop, past the restaurant and then she saw the 30-foot Christmas tree in the lobby. She saw it at the same time as I did and I thought, ‘Oh, no, not the Christmas tree.’ She probably thought, ‘Oh, yes, it would be fantastic if I got in that tree.’”
Which is exactly what the wayward duck did. “I was crawling around on the floor, trying to look as dignified as possible. I thought if she got halfway up that tree, I’d never get her down. I started moving some of the presents around under the tree and there she was – the wrapped boxes have a false back and she had hidden in the back of one of them. We got her back in the fountain and that was that. Caused a bit of excitement but she was happy to be back in the fountain.”
Every day, a multitude of visitors line up for both the morning and evening march. Anthony patiently recounts the tale, unrolls the red carpet and makes sure no guests are in between the fountain and the elevator when the ducks are ready to roll.
“The ducks realize that they are stars of the show,” Anthony said with a laugh. “They have a bit of an ego. They won’t let anybody march in front of them.”