5 Star Stories: A behind-the-scenes look at the Peabody Hotel Duckmaster

Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 12:03 PM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - There are jobs, and then there are JOBS! And the role of Duckmaster at the Peabody Memphis Hotel is home to one of the rarest of jobs in the whole world.

In today’s 5 Star Story, highlighting the people, places and things that make us proud to call the Mid-South home, we slip under the wing of Duckmaster Kenon Walker for a behind-the-scenes look at a day-in-the-life and learned it’s about more than just a Duck March.

Greeting his “duckies” every morning in their $200,000 Royal Duck Palace on the roof of the Peabody Memphis Hotel in downtown Memphis is more than a chore for Duckmaster Kenon Walker, who says he also cleans up after his “team” of ducks and...

“Just kind of make sure that everything’s presentable for the public for when they see the Duck Palace,” said Walker.

That’s followed by a Romaine lettuce breakfast, a “duckie favorite,” and a pep talk to the ducks.

“It’s a lot of people coming a long way to see you. You never know what they been through before they got here. Alright ... so we gotta march some hope into that lobby. March some smiles and march some joy down there to the people,” Kenon Croons to the five North American mallards as they eat.

Then it’s downstairs to set the stage: rolling out the red carpet, usually with help from some of the children who’ve come into the lobby to see the World Famous Peabody Ducks and will later line the red carpet to watch the show.

”I refer to (them) as the Red Carpet Team,” explained Kenon, who then begins the morning’s opening ceremony promptly at 10:45. “Welcome to the Peabody Memphis -- the South’s Grand Hotel,” he says, wearing his signature red jacket while gesturing to the rapt crowd with his duck head cane.

But, it’s close to 11 a.m. now and time for him to head back up to the roof to gather the stars of the show, opening the door to the Duck Palace and guiding the single drake and four female mallards across the roof and a small crowd of onlookers who, on this day, left a morning business meeting in Skyway for a glimpse of the waddling flock.

“Let’s do it! Let’s do it, Duckies,” encourages Kenon through the duck’s gentle quacking, as they make their way onto the elevator for the ride down to the lobby for their grand entrance where they are greeted by dozens of smiling faces, laughter and applause.

The Peabody’s first ducks appeared 89 years ago, in 1933, after the general manager released his live decoys into the fountain following a hunting trip. Some say there was Tennessee sipping whiskey involved in the prank, but the ducks were an instant hit and became a hotel mainstay and tradition.

In 1940, Peabody Bellman and former Ringling Brothers Circus animal trainer Edward Pembroke offered to train the ducks to march to and from the fountain each day and night. He became the very first Duckmaster, a title he kept for 50 years until his retirement in 1991.

Even today, the Duckmaster is responsible for training which Walker said he does after the morning Duck Walk.

“We do get new ducks every three months because we release the previous ducks back into the wild. So when I get a new team, of course, they’re terrified, you know,” he said. “They’re unsure of their surroundings, but there is a two-week overlay, you know, where I have both teams together — like the veterans and the rookies — together in the Duck Palace with a fence separating them. But the rookie ducks will see me interacting with the veterans. So I just talk to them and get them used to my voice, my spirit and day by day, they’ll start approaching the little fence and that’s when I start training them.”

Another job for the Duckmaster is collecting the eggs laid each day by our feathered friends -- sometimes in the fountain -- like the day we visited the South’s Grand Hotel.

“And those eggs are sent back to the farm where the ducks were sent here from to be incubated and those that are fertilized and hatched, in about a year’s time they’ll make their way here,” Walker explained.

Duckmaster Walker also believes it’s his job to give visitors and guests an unforgettable experience before, during and after the Duck March which includes him stopping to chat with just about everyone he passes, wishing happy birthdays to those he knows about, and posing for pictures with anyone who asks.

“And I never ever took that for granted and I take every encounter and every day that I come in and do this as a -- a gift. I mean this is a ceremony that’s for everybody,” he said.

And that includes celebrities, like Wynnona Judd, who served as an Honorary Celebrity Duckmaster -- one of many others over the years.

“One Duck March I was doing Samuel L. Jackson and Anthony Mackie were both at the Duck March,” Walker exclaimed, adding that he felt like an Avenger himself after spotting the actors who starred as “Nick Fury” and “The Falcon” in several Marvel movies.

So, you might wonder how one becomes the Duckmaster.

“That’s something that I ask myself every day, said Walker. “You know, it definitely wasn’t something that I planned.”

The actor-turned-Duckmaster also spent more than a dozen years as a tour guide and historian at the National Civil Rights Museum, Stax Academy of American Soul Music and a touring company, Walker landed at the Peabody as a concierge, but, caught the attention of Duckmaster Doug after only a few short months working in the hotel.

“That was February 23rd, 2019. I became the assistant Duckmaster. And in January of 2020, Doug retired and now here I am,” he said, bringing the ducks and the joy to all who come.

“It’s a slice of innocence. It’s a slice of joy, and God knows, we all need a little bit of both right about now,” he says as he closes out the morning Duck March Ceremony, which after all, can only be found in Memphis at the Peabody Memphis Hotel.

“We have presented the World Famous Peabody Ducks to you all and they and I hope that you all have a magnificent day! Thank you so much, everybody! I appreciate you all. Thank you,” said Walker as the crowd gives a row rousing round of applause.

There are two Duck Marches every day of the week. The 11 a.m. march into the fountain and again at 5 p.m. when the ducks leave the fountain. And Duckmaster Walker wants everyone to know that anyone can be an Honorary Duckmaster -- just check with the hotel for details.

For more information about Peabody Memphis visit peabodymemphis.com.

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